Fact-Checking Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s Claims on Statehood for Puerto Rico

This post was published in Pasquines on October 4, 2018.

At the end of September, Newsweek’s Robert Valencia interviewed Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor, Ricardo Rosselló. They met a few days after President Donald Trump told Geraldo Rivera that he did not support Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations. The president also blamed the island’s recovery on Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, and other “incompetent” leaders. Rosselló used the interview to make a case for why Puerto Rico should be admitted as the nation’s 51st state.

In making his case for statehood,  Rosselló made two problematic statements that require further scrutiny….

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What do Americans Think of President Trump’s Handling of Puerto Rico’s Slow Recovery? Will These Opinions Affect His Approval Ratings?

Six days into the 2018 hurricane season, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters for a briefing on the agency’s readiness to respond to future hurricanes. While Trump’s remarks referenced Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts, he did not talk about the numbers of Puerto Rican who died as a consequence of Hurricane Maria.

The President tweeted his thoughts about his FEMA visit:

Thank you to everyone at HQ for today’s briefing on preparations for the upcoming hurricane season. Disaster response and recovery is best achieved when it’s federally supported, state managed, and locally executed – this is the successful model we will continue to build.

Almost nine months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, how do Americans rate Trump’s response to the island’s humanitarian crisis? The Economist/YouGov Poll of June 3-5, 2018 does provide some clues. But before we look at the figures, it is important to keep in mind two things.

  1. President Trump’s approval ratings have improved dramatically in the last weeks. The RealClearPolitics average estimates that Trump’s enjoys the approval of 42% of Americans. The FiveThirtyEight model, which adjusts the polling data according to different criteria, finds that his approval is at 41%.  To put these numbers in perspective, Trump’s approval rating when he visited Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria stood around 38% in both the RealClearPolitics average and the FiveThirtyEight model.

2. On October 18, 2017, President Trump and Governor Rosselló met in the White House to discuss Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria. After their meeting, they met with the White House press corp and took some questions. As I noted in an earlier post, Trump was asked to rate his administration’s response to the situation in the island, using a 10 point scale. Unsurprisingly, the President graded the federal government’s performance with a 10 out of 10.

Back in October 2017, a majority of Americans did not approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis. Have opinions changed?

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The graph shows that Americans today are more critical of his efforts. But it is important to highlight that the number of Americans who disapprove of his response is roughly the same. In other words, if we were to combine the number of people who selected “Disapprove Somewhat” and “Disapprove Strongly”, we would see that 44% of respondents disapproved of Trump’s response in October 2017 and in June 2018.  What is surprising, given that Puerto Rico’s death toll controversy has been widely covered by U.S. media outlets, is the number of Americans who cannot rate the president’s performance, which increased by 8% in the newest survey.

The Economist/YouGov Poll also asked respondents the following question: “How much do you think Donald Trump cares about the needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria?” This question is basically asking respondents to look past policy issues and to judge his moral character and his empathy towards others.


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The graph clearly shows that respondents question President Trump’s moral sensibilities While the survey does not capture why respondents have become more critical of Trump, one possible reason is his unwillingness to publicly talk about Puerto Rico’s crisis, even when events in the island receive lots of media attention. This makes Trump seem uninterested in the issue, raising questions about his moral character.

Looking at the crosstabs in both surveys, we can see that some of Trump’s toughest critics are those respondents who are either registered Republicans or who said they voted for him in the 2016 presidential election. For example, 71% of those respondents who voted for Trump and completed the survey in October 2017 “strongly approved” of “the way Donald Trump [handled] the response to Hurricane Maria.” Although this figure decreases to 45% in the most current poll, it is worth noting that the number of Trump supporters who disapproved of  his handling of the situation only increased from 5% to 11%. Survey-takers who identify as Republicans also became less supportive of President Trump’s performance. In October, 58% of Republicans “approved strongly” of his response, but it decreased to 39% in the most recent survey.

These findings are also applicable to the other question. In October 2017,  three-fourths of respondents who voted for Trump believed that President Trump cared “a lot” about the  “needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria.” By June, this number declined to 56%. We seem similar drops among registered Republicans.

