International, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Revolts Against Corruption and Austerity

As of this writing, the people of Puerto Rico have been protesting for seven days straight on the streets of San Juan, and in ever growing numbers. The fury unleashed by the scandals exposing the corruption and political intrigue of the governor Ricardo Rosselló shows no signs of abating. Adding to that, was the total mismanagement of the recovery following in the wake of Hurricane Maria.  A combination of colonialism, the racism of the Trump administration, the neoliberal agenda of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (aka “la Junta”), and the incompetence of Rosselló’s administration, were all ingredients simmering beneath the surface. Finally what made the whole pot boil over were the leaks of the private messages exchanged by Rosselló and his cronies, revealed the extent of their crassness and the total disdain they have for the poor, for women, for LGBTQ+ people, and other oppressed sections of society. 

The movement is now spreading to the rest of the island, involving workers and ordinary people. The last time mass protests had rocked the island was in 1999 in San Juan over Vieques, demanding the removal of the US Navy presence there. So today the protesters are united in demanding Rosselló’s resignation. Something big is happening here: ordinary people have now taken center stage as political parties are scrambling to keep up. 

Ever since then, only the tragedy brought by Hurricane María ( the worst hurricane to affect the island on record, with over 4,645 deaths resulting from it’s aftermath) seemed to unite Puerto Rican society in just one voice. People lived this nightmare for months having no electricity, no running and drinking water, no access to ATM’s to withdraw cash.  People had no access to healthcare and medicine, leading to thousands of deaths. Thousands of homes remained without roofs as the promised tarps were not delivered. All these forced thousands of Puerto Ricans to migrate to the United States as refugees. After two years of inefficient and often scandalous Rosselló administration, Puerto Ricans have rallied together to demand his resignation or–should he decide to stick to his position–impeach him. What is going on in Puerto Rico? What triggered this ongoing series of protests?)

1. The backstory: Political intrigue

A month ago, on June 24, Raúl Maldonado, Treasury Secretary and Chief Financial Officer of Puerto Rico went live on radio to accuse a group of government workers inside the Department of Treasury of operating “an institutional mafia” who were also attempting to bribe him. He also confirmed that he was cooperating with the FBI to dismantle this “mafia”. 

A few hours after the interview aired on WKAQ 580, governor Ricardo Rosselló held a press conference and announced the immediate removal of Raúl Maldonado from all offices held for failing to inform the Governor of the illegal acts he was denouncing. Governor Rosselló stated that Raúl Maldonado had lost his trust and encouraged him to bring forth all the information to the authorities.

Raúl Maldonado’s son – Raúl Maldonado-Gautier- went public on Facebook and accused the governor of corruption. The governor, he alleged, had met with Fernando Scherrer-Caillet (then President of BDO, an accounting firm) to ask that a report affecting his wife be edited. He also accused Rosselló of receiving payment from BDO. Maldonado-Gautier then went on to accuse the State Police of persecuting him in an attempt to silence him, which led to the current police commissioner (and former bodyguard to Governor Rosselló) to admit that this was the case.  

2. Deeply embedded corruption 

Nothing might have come of the whole affair but for the fact that these accusations shone light on the arrests of Julia Keleher and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, former Education Secretary and former head of the Health Administration respectively on July 10. Alongside them was the arrest of Fernando Scherrer-Caillet, the same businessman who worked closely with Rosselló. Altogether, they faced 32 counts of money laundering and defrauding the federal government. These arrests are crucial to understand the current state of the popular anger because these are the very officials who represent the face of Rosselló’s electoral and economic programs.

Julia Keleher was appointed by Governor Rosselló to lead a so-called educational reform that was nothing more than a privatization project, meeting with huge resistance across Puerto Rico. Her top down managerial decision-making, her hasty restructuring of the Department of Education leading to the closing of 283 schools and the forced transfer of employees put her at odds with the two main teachers’ unions, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico and the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico. To make matters worse, with full support from Governor Rosselló, she pushed for the establishment of charter schools and a voucher system to underrepresented students wishing to study in private schools. Teachers unions rightly attacked her plan as nothing less than the dismantlement of public education, a fight similarly taken up by teachers’ unions on the mainland.

Ángela Ávila-Marrero was heading the Administration of Health Insurances of Puerto Rico, created out of the dismantled Department of Health. Back in the early ‘90s, Pedro Rosselló’s administration (father of Ricardo Rosselló) had privatized public hospitals and launched a universal health insurance. The privatization of hospitals was met with widespread opposition, but the launching of universal health insurance was welcomed. However, Puerto Rico was deep in debt, and the burden of healthcare (with Puerto Rico receiving only a tenth of what similar states received from the federal government, such as Mississippi) fell squarely on Puerto Ricans. To finance – among other things – universal health insurance, Pedro Rosselló and subsequent governors made unsustainable loans leading to bankruptcy and the current unpayable debt. 

Because education and health are at the heart of national concerns in Puerto Rico, the news of their arrest created a shockwave in San Juan. Immediately, voices raised to urge Roselló to step down, including from Congressman Raúl Grijalva (President of the Natural Resource Committee which oversees US territories). Clearly, a storm was brewing and Rosselló had no choice but to cut short his vacation in France. 

