Puerto Ricans in Protests Say They’ve Had Enough

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A report by Patricia Mazzei and Frances Robles for The New York Times.

In the crushing days after Hurricane Maria, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló declared in no uncertain terms, “Puerto Rico se levanta.” Puerto Rico rises.

The call was meant as a rallying cry for recovery from the brutal hurricane that struck the island in 2017, a slogan of hope amid calamity.

A year and a half later, Puerto Rico is rising in a different way — a popular uprising that has filled the cobblestone streets of colonial San Juan for nearly a week with tens of thousands of people and a unifying message: The governor must go.

Ostensibly, the demonstrators were protesting the arrogant and crass exchanges by the governor and his inner circle in a leaked group chat and the corruption of top politicians unveiled by a series of high-profile arrests. But the forceful display amounted to a rejection of decades of scandals and mismanagement involving affluent and disconnected leaders who have time and again benefited at the expense of suffering Puerto Ricans.

The outcry triggered by the chat, which included a string of contemptuous, sexist and homophobic conversations among Mr. Rosselló and his close associates, has brought the United States commonwealth to a crossroads, with far-reaching implications. For now, Mr. Rosselló is still governor. But the persistent question about how Puerto Rico might be governed amid so many difficulties remains.

Some of Mr. Rosselló’s ambitious goals, including the push for statehood, will almost certainly be shelved now. And his rapidly diminishing power has handed political fuel to President Trump, who on Thursday again derided the island’s leaders as not competent enough to manage federal disaster relief funds.

“A lot of bad things are happening in Puerto Rico,” Mr. Trump said in a pair of Twitter posts. “I know the people of Puerto Rico well, and they are great. But much of their leadership is corrupt, & robbing the U.S. Government blind!”

Mr. Trump claims to be vindicated even though some of Puerto Rico’s woes are not entirely of the island’s own making. Big Wall Street investors benefited for years from the Puerto Rican government’s willingness to keep taking on more debt. The island’s bankruptcy restructuring has cost jobs and, at one point, threatened public employees’ pensions and traditional Christmas bonuses.

 

Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, a historian who retired last year from the University of Puerto Rico, said the protests against the governor are unprecedented. Nobody took to the streets during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when both the local and federal governments were widely blamed for a botched response, because they were too busy surviving, she said. But the accumulation of grievances has led to a spontaneous explosion of discontent.

“This has been a process of trauma,” Ms. Álvarez Curbelo said. “And so now, all of that trauma has come out, all of that pain.”

Since Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of the leaked Telegram chat on Saturday, Mr. Rosselló has found himself increasingly isolated in office. The snowballing scandal has, suddenly and unexpectedly, united factions from across Puerto Rican society, revealing deep dissatisfaction with how the island is governed.

The chat also mocked an overweight man, referred to a female politician as a “whore” and joked about the cadavers that had accumulated after Hurricane Maria in the understaffed morgue. Referring to Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, who had signaled plans to run against Mr. Rosselló in 2020, the governor wrote, “She’s off her meds.”

Protestors clashing with the police on Wednesday, the fifth consecutive day of demonstrations.

Luis Fortuño, a former governor who, like Mr. Rosselló, is a member of the New Progressive Party, said he did not see how Mr. Rosselló could continue in office. “The governor’s moral authority and credibility to lead are completely gone,” he said. “I only hope and pray that the governor will think of the Puerto Rican people first, and put them above his own political interests.” On Thursday, he called on Mr. Rosselló to resign.

A protest Wednesday night saw tens of thousands of demonstrators again crowding the streets from the Capitol to the cobblestone streets of San Juan. On a platform with loudspeakers, the rapper Residente offered a microphone to the artist Ricky Martin. The trap musician Bad Bunny waved a flag. The singer iLe looked over the impressive crowd and declared, “It was about damn time to wake up.”

 

Then the crowd — the schoolteachers and the union leaders, the lifelong political activists and the first-timers, the students and their parents — set off on foot to the governor’s mansion, where more protesters awaited. As during Monday’s protests, the night ended with chaotic confrontations with the police. Officers in riot gear used tear gas and rubber bullets. The young demonstrators left a Puerto Rican flag — symbolically painted in black, white and gray instead of red, white and blue — displayed on the ground facing the governor’s mansion.

Mr. Rosselló reiterated on Thursday that he would not step down, despite being “fully aware” of the protests.

“I recognize the enormous challenge that I have before me due to the recent controversies,” he said in a statement, “but I firmly believe that we can restore trust and, after this painful and shameful process, achieve reconciliation.”

Mr. Rosselló’s tenure has been defined by the hurricane that hit less than nine months after his inauguration. Many people did not have electricity for months, and the storm is estimated to have left several thousand people dead — a grim reality that the governor’s administration was slow to acknowledge.

Governor Rosselló speaking during a press conference on Tuesday after chaotic protests the day before.

Immediately after the storm, Mr. Rosselló’s administration caused outrage when it awarded a $300 million contract, to help restore power, to Whitefish Energy, a Montana company with no major disaster experience. After the public furor, the governor was forced to cancel the agreement. Mr. Rosselló and the electric company’s leaders were criticized for not having standard mutual aid agreements ready, so that outside utilities could be on hand to help quickly. In the end, it took nearly a year to get power fully restored.