The only surprising result is the number of Hispanics who believe that he cares “a lot” about Puerto Ricans’ “needs and problems”, which jumped from 15% to 18%. While this is a small bump, which may be statistically insignificant, it is the only category where his ratings did not decline.


Will Trump pay a political price for his handling of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria? It seems unlikely. While the Economist/YouGov Poll did include questions on Puerto Rico, major polls conducted by Quinnipiac University,  FoxNews, the NBC and the WSJ did not do so. This suggests that pollsters believe that this issue is not of national significance.

This reality raises an important question: if President George W. Bush’s mishandling of the response to New Orleans affected his legacy, why is President Trump’s standing with the American public not affected by Puerto Rico’s slow recovery? One possible answer is that Americans rate Trump’s other controversies as more important.

But, I think that the problem is more complex. Most Americans think of Puerto Rico as a foreign nation, rather than a U.S. territory. And for those Americans who do not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they will not think of the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico when they judge President Trump’s performance. Yesterday’s post showed that 58% of those who completed the most recent Economist/YouGov Poll either do not think that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens or are not sure of their citizenship status.






Do Americans Know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. Citizens? Analyzing the Results of the Newest Economist/YouGov Poll

For the last week, U.S. media outlets have paid closer attention to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. The main issue of controversy has been the publication of a Harvard-funded study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that challenged the Government of Puerto Rico’s official death toll, which currently stands at 64. It claimed that hurricane-related deaths could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498.

It seems that this increasing media coverage convinced the people who conduct the weekly Economist/YouGov Poll to include several questions related to the death toll controversy and the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts.

This is not the first time that the Economist/YouGov Poll has asked Americans their opinions on issues related Puerto Rico. In May 2016, as Congress debated the PROMESA bill, its survey included several questions on the island’s financial crisis. In October 2017, the polling firm asked respondents’ to rate the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria.

In these different iterations, the Economist/YouGov Poll asked the following question:

“What is the national citizenship of a person born in Puerto Rico whose parents were both also born in Puerto Rico?”.

The next bar graph summarizes respondents’ answers to this questions.

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The results of the most recent poll are not too encouraging. The number of people who were “not sure” about Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status has increased in the last two years. Even though it seems that the increased media coverage of Hurricane Maria helped many Americans realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the newest survey shows a substantial decrease in the number of Americans who understand this reality.

How accurate are these figures? Although I think that the question is poorly worded, the fact that the Economist/YouGov Poll has used the same wording in the three survey instruments allow us to compare and contrast respondents’ knowledge of Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status as well as their views on the island’s constitutional status.

It is difficult to explain why Americans’ opinions have fluctuated so much since May 2016. If anything, we should expect that Americans’ opinions of island-born Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status to be more accurate, given all the media coverage Puerto Rico’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria has received in the last nine months.

How does partisanship affect people’s opinions? In other words, are Democrats’ views more informed that Republicans? What are independent voters’ opinions and how do they compare with Americans’ registered in one of the main political parties?

chart (53)chart (52)chart (51)

While not too surprising, the surveys show that independents know less about Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status than registered Democrats or registered Republicans. In May 2016, 55% of independent voters were either “not sure” or believed that island-born Puerto Ricans were not U.S. citizens. This number slightly increases to 56% in October 2017 and goes up to 62% in June 2018.

Democrats by in large tend to be more informed than Republicans on this issue. But it is important to highlight that the numbers of Democrats who correctly answered the question in October 2017 declined by 11% in June 2018. We see a similar drop with Republicans who believe that island-born Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

A close reading of the survey’s findings also demonstrates that knowledge about Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status also got worse among African-Americans, Hispanics and Whites. The same holds true for respondents in all the income categories as well as among men and women.

The survey’s silver lining can be found in the results under the age category. The next bar graphs summarize the findings.

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Younger respondents’ answers have become more accurate over time. And their knowledge rivals Baby Boomers’ understanding of this issue.

The Economist/YouGov Poll also asked other questions connected to federal government’s response to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts post-Hurricane Maria. I will analyzed those numbers in another post. But for now it is interesting to see how increasing media coverage of Puerto Rico does not necessarily improve Americans’ understanding of the island’s constitutional status or Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status.

