A Quick Rundown About Puerto Rico from our NEW News Columnist Racheal Sue
PUERTO RICO: WHAT IS HAPPENING?
The streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico erupted in celebratory cheers on Wednesday evening as Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced his resignation. This decision was undoubtedly a direct result of the courageous patriotic actions of Puerto Ricans who protested against Gov. Rosselló and members of his cabinet in recent weeks.
In the historically massive and impressive demonstration, hundreds of thousands of protestors occupied the capital city of Old San Juan, Mayagüez, Ponce, and others. This loud demand for efficient and honorable leadership hasn’t been isolated to just the island itself either. In the mainland of the United States, Puerto Ricans and their allies held protests and events in places with high traffic and publicity such as outside of the White House and in Grand Central Station NYC.
A BOILING POINT
This revolution, which was largely orchestrated through social media and individuals and not by any one specific organization, had been partially burning under the surface of Puerto Rico for over a decade but it reached eruption on July 13th, 2019.
That is when nearly 900 pages of conversation containing homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic messages between Rosselló and several of his top aides were published online by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo a non-profit journalism group. These exchanges featured written attacks on a variety of people from average citizens to politicians and Puerto Rican celebrities including Ricky Martin.
This came only three days after the arrest of two former government officials and four others in Puerto Rico for crimes relating to the misuse of federal funds, and less than two weeks after the FBI had announced they would be investigating public corruption in Puerto Rico. The prosecution alleges that former Education Secretary Julia Keleher, former Health Insurance Agency Chief Ángela Ávila-Marrero abused their positions to guide federal money to unqualified and politically-connected contractors. The extensive list of 32 charges include money laundering, wire fraud, conspiracy, and theft of government funds- crimes that can individually carry sentences of 10-20 years if found guilty.
Immediately following these arrests, US Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz), the Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee (which has jurisdiction over US territories) began urging Rosselló to step down.
NATURAL DISASTERS BRING DEVASTATION
Gov. Rosselló was in office for only eight months when Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated the carribean island in September 2017, killing thousands (the exact death toll remains a controversial issue) of Puerto Ricans, causing upwards of $90 billion in damages, and leaving many people without electricity or clean water for up to 11 months following the category 4 hurricane.
While the power grid has since been restored, it remains extremely frail and is a pressing concern that requires thoughtful yet hasty resolution. But it’s not merely a singular problem causing unrest throughout Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria was not the beginning of this cascading crisis. There has been a large growing list of concerns for the people of Puerto Rico and being in an economic recession for over 12 years hasn’t made matters any easier.
One of the ongoing problems that they do not have the resources to fix is the unbelievable backlog of deceased bodies, over 100 in San Juan, that have been kept both a morgue and refrigerated trucks in the parking lot. Families are still waiting to claim the bodies of their loved ones who lost their lives during the 2017 hurricanes and the Forensic Sciences Institute of Puerto Rico is overwhelmed with autopsies that are long overdue.
Disturbingly, these pages of private conversations with Rosselló and top aides also contained horridly unforgivable messages mocking the victims of Hurricane Maria and the disastrous aftermath, furthering the pain and distrust felt amongst Puerto Ricans. These messages went as far as to contain “jokes” about serving critics of the administration’s handling of the backlog meals made out of corpses being held in San Juan.
PRESSURE TO RESIGN GROWS
As the days passed, protests grew, and international attention focused on Puerto Rico more US politicians spoke out against Rosselló and demanded his resignation, including AOC, Tulsi Gabbard, and Elizabeth Warren.
On Monday July 22, 2019 Rosselló had offered a lackluster apology during a press conference and stated intentions to remain in his position as Governor, however it was hardly enough to atone for his inexcusable conduct and apparent lack of morality. By Wednesday, legislators on the island had begun the impeachment process after an independent panel of legal experts comissed by Carlos “Johnny” Mendez, the speaker of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, found that undisclosed crimes may have been committed in those group messages, including 4 felonies and 1 misdeanor. Mendez stated to the press that he would give Rosselló until the end of the day Wednesday to resign, which is the only way to prevent the impeachment process from continuing.
Finally, just before midnight and via a 14 minute long Facebook video, Ricardo Rosselló became the first Puerto Rican Governor to resign, which is to become effective at 5:00 pm on August 2, 2019.
UNCERTAIN LINE OF SUCCESSION
Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced is expected to succeed Rosselló, however it is yet to be seen if this appointment of new leadership will satisfy the dire needs of the island and those who call it home.
Vázquez Garced accumulated experience working for the Puerto Rico Department of Housing in the 1980s before she became a district attorney. She specialized in domestic and sexual abuse for 20 years and became the head of the Office for Women’s Rights in 2010. In November of 2016 she was nominated by Rosselló to her current position and was sworn in during January of 2017.
While her record may seem abstractly impressive, it hasn't been without criticism. Those who oppose Wanda Vázquez Garced assuming the office of Gov. also worry that she may be too intertwined and closely associated with Rosselló and that she hadn’t done a satisfactory job in her previous roles.
Additionally, her seeming unwillingness to disavow the cruel words used by Rosselló has left skepticism across the island. In a divisive statement, published by El Vocero, she says that the upsetting contents of these leaked messages weren’t illegal and that every citizen has the right to free expression. She goes on to call for “good sense and calm” from protestors across the island.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
Puerto Rico is a US territory and Puerto Ricans are Americans, as if being a human being wasn’t enough, and furthermore these Americans united together to create a series of dramatic changes in their local government after it had proven to be untrustworthy and corrupt.
They didn’t do it without consequence or retaliation however, as tensions between demonstrators and the police rose and grew violent, teargas and rubber bullets were used on the crowds accumulating outside the Governor's mansion (despite there being no curfew in place) attributing to over 40 business that sustained damages, two dozen people who were injured, and five arrests.
Their struggles are far from over as they continue to rebuild and recover from the astonishing amount of hardships they’ve already endured. Hardships that were brought upon this island through centuries of brutal colonization and genocide that decimated Taíno culture and later fostered systematic oppression by the United States. As it stands right now, despite being American citizens since 1917, the 3+ million people of Puerto Rico don’t have a voice that can actually vote for change within our nation’s capital.
I cannot pretend to have all the answers for Puerto Rico and I would never dare to claim to speak on behalf of the Puerto Rican people fighting for what's owed to them… but I can say that the first step for moving forward in this evolving ordeal is: everyone in America needs to be listening to Puerto Rico right now and amplifying those voices until they are heard clearly and are met with long-delayed resources and compassion from capitol hill.