UPDATE 1-U.S., Puerto Rican leaders vow centralized effort for island

Wed Oct 14, 2015 7:42pm EDT
 
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(Updates with quotes from conference)

By Nick Brown

ORLANDO Oct 14 (Reuters) - Civic and political leaders from Puerto Rico and the United States met on Wednesday in Florida, forming a coalition to pressure the federal government to help the U.S. commonwealth resolve its $72 billion debt crisis.

The coalition will lobby for a bill to give Puerto Rico the same bankruptcy protections as U.S. states, and will also advocate for equal Medicare and Medicaid benefits for the island, members said at the conference in Orlando.

"We're going to be in the face of everyone, whether it's White House, (Treasury) Secretary (Jack) Lew, or presidential candidates," U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat, told a crowd of about 250 civic leaders and Hispanic group advocates, who stood, cheered, danced, and waved Puerto Rican flags.

Specific action items will be announced soon, Velazquez added.

Speaking to Reuters outside the conference, Velazquez and fellow Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said they had so far received a cold shoulder from the U.S. Treasury Department for their efforts to form a federal task force to help Puerto Rico resolve its crisis.

However, the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported that Treasury is considering administering a debt exchange through a so-called "superbond."

The conference also gave politicians a chance to score points with Hispanic voters in Florida, a key political battleground and home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans. Among those in attendance were U.S. Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat running for U.S. Senate in 2016.

While much of the national debate on Puerto Rico has centered on finances and economics, with some advocating for a debt restructuring and others calling on Puerto Rico's government to impose spending reforms, politicians at the conference invoked themes of immigration, connecting with the crowd on deeper cultural and emotional levels.

Gutierrez drew applause when he relayed a story of racial profiling whereby he was denied entry to the U.S. Capitol by a guard who did not believe he was a member of Congress. U.S. Representative Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, received an ovation when he criticized "anti-immigration nonsense" that he believes has been the cause of unfair treatment for Puerto Ricans. (Reporting by Nick Brown; Editing by Christian Plumb and Diane Craft)