Technical note: The Economist/YouGov Poll surveys YouGov’s “opt-in internet panel”. In the May 2016, 2000 respondents completed the questionnaire and the survey’s margin of error was 3%. In October 2017, 1500 respondents took the survey and its margin of error was 3.1%. The June 2018 survey also polled 1500 respondents and its margin of error was 3.2. 

“Hell to Pay”: One of Governor Ricardo Rossello’s Favorite Phrases

On May 31, 2018, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced, with much fanfare, to his 500,000+ Facebook followers:

“In few minutes watch my interview with Anderson Cooper CNN talking about Puerto Rico recovery efforts.”

It is interesting that his post mentioned that he was invited to talk about “recovery efforts” rather than the Harvard University-funded study – “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria” – which was undoubtedly the main news story regarding Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts in both Puerto Rico and in the United States.

Cooper asked Rosselló about the Harvard-funded study and why his government failed to share its mortality data with the study’s authors. Although Rosselló said he welcomed the study and noted that he had commissioned George Washington University to study the matter, Rosselló said he was surprised to hear that officials in his government had refused to share its data with the researchers.

Unconvinced by Rosselló’s remarks, Cooper asked him again why his government fail to grant the authors’ request and the governor promised to further investigate the issue, noting that “there will be hell to pay” if he finds out that government officials decided not to cooperate with researchers.

An hour after the interview, CNN shared a video of the interview, using the following headline: “Rossello: Hell to Pay if Data Not Available”. In Twitter, the “Hell to Pay” phrase has been widely used to describe the governor’s interview with Cooper.

I have been researching Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts for a long time and I have listened to countless of hours of Governor Rosselló’s answers to questions from reporters, lawmakers in Capitol Hill or Trump administration officials. And this phrase – “hell to pay” – is one that Rosselló has used in the past, anytime journalists question his or his government’s credibility or ability to manage a crisis. Every time he has used the phrase, it has been followed by a promise to hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions.

The following table provides a short summary of Rosselló’s use of the phrase since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but representative of a pattern in Governor Rosselló’s behavior. Links to each story are provided too.

Date Source Headline Context
10/9/2017 Reuters Hell to pay’ over water, food deliveries, Puerto Rico governor warns Questions regarding the Puerto Rican government’s and federal authorities’ mishandling of the distribution of water and other supplies to hurricane victims.
10/12/2017 PBS News Hour White House is committed to long-term Puerto Rico recovery despite Trump tweets, says Gov. Rosselló Allegations that local Puerto Rican officials are not distributing supplies to hurricane victims.
10/19/2017 CSPAN President Trump Meeting with Governor of Puerto Rico In question and answer session with press, President Trump and Governor Rossello are asked about allegations that supplies have been hoarded by local Puerto Rican officials and not distributed to hurricane victims.
10/27/2018 ABC News PR Governor Threatens “Hell to Pay” As Probes of Whitefish Contract Begin A reaction to questions regarding PREPA’s award of the Whitefish Energy contract to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid after Hurricane Maria.

Why does this matter? Democracy works when the government and its leaders are transparent and accountable. Puerto Ricans know that their government and elected leaders are not perfect. What they want are responsive institutions and leaders, who are working on behalf of the public good and are willing to put society’s collective needs over their own wants.

To this day, it is not clear whether some local officials failed to distribute supplies to hurricane victims. Although Ricardo Ramos, resigned as the CEO of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority,  we are still waiting for the governor to commission an investigation into the Whitefish Energy contract. The pattern continues now with the government’s accounting (or lack thereof) of the increased mortality rate after Hurricane Maria.

As noted above, Rosselló told Cooper that he was “shocked” to learn that his government denied access to its mortality data to the Harvard-funded research team. And there are two problems with this statement. First, although he has publicly stated that he welcomes the Harvard-funded study, he has not read it. After all, the study notes:

Although the government of Puerto Rico stopped sharing mortality data with the public in December 2017 (our request for these data was also denied), in April 2018 the Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, an autonomous government entity, adopted a resolution to improve the counting of disaster-related deaths and publish all mortality data online without further delay.

