The Scandal That Pushed Puerto Ricans Over the Edge

Mass demonstrations illustrate how many Puerto Ricans feel they have nothing to lose

Demonstrators protest in front of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s mansion in San Juan on July 24, 2019. Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

AAfter weeks of defiance, Puerto Rico’s Ricardo Rosselló is finally capitulating to his constituents: The embattled governor announced that he will be stepping down, effective August 2. His resignation follows mass demonstrations that swept the island after a series of incendiary texts between him and senior advisers were published earlier this month. Rosselló is now the first ever Puerto Rican governor to resign before his term ends. Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, who has previously been investigated for corruption, is expected to assume leadership.

Rosselló bungled his own resignation in ways that mirror how critics said he handled the aftermath of Hurricane María — with confusion and disarray. First, the governor was expected to announce he was stepping down at a 5 p.m. press conference but journalists were kept waiting for hours as militarized police from around Puerto Rico surrounded La Fortaleza, the gubernatorial mansion.

One of Rosselló’s press officers then announced the governor would deliver a televised address sometime that evening. As the hours went on, and thousands gathered in San Juan to protest, local news reported that Rosselló had broken an agreement made with House leaders to avoid impeachment by resigning. Finally, just before midnight, Rosselló announced his departure via Facebook Live.

“After listening to the criticisms, speaking to my family, thinking of my children, and praying, I have taken the following decision,” Rosselló said after nearly 10 minutes touting his record as governor. “With detachment, today I announce that I will be resigning my post as governor.”

Thousands of protesters in Old San Juan celebrated early into the morning with fireworks and impromptu sing-alongs. Even as celebrations began, protesters warned that their efforts were to oust all corrupt politicians, including Vázquez.

“It’s very important to clarify that with Ricky’s resignation our impeachment protests won’t end,” wrote the University of Puerto Rico’s Intersectional Feminist Collective on Twitter. “The corruption scheme involves a lot of government officials such as Wanda Vazquez, who’s next in line of succession.”

By Thursday morning, #WandaRenuncia was already trending on Twitter.

CCalls for Rosselló’s ouster first bubbled up after Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Reporting published 889 pages of private chats between him and 11 advisers on his team. The messages, which spanned from November 2018 to January of 2019, showed the officials using a variety of sexist and insensitive language, including:

  • Rosselló sharing classified information with party leaders not in government at the time of the chats, as well as using public funds for party purposes.
  • Puerto Rico CFO Christian Sobrino discussing deploying trolls across social media to discredit opposition politicians and journalists while on the clock as a government, not party, representative.
  • Homophobic language against journalists and music artist Ricky Martin, among others, who members of the chat said was, “so machista that he fucks men because women aren’t to his liking. Pure patriarchy.”
  • Sobrino saying he’s “salivating to shoot” Rosselló’s 2020 opponent and mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, to which Rosselló responds: “You’d be doing me a great favor.” Later he asks if Yulín has “gone off her meds.”
  • Calling former New York City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito a “whore” after she publicly asked Democratic Party Leader Tom Perez, who backs Puerto Rican statehood, to consider all the political interests on the island.
  • Rosselló making fun of the lack of forensic pathologists able to perform autopsies on Hurricane María’s dead by saying, “can’t we feed a body to the crows?”

Everyone in the chat — except for Rosselló — resigned soon after the chats were released. This included Sobrino, who stepped down the day the chats were made public, along with Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera Marín. Anthony Maceira, Rosselló’s press secretary, remained on staff at the governor’s request.

Rosselló stepped down as the head of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood party on the eve of the largest protest, a day-long march that shut down one of San Juan’s main highways. But he initially refused to resign outright.

“They took so much from us that they took our fear.”

The demonstrations marked a historic show of strength from a population still struggling to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Maria. As Rosselló, for weeks, continued to cling to power, the scandal tapped into Puerto Ricans’ long-simmering frustrations over government corruption and inaction in the face of a national crisis. Rosselló’s flippant comments were all the more troublesome given his commonwealth’s profound economic struggles.

Puerto Ricans are at the tail end of 10 years’ worth of economic austerity and ecological catastrophe. Between the years of political mismanagement and fallout from Hurricane Maria, islanders say they are exhausted by the lack of government support. It’s no wonder why a common message plastered on protest signs reads “Nos quitaron tanto que nos quitaron el miedo,” meaning, “They took so much from us that they took our fear.”

Mass migration to the mainland United States has dramatically shifted the island’s social and cultural makeup. Hurricane Maria only added to the trend — following the storm’s devastation, an estimated 130,000 people left the island.

The breakdown in infrastructure and services prolonged the crisis, which many saw as exacerbated by an ineffectual government led by Rosselló. The blue tarps, which still served as roofs for homes a year after María, marked the government’s ineptitude. Though more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans died from the hurricane, it was Rosselló who initially told President Donald Trump that it had only resulted in several dozen casualties.

As professionals left the island and doctors became scarce, a medical crisis ensued. Hospitals, at least the ones that remained open, saw increases in waterborne and infectious diseases as well as a rise in suicides. Even as health needs rose, doctors saw fewer patients — people became unemployed and unable to afford care when their jobs were eliminated as a result of the storm.

Against this context of scarcity and need, the FBI began investigating prominent politicians for mismanagement of funds. Rosselló’s private chats were published the same week that former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, along with five other people, was indicted on charges of fraud for granting government contracts to unqualified firms with political connections. Investigators accused Keleher of funneling $15.5 million in federal funds between 2017 and 2019 in corrupt bidding processes.

In light of these ongoing corruption investigations and diminishing social services, revelations from the released Telegram chats appear to confirm the public’s worst perceptions of Rosselló — namely, the impression that power and self-survival remained his top priority. For a public battered by both an economic crisis and an environmental disaster, demonstrations proved this week that Puerto Ricans are fed up.

“Everything that’s happened is Ricky’s fault!!!” Benito Martinez, the artist known as Bad Bunny, tweeted last week. “Those cabrones haven’t had compassion with the people, and we will not have any with them!”

Rosselló had chalked up the latest mass protests to paid socialist agitators. But by refusing to step down, he accomplished a near-impossible task: He unified Puerto Ricans from different political parties and social classes, all of whom were calling for his ouster.

The defiance in the protests came from a community that survived nearly a year without electricity, a contracting economy, dwindling public services, and an increase in the cost of living. It’s a nation with nothing more to lose.

Writing and reporting on women, the Latinx diaspora, politics and culture just to try to understand what the hell is going on.

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