ASPEN, COLORADO — Talking with Latino Rebels Tuesday morning during the Aspen Ideas Festival, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló said he was open to supporting any calls by Congress to establish an independent commission that would study how deaths were counted in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María.
“Anything that would give more clarity to the situation, of course we support it,” Rosselló said in a brief interview before giving a talk about his vision for Puerto Rico. “I’ve always been on record saying that we need to have the best available protocols, the best available clarity towards the future. We recognize that the protocols we had at the onset were not the best or not good. So any information and the interest from different parties that we’ve seen recently can only add to the conversation, so of course, I support that.”
Earlier in June, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, all Democrats, called for Congress to establish an independent commission about why the official death count due to Hurricane María is still at 64, when data from journalists, researchers and the government of Puerto Rico have already established that excess deaths were more than 1,200 the weeks after Hurricane María. The death toll made national headlines in late May again after a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that Puerto Rico’s death toll after María could have been more than 70 times the official count of 64. Data from June 13 released by the island’s Registry Department estimated 1,427 excess deaths for the last four months of 2017, when compared to same months the four previous years, but the government won’t confirm whether these excess deaths were all related to the hurricane, and has kept the official death count of 64.
“There certainly have been excess deaths,” Rosselló, also a registered Democrat, said. “We need to get the full picture on why they occurred and how we can prevent them in the future. I think that is a critical component, of course, why they occurred. To give closure and to give clarity to the people of Puerto Rico to me is very important, but also to honor their memories. It is important that on a future event, we learn from this one and that we can execute a lot better. So certainly, I mean, from November on, we knew that it wasn’t sixty-four [deaths]. That was just the number based on the protocol. That shouldn’t be considered the official tally. We stopped the tally and then we externalized it to George Washington [University] so that they can use epidemiological studies moving forward. Certainly, an area that we need to have a lot more clarity on, and that we’ll be better off for it, once a lot of the information from the experts starts piling in.”
The politics behind the death count have also raised questions about the federal response to the hurricane. For example, when President Trump visited Puerto Rico last October, he praised officials for the low death count, at the time listed officially at 16. When asked about the optics of this moment with Trump, Rosselló told Latino Rebels that his focus will always be on helping the people of Puerto Rico.
“Here’s my thing: my focus has always been on doing actions that I think, within my judgment, are in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico,” Rosselló said. “I am convinced that everything I have done towards this point and everything that I will do towards the future goes in that direction. Will I make mistakes? Of course, I’ll make mistakes. There’s no doubt about it. Will I own up to those mistakes? Yes, I will. Will I listen to those that criticize me? I will do that as well. Will I defer from some people saying that some were mistakes and some were correct? Of course that will happen. But what I would say is that everything that I have done has been done in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico, even understanding that I would take some heat from it because in the mid-to-long-term view, I think it is certainly in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico…”
As for questions of transparency, which hit a turning point when a San Juan judge earlier this month ordered the government of Puerto Rico to release Hurricane María death information to the Center for Investigative Journalism and CNN, Rosselló admitted that there is still work to be done.
“Realize that we were in government for about nine months after [the hurricane],” he said. “We started to implement transparency laws. They still haven’t been passed by our House or Senate. It’s still there. We’ve implemented transparency measures all across government. But do we need to get much better on it? Of course. That is one of the aspirational goals that we are pursuing on all fronts, whether it be permits, business, education stats. Just having a better understanding of what’s occurring in Puerto Rico gives us the data, and not only to me, but to all of the stakeholders in Puerto Rico so we can make better decisions. So yes, I am fully committed to transparency.”
The full recording of the conversation with Rosselló can be heard here: