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Puerto Ricans Are Tired of Being Powerless

Ignored both by Congress and their own governor, they're now demanding to be heard.

Eric Rojas/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, frustration that has been building in Puerto Rico erupted, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans flooding the streets and calling for governor Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation. The island and United States commonwealth has spent two weeks roiled by scandal, following the publication of hundreds of offensive, misogynistic, and homophobic chats from Rosselló and his associates, with reports that he is on the precipice of resigning. Late Wednesday night, he gave in, announcing a resignation effective August 2.

The outburst has taken many mainland Americans by surprise. In the past week, family members, political operatives, and friends have asked me why the cacophony has grown so deafening this time, after decades of possible pretexts for such protests. The answer is both complicated and simple. A century of colonialism, decades of corruption—including under Pedro Rosselló, the current governor’s father, who led the island in the 1990s—and a financial crisis and health-care crisis have all paved the way for this week’s protests, even before the island was flattened by Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Ricans lack control. They don’t have voting representatives in the U.S. Congress, they can’t vote in the general election for president of the country that plays puppeteer with the island’s politics and economy, and have no control over the pace of recovery in the hurricane’s aftermath: Puerto Ricans, following the deaths of more than 3,000 of their family members and friends, have had to beg for natural disaster relief funds that came without question to Texas and Florida in 2017. A fiscal control board instituted by the U.S. federal government controls the island’s finances, with board members that Puerto Ricans will remind you they didn’t vote for, pulling in six-figure salaries and instituting austerity measures.

Six people with ties to the government were arrested in a federal corruption investigation in July, including a former cabinet secretary and agency head. But the last straw came in the form of messages leaked to Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism—889 pages of private chats from the Telegram messaging app—that laid bare corruption, arrogance, and elitism, but more importantly provided concrete evidence of what Puerto Ricans had long believed, but now had undeniable proof of: that governing them was all a big game, a joke they not only weren’t in on, but were the punch line of.      

“It’s a culmination—the abuse is enough,” former New York City council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who the governor called a “whore” in Spanish in the leaked chats, told me. “The government has constantly been criticized over the years as being out of touch, for the debt we’ve incurred, and the vulture funds taking advantage. People feel it’s un atropello—they’re being run over.”

The half-million who took to the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan last week, including older Puerto Ricans and young people, were the equivalent of 1.5 million people in New York City, Mark-Viverito said. Beyond the bigotry, (another vulgar joke was that Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin was a male chauvinist who has sex with “men because women don’t measure up”) Mark-Viverito said the chats revealed an attitude of using government resources to enrich friends and pursue enemies, disrespect the electorate and infringe on their civil rights. 

Part of the chat included the governor and his allies talking about mobilizing a “troll network” to combat negative press and discredit opposition leaders. Christian Sobrino Vega, the former chief financial officer, also wrote that he wanted to shoot San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, with Rosselló responding, “You’d be doing me a grand favor.”

Asked what she thought when she read what Rosselló said about her, Mark-Viverito said, “I have a thick skin, I’ve been in politics forever, but his comments were not only an affront to me, they were an affront to all women, and an affront to Puerto Rico.”

The recent protests remind some of the struggle to free the Puerto Rican island of Vieques from U.S. naval occupation in the late ’90s and early 2000s: Bombing tests along the coast led the area to be designated a superfund clean-up site in 2005, due to sustained environmental damage. A 2009 study by the University of Puerto Rico found that cancer rates were 27 percent higher in Vieques than in the rest of Puerto Rico. Like the current protests against Rosselló, those over Vieques had a trigger: the accidental killing of civilian employee David Sanes Rodríguez in 1999.

“The difference is that Vieques was considered a leftist issue, even though it was a colonial issue, a health issue, and an economic issue,” Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, a Puerto Rican activist and political strategist, told me. Today, the energy is coming from people across the political spectrum, including many who aren’t usually seen at political protests. Puerto Rican scholar and Columbia University professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner, who was at the protests, told Latino Rebels Radio last week that in these demonstrations, “women [are] shaping actively the discourse and putting the issue of gender front and center.”

Like protestors in the Arab Spring, Puerto Ricans have amplified their message on Twitter, using the medium as a megaphone for outrage at Rosselló’s administration. One particularly galling part of the leaked messages was a joke from Vega, about the growing piles of bodies at the morgues in Puerto Rico. “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” he wrote.

Elidio La Torre Lagares, a 53-year-old professor at the University of Puerto Rico, who lost his father in the aftermath of the hurricane, tweeted a scathing poem addressing the comments. “My father could have been the cadaver you were looking for to feed the crows,” read one line. Elidio has already attended three protests in honor of his father.

“He was 80, a veteran, and if he were alive I think he would have been standing up for justice as well,” he told me. “At the end, he felt betrayed, he believed in statehood, he believed in the current government.”

Elidio and his family feel they were denied the ability to mourn their father with respect and grace. “They recommended us to cremate the body and that was painful, we had to do it in a rush,” Elidio said. “He died on a Sunday, so by Tuesday we had to get rid of the body. We could not take him to the cemetery because it was ruined. The funeral parlor did not have power so they said, ‘We’re going to have a brief wake in here. Then you have to take the body.’ It was surreal.”

“This is why the chat is so relevant and historic,” Elidio continued. “All of a sudden we all know they cheated us, they fooled us, they played around with us. It was politics as performance. It was all a show. This is the time to speak up.”

Rosselló’s resignation alone will not solve Puerto Rico’s problems.

More than a decade after then-candidate Barack Obama electrified Puerto Rico when he walked through the streets of San Juan as a presidential candidate, politicians still come to the island, but are careful to say nothing concrete when it comes to political status. Politicians of the 2020 race have courted and will continue to court the island’s primary votes, even though Puerto Ricans won’t be able to vote in November. Congress has dismissed Puerto Ricans’ plebiscites in favor of full statehood.

Now, despite the protests’ incredible energy and sense of purpose, there is a new fear: that the chats will taint the statehood goal, which Rosselló championed, and, worse, may lead members of Congress to put new conditions on federal relief money and audit Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program for fraud and abuse—both of which could slow the pace of recovery.    

“We need to give signs to outsiders and insiders that we’re having an orderly transition of power,” Sierra-Zorita said. “The longer we take for an orderly transition the more we tell outsiders we cannot govern ourselves.”

A recent editorial from The Washington Post suggesting the fiscal board get more control has lent credence to this concern, and was poorly received. Mark-Viverito tweeted her displeasure: “The answer is NOT to give an unelected board, that has as its primary strategy implementing neoliberal policies that gut essential services & prioritize the vulture funds, MORE control!”

“We cannot allow the conversation to become ‘How do we take funds away?’” she added to me. When the New Orleans mayor was arrested for corruption, she pointed out, Hurricane Katrina victims weren’t punished.

On Sunday, Rosselló resigned his position as president of the pro-statehood party (PNP) and announced he would not run for reelection in 2020. Both were expected. The biggest protests yet came on Monday, because the goal is still to oust him as governor.    

The governor no longer has political support, and his political priorities—like statehood—are on the back burner for the time being. A prominent statehood supporter told me that, even with potentially messy implications for the statehood campaign, passivity is not an option.

“It was unworkable, untenable,” the source said of the current government. As for the protests? “It’s about control, about taking control of your own destiny.”     

This piece has been updated with news of Rosseló’s resignation.