Puerto Rico protests: With governor gone, this is ‘just the beginning’
First there was Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in September 2017 with a near-knockout blow.
Then this month came the political scandals, revealing a self-serving and aloof governing clique that in many ways had squandered the island’s post-Maria recovery effort.
Two of the U.S. territory's top officials and several of their associates were arrested by the FBI earlier this month and charged with misuse of federal aid. That was followed in short order by the publication of a trove of derogatory, callous emails between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his close circle of male aides that exposed an out-of-touch government.
But when Governor Rosselló announced Wednesday, after two weeks of unrelenting street protests, that he will resign from office Aug. 2, it underscored that while the one-two punch of Maria and ineffective, arrogant governance may have knocked the people of Puerto Rico down, it has them anything but out.
Indeed, for some who have protested day after day, demanding not just a governor’s resignation but a clean sweep of a decades-old political culture, it was more than anything else one particular message that energized a still-suffering people to reclaim their dignity. In it, the governor and his privileged buddies appear to mock Maria’s dead.
“Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” the Rosselló administration’s former chief financial officer said in a chat message with the governor and 10 other top aides, in a reference to the bodies that piled up after Maria, when overloaded morgues were unable to handle them. The “crows” were apparently media and other critics of the government’s recovery efforts.
“People can take many things. We Puerto Ricans have lived for a very long time under a lot of bad governments and with a lot of indignities, but this was just too much,” says Yolanda González, an assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Education who joined her neighbors in a nightly round of pot-banging to let “Ricky” (as Governor Rosselló is known) know that they weren’t going to take it anymore.
“It was so hurtful. It showed such a lack of compassion and solidarity to make fun in that way of all those people who died after Maria because of that group’s inaction and an unresponsive government,” she says. “That’s when people said, ‘No, no more – we must change this.’”
Time and again, people have referred to that one exchange, amid a chat full of misogynistic and homophobic rants, as the drop that made the public fury spill over.
“There are so many elements to explain this public uprising against the governor and what he represents, but it was this mocking of those most affected by Maria that was the last straw,” says Ricardo Barrios, an associate of the Asia and Latin America program at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “For people who had lost loved ones for lack of an effective disaster response, this was no laughing matter.”
Salt in the wound
While the derisive chats galvanized and sustained a movement, many other factors contributed, some reaching back to well before Maria, says Mr. Barrios, who is Puerto Rican.
He cites a succession of ineffective governments, corruption scandals, and the island’s economic retreat to the point of bankruptcy. Not insignificant, he adds, is the fact that Mr. Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, was a governor in the 1990s who endured a number of corruption scandals.
“Many people thought the father should have served time like some of his cabinet members did, and there was this sentiment that ‘We’re not going to let another Rosselló get away with it,’” he says.
But like many Puerto Ricans, Mr. Barrios says that corruption, ineffective governance, and a detached political class have existed for a long time and probably would not have led on their own to a governor’s downfall. It took Maria and above all the trauma of an absent government in the recovery phase to seal Mr. Rosselló’s fate.
“It was in the aftermath of Maria that the triggers of this movement we have now sprang up and developed,” says Yazmin Maldonado, a social community psychologist in San Juan who has been a daily participant in the protests that Puerto Ricans refer to simply as la marcha.
“The government’s absence in the aftermath of Maria really shook people, but it also convinced many people that they would have to manage for themselves, and that encouraged a new sense of community among sectors of society and a desire for new tools to get us out from under Maria,” Dr. Maldonado says. “But then people started coming together to see if those same new tools could be used to get us out of our long political crisis.”
“People learned from the recovery period that there were many things we could do without the government; there was this sense about a government that didn’t seem to be operating that ‘We don’t need them anymore,’” says Dr. González. “That became very dangerous for Ricky when the corruption and chats started coming out.”
Another critical piece of the post-Maria movement was the growing independent media, ranging from personal blogs and community websites to startup publications disassociated from the island’s traditional political parties and power circles.
“We're experiencing a historical moment in Puerto Rico, and real journalism is needed,” says journalist Sandra Rodríguez Cotto, who reported on over 50 pages of the chat on July 10. When the Center for Investigative Journalism obtained and published nearly 900 pages of chats July 13, that got the protest ball rolling.
Then there was the fact that the movement was led not by politicians, but by artists of particular inspiration to the island’s young, including Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, Calle 13, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
For some Puerto Ricans, the fact that the corruption charges involved education funds made them especially damaging, given the island’s post-Maria experience.
“We’re not talking about complex movements of cash from the treasury, or some really complicated tax-evasion scheme. This was $15 million in education [and health] funding siphoned off to people in the governor’s circle at a time when schools were closed and Puerto Ricans were being told there was no money to open them back up,” says Mr. Barrios.
“This affected the most vulnerable people on the island, the children, and you also have to remember that thousands of families had left [for Florida and other places in the mainland U.S.] because they were desperate to get their kids in school,” he adds. “The involvement of education funding was like a stab to the heart. It really brought the corruption home to everybody.”
“We found a new strength”
One thing the post-Maria months of no power, closed schools, and undelivered food and rebuilding supplies taught many Puerto Ricans was not so much that they could get by without government, some marcha participants say, but that they deserved not just a new government – but a new kind of governance.
“I truly believe that Hurricane Maria came to Puerto Rico to open our eyes to the unacceptable realities that we have been living with for many years,” says José David Colón Vega, a high school Spanish teacher who has been active on social media to keep information about the demonstrations flowing.
“What I think is so important is that through the experience of Hurricane Maria, we found a new strength, and that is what has allowed us to rise up against corruption, bad politics, and all kinds of discrimination – including against the poor. Before we were not a united people,” he adds, “but after Maria we have found our voice.”
Mr. Colón, who is diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, says that one reason the officials’ chats were such a mobilizing factor is that they demonstrated such detachment from the solidarity and compassion that had blossomed across Puerto Rico in Maria’s wake.
“As a human being with a disability, I felt so offended by those comments about women, about people from the LGBT community, even about a blind person,” he says. “But I know I’m not alone. The huge demonstrations day after day showed the world this new spirit of Puerto Ricans caring about each other.”
Perhaps most inspiring to Mr. Colón is that the nightly marches he watched on his computer were conducted not with rancor and vindictiveness, but with a sense of joy – with music, with creative chants, and with that newfound solidarity.
He admits he’s a little concerned that, now that Ricky is leaving office, some Puerto Ricans will consider the job done. Not so, he says.
“I think we have to see this moment as just the beginning,” he says, noting that he plans to do what he can as a teacher to keep the spirit alive with young people.
“We’re not done,” he says. “It’s up to us to write a new history for Puerto Rico that is based on progress, civil rights, and wellness for this island we love.”
Danny Jin contributed reporting from Boston.