On the evening of July 25, Puerto Rico’s Constitution Day and the 121st anniversary of the U.S. invasion of the island, disgraced Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló finally announced his resignation. With it, perhaps, comes the promise of a new political era.
The sound of Rosselló’s televised address, which was played over speakers in Old San Juan, was quickly drowned out by the cheers of jubilant protesters who had taken over the streets in front of the governor’s mansion to demand Rosselló’s ouster for his role in a scandal involving misogynistic and homophobic private chats as well as recent arrests of members of his government on pay-to-play corruption charges.
For nearly two weeks, massive demonstrations led by famous artists and community leaders had rocked Puerto Rico, shutting down highways. They were complemented by demonstrations on the mainland, including those in New York and Washington, D.C. Videos of boricuas taking over the streets of San Juan with pot-banging and perreo, a reggaeton-influenced dance, instantly went viral, surprising many Americans along with the rest of the world. (Who knew protesting could look so good?)
Demonstrations last Monday alone drew an estimated 30 percent of the island’s 3.1 million inhabitants. The last time Puerto Ricans displayed anything close to such people power was during the backlash over the U.S. government’s subjecting the island of Vieques, located about 13 miles off the coast of the commonwealth, to target practice for bombing runs.
A Facebook video of the resignation went online minutes before midnight; hashtags of #RickyTeBotamos and #RickySeFue began to trend on Twitter soon after the announcement.
So, Ricky is gone. So, now what?
As elation from the democratic victory subsides, the familiar problems facing the island begin to rear their head once more. As things stand, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez is set to take over the governorship, as Puerto Rico’s constitution does not require snap elections in the event of a leader vacating office. Although she won’t take the reins until Rosselló officially resigns on August 2, Vázquez is already feeling the heat from protesters who have criticized her for failing to investigate corruption within the New Progressive Party, to which she and Rosselló both belong. The Twitter hashtag #WandaRenuncia jumped to the top of trending pages soon after she announced her intention to accept the position. (On Sunday, Vázquez tweeted that she didn’t want to become governor, though she is next in the line of succession.)
In addition to the immediate political fallout on the island—there were 13 vacant positions in Rosselló’s cabinet before he agreed to step down—the scandal has done real damage to Puerto Rico’s credibility in Washington. In the months leading up to the scandal, House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva had been making progress on convincing his colleagues to loosen requirements in the 2016 PROMESA law, which provides the legal basis for the restructuring of the island’s debt. That mission just became notably more difficult.
Last Tuesday, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, sent a public letter to President Donald Trump, signed by fellow Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida and Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, requesting a new federal coordinator to handle the disbursement and use of hurricane recovery funds for Puerto Rico. (Rumors have it that the Trump administration was going to propose such a coordinator regardless of input from the island, and González-Colón was simply trying to get ahead of the announcement.)
The Republican instinct of implementing more and stronger oversight for Puerto Rico has only been heightened by the mess with Rosselló and could compound what many Puerto Ricans view to be the largest challenges currently facing the island.
Unlike U.S. states and cities, Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status prohibits it from formally declaring bankruptcy. The bipartisan PROMESA law established a de facto bankruptcy process for the island along with a federal board to oversee it, weighing the interests of creditors against the interests of everyday Puerto Ricans.
The federally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board, known as la juntato Puerto Ricans, is despised on the island for pushing austerity cuts to the social safety net. The junta featured in chants directed at Rosselló over the last two weeks: Ricky, renuncia! Y llevate la junta! (Ricky, resign! And take the junta with you!). Rosselló was popular within creditors’ circles for his willingness to work with the oversight board to pay back Puerto Rico’s massive debt. In February of this year, Rosselló, the junta, and creditors agreed to what can only be described as an extremely creditor-friendly debt restructuring deal on nearly 25 percent of the commonwealth’s $72 billion debt.
“I don’t want the governance crisis that’s going on in Puerto Rico with the governor to be a reason that Congress, in particular Republicans and the Trump administration, use as an excuse to limit, restrict, and otherwise affect the aid and support and resources that Puerto Rico deserves,” Grijalva said in a Facebook video released last week. “I hope the control board, the overseer in terms of fiscal stability, doesn’t see this as an opportunity to amass more unelected power over the lives of the people of Puerto Rico.”
Last December, Grijalva announced plans to investigate the oversight board for its attempts to inflict austerity policies on the commonwealth. That same month, two dozen House Democrats from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, signed a letter requesting a breakdown of the board’s financial proposals for the island. Grijalva says he can no longer guarantee the support of his caucus for weakening some of the oversight board’s powers.
Puerto Rico was stripped of its right to real self-determination long ago. Puerto Ricans have partial home rule, including their own constitution and a locally elected government. But they can’t vote for president and have no votes in Congress, which retains the power to revise all aspects of law on the island. Puerto Ricans today bristle at the idea of losing further autonomy to a federal government that has in recent years treated them like second-class citizens. For that reason and others, they’re continuing to protest despite Rosselló’s promise to step down. At bottom, they are unleashing a primal scream of democracy.
“Will we see rage turn into real action?” asks Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a network of community and faith-based organizations that work on debt, tax, and trade issues. “For Puerto Rico to have a real future, there needs to be a process where questions around its colonial status need to be resolved. Whether it’s a hurricane, or debt crisis—because of their colonial political status, they don’t have the tools to resolve problems they face by themselves.”
For now, protests remain largely focused on local corruption, Wanda Vázquez, and la junta. Debates over statehood and independence have, somewhat shockingly, not dominated the political discourse as they have so often in the past. Some believe that’s a good thing.
“Puerto Ricans disagree on almost everything. They could even disagree on what color the sky is—that’s how long the island has been split politically,” says Federico A. de Jesús, a senior adviser for the advocacy group Power 4 Puerto Rico. “But [in the anti-Rosselló demonstrations] for the first time in a long time, everyone was on the same side. Insert other causes into the movement now, and you lose focus. They would be rejected by an organic movement that was formed from word of mouth and WhatsApp group chats.”
When PROMESA was created in 2016, the Obama administration agreed to appoint three Democrats and four Republicans to the board. In the fall, the Trump administration will decide whether to appoint new members to the federal oversight board or keep the existing group. According to LeCompte, creditors at vulture funds see the prospect of new appointments as an opening for extracting more funds from the beleaguered island.
“Creditors are doing everything they can to destroy the bankruptcy process,” says LeCompte.
Trump, who has long served as a mouthpiece for racially tinged paranoia when it comes to Puerto Rico, took to Twitter during the Rosselló scandal to once more exaggerate the amount of disaster aid the island has received and cast doubt on Puerto Rico’s ability to manage itself.
The road to recovery for Puerto Rico is winding and full of hazards. But Puerto Ricans have found real power in protest, and new hope in unity. De Jesús, who was on the island for a wedding as the protests began to reach their peak, offers a handful of anecdotes to describe the sensation.
“A nun in the waiting room at my dentist’s office was speaking to the guy next to her about police using tear gas on protesters without provocation. At the wedding, guests were huddled around phones, sharing news and rumors: ‘Did you see there’s going to be a human chain around the island?’ Even cashiers would talk about how things had to change for Puerto Rico. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” says de Jesús.
The night of Rosselló’s resignation, on the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, cheers and dancing turned into chants: El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido. The people, united, will never be defeated.