Mr. Rosselló has also overseen thousands of layoffs, cuts to public services, school closures and tuition hikes as a result of a 12-year economic recession and Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Not all of those measures were Mr. Rosselló’s doing: The island’s finances are managed by an unpopular and unelected oversight board created by Congress.

 

Mr. Rosselló has tried at times to push back against “la junta,” as the board is known, but his term has coincided with its oversight, and Puerto Ricans have fused their anger toward Mr. Rosselló with their anger toward the board. One of the most popular protest chants is, “¡Ricky, renuncia, y llévate a la junta!” — Ricky, resign, and take the board with you.

Mr. Rosselló and the 11 other men on the leaked chat have been ordered to turn over their cellphones to Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice. The governor has maintained that there was no illegal activity taking place in the chat.

The political crisis has prompted Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill to consider imposing more oversight restrictions on $12 billion in federal Medicaid funds for the island. Tens of millions more have been set aside to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria.

To avoid the unrest, cruise ships have skipped docking in San Juan, worrying small business owners who depend on tourists to survive. On Wednesday, Old San Juan felt eerily silent, its storefronts covered by storm shutters in advance of the angry crowds.

A protester in San Juan on Thursday with a Puerto Rican flag in black and white instead of red, white and blue.

Business leaders have expressed concern about scaring off investors long term, especially if truckers make good on their threat to join the protest by slowing deliveries of gasoline and goods.

But Puerto Ricans of all stripes said they could no longer tolerate mocking, profanity and corruption, real or perceived, by the leaders who are supposed to be fighting on their behalf in Washington and San Juan. Six people with ties to the government, including a former Cabinet secretary and agency director, were arrested in the federal corruption investigation last week.

 

At Wednesday night’s protests, some said it was the devastation of the hurricane, and the government’s poor response, that helped open people’s eyes.

“This is the upside of Maria,” said Coralie Córdoba, 55. “This would not have happened, I don’t think, if we wouldn’t have had Maria. It’s been too many years of putting up and holding back.”

Vanessa Ruiz, a 34-year-old teacher, said she was attending her first protest ever. Puerto Rico has had troubled governments “for as long as I remember, since I was a little girl,” she said.

“I have never seen or heard of a transparent government,” she said. “I haven’t lived under a government that hasn’t been corrupt. This is why we came.”

The governor’s mansion in San Juan was surrounded by barricades on Tuesday after days of protests calling for his resignation.

Puerto Rico has a long history of embarrassing scandals. Mr. Rossello’s father, Pedro J. Rosselló, who was governor from 1993 through 2000, saw some of his closest aides, including an executive assistant and the former secretary of education, convicted of kickback schemes. The stain on the two-time governor’s legacy added to his defeat when he tried to return to the governor’s seat in 2004.

He lost to Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who was later indicted in connection with an elaborate scheme to pay back campaign debt. A judge dismissed many of the charges, and a jury acquitted him of the rest. In 2015, a federal indictment laid out a pattern of cronyism surrounding former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, whose brother was accused of accepting gifts from a top Popular Party fund-raiser.

 

Mr. Acevedo said this week that members of his family joined this week’s protests. His daughter was tear gassed when police clashed with demonstrators. “I had never seen anything like this,” he said.

Lawmakers have asked a panel of jurists to issue a recommendation on possible impeachment. Members of the governor’s New Progressive Party have spent much of the week on the phone, trying to figure out what comes next.

“There is deep dissatisfaction, and there is grading of positions: Some people want him to resign the party presidency, some people want him to resign re-election aspirations and some are asking that he resign the position he currently holds,” said Kenneth McClintock, a former Puerto Rican secretary of state and senator.

Mayor Mayita Meléndez of Ponce, who is a member of Mr. Rosselló’s party, left a meeting with the governor disgusted over his attempts to move on from the scandal.

The police arrested a protester early Thursday in San Juan.

“I expected to see a sensible man, a repentant man,” she said. She has since called on him to resign.

When he began campaigning, Mr. Rosselló, who holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan but had no prior political experience, was viewed as an extension of his father. This week, his father called legislators on the island to plead his son’s case to stay in office.

 

Carlos Romero Barceló, who served as governor from 1977 to 1985 and was one of the founders of the governor’s party 50 years ago, said he supported Mr. Rosselló’s candidacy but was surprised that once the governor took office, the governor’s chief of staff never returned any of Mr. Romero Barceló’s phone calls.

“What has happened is the product of the arrogance and lack of experience,” Mr. Romero Barceló said.

Still, Mr. Romero Barceló said it was “premature” to ask for the governor’s resignation. Party leaders were busy trying to find a good candidate to be secretary of state, so that someone could be in place for a smooth transition should Mr. Rosselló resign. The governor technically has the right to fill that position, but he needs the support of the head of the Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives to get a person approved.

With his political life hanging in the balance, Mr. Rosselló turned earlier this week to the most mundane of government agencies to try to defend the work being done by his administration: The Department of Motor Vehicles, he touted, would soon provide more services online.

Around the same time, on the other side of San Juan, several women walked into the local D.M.V. office and marched up to the framed portrait of the governor, with his boyish, matinee-idol good looks.

In an age-old act of defiance against power, they unceremoniously yanked Mr. Rosselló’s picture off the wall.

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