This is troubling. If Rosselló did not take the time to read the study everybody has been talking about in Puerto Rico and in Washington, D.C. for the last days, how committed is he to making sure that this problem is not repeated in the future?

Second, and probably more worrying, Rosselló is either lying or lives in a bubble, where his advisors are trying to shield him from reality. As NPR’s Adrian Florido recently tweeted:

Gov. told CNN that “there will be hell to pay” if he finds that his govt. has refused to release mortality data.  [Centro de Periodismo Investigativo] sued them for the data. I was in a courtroom last week in which his govt’s lawyers were defending withholding it. How does he not know that?

This is not the first time that Governor Rosselló or his political allies have stretched the truth to protect their own interests.

Will things change thanks to the Harvard-funded report or Andersen Cooper’s tough questions? Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to this question.




Thoughts on the Harvard University-Funded Study: “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria”

How many Puerto Ricans died due to Hurricane Maria? This has been one of the most contested issues since the hurricane made landfall on September 20, 2017. In an earlier post, published in November 25, 2017, I explained the roots of this controversy. The post describes the work of Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo which’s investigative reports have demonstrated problems with the Rosselló administration’s accounting of hurricane-related deaths, President Donald Trump’s visit to the island, which sparked this controversy, and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto’s views on the matter, which have been widely covered by the media.

In this post, I want to share some thoughts on the Harvard University-funded study, “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria” which was conducted by Nishant Kishore, Domingo Marques, Ayesha Mahmud, Mathew Kiang, Imary Rodriguez, Arlan Fuller, Peggy Ebner, Cecilia Sorensen, Fabio Racy, Jay Lernery, Leslie Maas, Jennifer Leaning, Rafael Irizarry, Satchit Balsari and Caroline Buckee, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 29, 2018.

But before looking at the study, it is worth recapping some of the developments that have taken place since I published my last post on this issue.

More Twists and Turns

Since my last post on hurricane-related deaths, a few things have taken place that have further politicized this sensitive issue. For example, the New York Times published the findings of its study, which estimated that the death toll could be as high as 1,052 people. Latino USA and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo partnered to review the available demographic data, arguing that the number was closer to 985.

Intense public pressure forced the Rosselló administration to establish a commission to further study the controversy. But rather than appointing an independent panel, the governor asked Héctor Pesquera, the Secretary of Public Safety, to lead the commission. This was problematic in at least two ways. First, one of Pesequera’s responsibilities was to account for the number of hurricane-related deaths. Second, his repeated dismissal of journalists’ questions regarding the government’s figures created a public relations crisis, which tarnished the Rosselló administration’s credibility in both Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland.

For most of January, journalists working for the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo asked the Rosselló administration to share its data on hurricane-related deaths with the public. The New York Times, CNN, Buzzfeed and other news outlets asked for the same information. But Pesquera’s unwillingness to share these data forced the Centro de Periodismo Investigative and CNN to sue the Government of Puerto Rico in the local court system on February 7, 2017.

The next day Governor Rosselló admitted that there were flaws in his administration’s handling of the controversy. For that reason, the Government of Puerto Rico commissioned George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health to conduct a study that could “estimate the excess mortality tied to Hurricane Maria”. According to the Caribbean Business News, the Government of Puerto Rico agreed to pay $305,368 to finance the analysis. In exchange, the research team, led by Carlos Santos-Burgoa, agreed to share its preliminary findings by May 22, 2018 and a submit full report to the Rosselló administration  before July 23, 2018. Due to unforeseen circumstances Santos-Burgoa’s team failed to deliver its preliminary report. After asking the Puerto Rican government officials for an extension, George Washington University’s public relations office announced that its team hopes to submit its findings by the end of the summer.

As noted above, on May 29, 2018 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study estimating that Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of around 4,645 Puerto Ricans. The official government death toll stands at 64. How can we explain this discrepancy, especially given the fact that other studies’ estimates, including Alexis Santos and Jeffrey Howard’s analysis, are much lower?

From 64 to 4,645

The Harvard-funded study did not have access to the Government of Puerto Rico’s records. Indeed, the New York Times reported that the Rosselló administration “refused to provide data to them.”

