Over the past week, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets of San Juan to let their government leaders — and the world — know that they have had enough.
The proximate cause of the protests was the July 13 release of 889 pages of private chat messages between Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, and 11 members of his inner circle. The exchanges include misogynistic and homophobic slurs, a joke about shooting one of the governor’s political rivals, and tasteless quips about the devastation and death wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017. One message suggests feeding the corpses that piled up in the morgues after the storm “to our crows,” an apparent reference to the administration’s critics. The group also discussed setting up a “troll network” to target detractors.
For Puerto Ricans, this callousness and partisan self-dealing were rubbing salt into a long-festering wound.
Life for the island’s roughly 3.2 million residents has been difficult for the past two years as post-Maria recovery efforts have plodded along. Last September, a year after the storm, many communities remained in ruins, and electricity had only just been restored to parts of the island. Today, thousands of people’s homes remain covered in tarps.
Some of the fault lies with the Trump administration, which, according to an after-action report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, failed to adequately prepare for the storm and lacked qualified staff. But much lies with local leadership. Mr. Rosselló’s government took almost a year just to acknowledge that the death toll from the storm and its aftermath totaled in the thousands.
Corruption scandals have further undermined the public’s faith in government. Days before the chat scandal broke, the F.B.I. arrested two former government officials accused of steering $15.5 million in federal funding to preferred, and unqualified, contractors. Also swept up in the 32-count indictment are four contractors facing charges including money laundering and wire fraud.
Other corruption investigations remain in the works.
All of this comes on top of 12 years of recession and a decades-long debt crisis that, in recent years, prompted harsh austerity measures. In May 2017, Puerto Rico was forced to effectively declare bankruptcy. Four months later, Hurricane Maria hit.
In response to “RickyLeaks,” as the scandal has been called, some administration officials have already resigned. Demonstrators are demanding that Mr. Rosselló step down, swarming the governor’s mansion and chanting, “Ricky, renuncia!” — “Ricky, resign!” Police in riot gear have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
The governor has apologized for the chats but insists that he will not leave office. He may not have a choice: In the Puerto Rico House, a resolution has been introduced to initiate impeachment proceedings.
Even members of Mr. Rosselló’s own party, the New Progressive Party, have expressed doubts about his ability to continue leading Puerto Rico. Luis Fortuño, a former Puerto Rico governor, on Thursday called for Mr. Rosselló’s resignation. “The governor’s moral authority and credibility to lead are completely gone,” Mr. Fortuño told The Times. “I only hope and pray that the governor will think of the Puerto Rican people first, and put them above his own political interests.”
Island leaders fear that the political fallout from this scandal will further complicate its already rocky relations with the federal government.
On Thursday, President Trump tweeted the latest in a long line of attacks on Puerto Rico’s leaders. He also slammed Congress for “foolishly” giving the island billions in relief money. (For weeksthis year, additional disaster aid for the island was held up in Congress by partisan squabbling.)
There is much to criticize about Mr. Trump’s dealings with the island — from his assertions that Maria was not a “real catastrophe” to his throwing paper towels at residents during a visit to the island to his ominous warning, a few weeks after the storm, that federal aid wouldn’t last “forever.” He is right, however, that local officials do not inspire confidence. If anything, this is cause for the federal government to pay closer attention to the island, not abandon it.
The Puerto Rican people have no use for petty political feuding. Their territory is struggling under the weight of government corruption, incompetence and indifference. Having been failed by their leaders at every level, they are out of patience. They deserve better.