Rubio, on stump in Puerto Rico, says island needs new leadership

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio told residents of Puerto Rico on Friday the island needed new political leadership as it grapples with its fiscal crisis, but protection under bankruptcy laws would not solve the U.S. territory’s problems.

“I believe the Puerto Rico government has the ability to solve its own issues,” Rubio, a Cuban-American, told a crowd in San Juan, speaking in Spanish.

“What you need is new political leadership that has the courage and willingness to do the right and needed reforms.”

Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said in June the U.S. territory could not afford to pay its debts, totaling $72 billion, and called for the commonwealth to be allowed to restructure its debts under the U.S. bankruptcy code.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, also in San Juan on Friday, addressed a panel on healthcare, telling the audience, “One of the challenges we face is the unfortunate legacy of inconsistent, incoherent and inequitable treatment of healthcare here in Puerto Rico.”

Clinton, who won the most Democratic delegates in Puerto Rico during her failed 2008 presidential bid, spoke to healthcare professionals at a medical center, where she discussed issues such as Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements and called the healthcare system inequitable.

Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, introduced a bill in June to eliminate disparities in the healthcare system, which according to Pierluisi sees Puerto Rico receive far less in federal Medicaid funding than it would if it were a state.

“It’s just hard to justify how you can be an American citizen in Puerto Rico and be treated differently in so many ways from being an American citizen anywhere else,” Clinton said.

Rubio spoke in a hot and packed restaurant.

While Puerto Rico’s residents will not be eligible to vote in the November 2016 presidential election, they have a voice in the primaries. As the island’s economy has suffered, an increasing number have moved to the U.S. mainland, where they can vote. Nearly 1 million Puerto Ricans live in the battleground-state Florida.

Bills proposing that Puerto Rican municipalities be allowed to reorganize debts under Chapter 9 have been introduced in the House and Senate but the idea has not gathered enough Republican support to advance.

In an opinion piece earlier on Friday, Rubio said giving Puerto Rico access to Chapter 9 would not solve the U.S. territory’s problems.

“I’m not saying that if at the end of the day (if Chapter 9) is the only option, we shouldn’t evaluate it,” said Rubio. “But I don’t think it would solve the fundamental problems that the island faces.”

Rubio’s position puts him at odds with Clinton, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, who have expressed support for Chapter 9.

Rubio took an opportunity to sideswipe Clinton, saying her plan for the island must have been “on her server and it was wiped clean,” a seeming reference to an email controversy that is plaguing her presidential bid.

Rubio also proposed some solutions in his opinion piece, such as making low-paying work more attractive, creating pro-family tax reform and repealing and replacing Obamacare. Puerto Rico should also have a federally sponsored vote on the island over the issue of statehood, Rubio said.

“I believe Marco Rubio has given a clear explanation of how Puerto Rico should act to improve its relationship with the U.S.,” said Jorge del Rio, a Puerto Rican who attended the event. “He is clear on how we should solve our problem, and how Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans should decide through a yes or no status [vote].”

(Reporting by a contributor in Puerto Rico and Amanda Becker; Writing by Megan Davies; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Tom Brown)