To estimate the number of death associated with Hurricane Maria, the authors of the study surveyed “a representative stratified random sample 3,299 households, of an estimated 1,135,507 total households, across Puerto Rico.” The authors decided to stratify the population “according to remoteness, defined according to the travel time to nearest city with a population of at least 50,000 persons.” According to the study, 93% of respondents agreed to complete the survey.

The Harvard-funded study estimates that Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of 4,645 individuals. Although this figure is larger than the estimates of past studies cited above, it is important to remember that the analysis covers a longer time period (September 20 – December 31, 2017). And while the 4,645 number has garnered lots of attention it is also critical to keep in mind that the authors are not saying that the hurricane caused this amount of deaths. Because of the survey’s margin of error, the authors estimate that deaths connected to Hurricane Maria could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498. Thus, the 4,645 is the median between these two estimates.

One of the main benefits of this study is that it helps us understand the main causes of these deaths. For example, the survey asked respondents to estimate the days they lived without clean water, electricity or cell phone coverage. Thus, the authors can show how these variables may have affected mortality rates in the island after Hurricane Maria. Unsurprisingly, the respondents to the survey cite that “interruption of medical care was the primary case of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane.”  Only 10% of the reported deaths seemed to have been caused directly by Hurricane Maria. These findings corroborate other investigative reports’ conclusions.

While survey research has its weaknesses, my first reading of this study suggest that the authors’ did a good job. The methodology is sound and the fact that the authors’ have publicly shared their data demonstrates their willingness to engage critiques and to let other social scientists use their observations to explore the impact Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Ricans’ lives.

My biggest question is whether the Harvard-funded study took into consideration the spike in the numbers of suicides that have taken place in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. While the researchers’ survey does include suicide as a cause of death, their paper does not address this issue, which has received considerable attention in the last months.

The Study’s Fall Out

To figure out how many people died because of Hurricane Maria, it seems that we will have to wait for the findings of Santos-Burgoa’s team. Given that this group of researchers have complete access to the government’s data, they should be able produce a more precise accounting of the excess deaths following Hurricane Maria. But the fact that the Rosselló administration  has spent over $300,000 on this study and that this team is the only one that has access to the government’s data will raise questions regarding these researchers’ independence and the legitimacy of their findings.

And here lies the dilemma Puerto Rican society faces today. This controversy has further eroded Puerto Ricans’ trust on their government’s capacity to address natural disasters and their elected leaders’ willingness to do the right thing. And while the Harvard-funded program did not consider the Trump administration’s role in this controversy, it is safe to say that many Puerto Ricans’ faith in the federal government has waned as well.

While the Harvard-funded study could have prompted a much needed conversation of what future actions the Puerto Rican government can take to prevent future hurricane-related deaths, it has had the opposite effect. The study has mobilized the island’s political factions and reduced the possibility of a sensible discussion of both the merits and limitations of this study. For example, in Twitter, supporters of Governor Rosselló have dismissed the study’s conclusions. Some have even questioned the independence of the study, arguing that Domingo Marques, one of the authors who teaches in Puerto Rico’s Carlos Albizu University, is a “communist” and an ally of Mayor Cruz.  For her part, Cruz, who has challenged the Rosselló administration’s figures since early October 2017 and is thinking of mounting a run for governor in 2020, has been photographed wearing a baseball cap that reads 4,645. In different interviews, she has  promised to honor the memories of those that died because of the government’s negligence. And while Governor Rosselló has refused to meet with journalists, including CBS News’ David Begnaud, Pesquera has questioned the findings of the Harvard-funded study, claiming that its methodology is unscientific.

What seems lost in this controversy is the experiences of those Puerto Ricans who lost a friend or a family member due to Hurricane Maria. It must be difficult to find closure in this political environment.

And what is even sadder is that this political controversy is overshadowing the fact that many of these deaths could have been prevented. It is important that the Government of Puerto Rico and the U.S. federal government can learn from their mistakes and also hold accountable those officials or healthcare professionals who were negligent and may have not done enough to save these people. This is not only necessary from a policy standpoint. It is a moral imperative.