(San Juan) Puerto Rico's governor pledged on Wednesday to lift the U.S. territory from a deep recession by creating more jobs, reversing a migration exodus and implementing a range of incentives as the island struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.
During a nearly two-hour state of the commonwealth address that followed a brief power outage at the seaside Capitol, Gov. Ricardo Rossello also said he plans to hold a yes-or-no referendum on statehood. He also criticized President Donald Trump's response to Maria, a Category 4 storm that hit September 2017 and caused more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.
"As Americans, Puerto Ricans deserve a swift recovery from Hurricane Maria. It's been over a year after the catastrophic event. We are still waiting for the disbursement of most of the funds already allocated by Congress," Rossello said briefly in English before resuming his address in Spanish.
The governor said his administration has faced several obstacles amid hurricane recovery efforts, including what he called unfair conditions imposed to obtain federal funds and a hostile attitude from some federal officials.
"I reiterate to President Trump that he is discriminating against 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico," the governor said.
Rossello also called on the U.S. Congress to review the way a federal control board overseeing the island's finances has been operating as Puerto Rico's government tries to restructure a portion of a public debt that exceeds $70 billion. He accused the board of wanting to wield more power than authorized.
"It's time the members of that board understand this, and that instead of standing in the way of the government providing essential services, that they help it recover financially," he said.
Rossello announced that his administration in July and August will start directing federal hurricane recovery funds to new housing projects, loans to stimulate construction and local businesses, and aid to rebuild and repair homes damaged by Maria. He said it would begin awarding long-awaited property titles.
"I know this has taken time, and that it also has been a huge source of frustration," he said.
Rossello noted that of the $20 billion in community development block grant hurricane recovery funds assigned to Puerto Rico, the U.S. government already has approved plans detailing how $9.7 billion of that will be spent.
After his speech, members of the main opposition party criticized Rossello for not providing details on how he expects to achieve what he pledged.
"The people are tired of promises, of hearing about all these dreams without knowing how they'll be reached," said Sen. Eduardo Bhatia.
Added Rep. Rafael Hernandez: "It's a message of promises, of proposals. ... There are more questions than solutions."
Rossello spoke hours after a court hearing on Puerto Rico's debt restructuring process at which a federal judge ruled that the control board and others may sue those accused of contributing to Puerto Rico's financial collapse.