Turning around Puerto Rico’s woes

Anti-corruption outrage in the territory looks a lot like that in Chile in 2015. The Chilean tale ended with an embattled leader becoming a successful anti-corruption reformer.

AP
Demonstrators demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 22.

For the past five years, a surge of anti-corruption protests has overwhelmed politics in much of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the Western Hemisphere, from Brazil to Mexico. Now it is Puerto Rico’s turn. On Monday, nearly half a million people in the United States territory took to the streets demanding that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resign.

So far the embattled leader of that troubled island refuses to step down, despite the recent arrests of former associates on corruption charges and the release of damaging comments made by the governor on a messaging app. Perhaps by staying put, Mr. Rosselló hopes to redeem himself and become an aggressive anti-corruption reformer.

Indeed, he would not be the first leader in Latin America to do so.

The governor’s isolation is much like that of Chile’s president in 2015, Michelle Bachelet. After a series of scandals, starting with accusations of influence-peddling against her son, Ms. Bachelet at first dodged the media and stood her ground. Then in a sudden turnaround, she appointed a commission to propose reforms “based on global best practices and listening to citizens.”

In quick order, Chilean lawmakers passed a dozen major pieces of legislation aimed at reducing incentives for corruption. Ms. Bachelet left office last year and her successor, President Sebastián Piñera has continued the reform effort.

The former Chilean leader has redeemed herself. Last month, a new index of Latin American countries by Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the consulting firm Control Risks gave Chile the highest score in battling corruption (6.66 out of 10). Chile “is deemed the most likely country in the study for corruption to be uncovered, punished and deterred,” the index’s authors stated.

In politics, where moral rage comes easy while providing an opportunity for redemption comes hard, Puerto Rico could yet oust Mr. Rosselló. The governor has already resigned as head of his party and vows not to run for reelection. Lawmakers are gearing up to impeach him. But this crisis should not go to waste. If Chile is any model, Puerto Ricans might seek reform and reconciliation rather than retaliation.

Corruption didn’t start with Mr. Rosselló. Its roots run deeper than one person. But it could end with him.

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