This time, it looked that the governor wouldn’t be able to paper over these latest scandals. Not only were these women the face of Puerto Ricans’ day-to-day suffering, but this was compounded by the blatant hypocrisy of the mantra of “transparency” constantly invoked by the Rosselló’s administration. 

The media covered the arrests extensively. Of course, these were not isolated cases. People were still living with the utter devastation that Hurricane Maria had left in its wake, almost 2 years later. And then there was the mind boggling $300 million no-bid contract to restore the whole of the island’s power grid, given to the WhiteFish Energy Company of Montana. This was a 2-men outfit with no experience but connections to the disgraced Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke,  and who charged more than double the going rates! These were only a couple of the most egregious examples of corruption under the Rossalló regime.

3. Chatgate

And then, there were the chats on Telegram, a chat app apparently used extensively by Rosselló and a coterie of members of his administration. When these were leaked to the public (perhaps by Maldonado-Gautier himself), Puerto Rico exploded with rage and fury. This was a group of twelve male members of government colluding to ruin the reputation of political adversaries, sharing confidential information that would benefit members of the chat, and cooking up ways to change the “narrative” of social issues. All of this was enough to justify the scandal and the eventual collapse of the Rosselló administration. It was however the vulgarity, the profanity, the unfiltered expression of homophobia and misogyny that created such an immense shockwave in Puerto Rico.

The first story leaked allowed Puerto Ricans to discover how Governor Rosselló behaved with his inner circle. The crass language, calling former New York City Council Speaker a “whore”, making fun of the dead after hurricane Maria, using homophobic slurs against politicians and singer Ricky Martin, proved to be the match thrown into a smoldering fire. 

4. Puerto Rico Takes It to the Streets

Demands for Rossello’s resignation came in fast. Colectiva Feminista en Construcción organized a protest awaiting the governor at the airport but he was able to avoid them and barricaded himself in La Fortaleza. As 889 pages worth of chat were published by the Center for Investigative Journalism, the movement quickly gained traction. On Sunday July 14, public workers (from Electric Authority (UTIER) and teachers (FMPR) organized a joint demonstration that went without incidents. On Monday July 15, artists took the initiative and encouraged Puerto Ricans to keep demonstrating. Responding to the call, more than 20,000 people gathered peacefully until the Riot Police was deployed. American journalist David Begnaud was live when the clashes happened. He thought it was quite likely that the police provoked the clashes. For the first time in decades, Puerto Ricans were not willing to back down. Puerto Ricans declared themselves ready to fight this corrupt administration. They chanted “No tenemos miedo. Somos más” (We are not afraid. There are more of us.”) their voices resonating in the streets of Old San Juan. They hurled incendiary objects, stones, and bricks in response to the tear gas and pepper spray the police threw at them.

5. Redefining “democracy”

In the aftermath of this confrontation, Old San Juan looked like a battlefield. Police Commissioner Henry Escalera held a press conference. When questioned about the heavy handed use of tear gas and pepper spray, he blamed the demonstrators and offered the country an interesting definition about the meaning of democracy:

“We are here to ensure the right to free speech. We are here to guarantee their right to free speech and look what they have done. This is not a democracy. Hurting (others), throwing tear gas, throwing cobblestones, throwing cherry bombs, this is not democracy. This is a democratic country, a democratic government, and we will defend it to the last man standing. We are prepared to defend democracy whatever the consequences, to the last drop of blood. The police, these men and women are here to defend democracy and we will do so.”

His words and his attempt to change the narrative of events did not go unnoticed by demonstrators who accepted the challenge. On Wednesday July 17, 500,000 people from all walks of life – including singers Ricky Martin, Residente and Bad Bunny and actor Benicio del Toro – took to the streets of Old San Juan where La Fortaleza is located. “We will fight till the last drop of blood” and “We are not afraid. There are  more of us.” were to be heard everywhere. Puerto Ricans were making it known to those in power that This is what democracy looks like! 

The next morning, Governor Rosselló was forced to acknowledge the importance of the demonstration. However, he insisted he would not resign and that it was his duty to protect the constitution (though he made no mention of how the constitution could be used to impeach him!)

At this point, Puerto Rico is in full mode rebellion, redefining democracy from below, where misogyny, homophobia, corruption and predatory capitalism are not part of the equation. 

Things are moving at a fast pace. Last night, workers unions joined the protest by organizing a massive demonstration in front of La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion and yet again made it clear that they would remain there until he stepped down. This time around, there was no violence and riot police did not charge with tear gas. Perhaps, the strategy of using undercover agents to infiltrate the protests in order to turn public opinion against the demonstrators (as alleged by the ACLU) is not working anymore. As this article is being written protests are spreading to Ponce and Caguas. What this movement has done is to delegitimize a corrupt ruling class that had bet on privatization and austerity. This was in a country already living under the oppressive rules of a colonial power as represented by the Junta, appointed by the United States Congress, not the people of Puerto Rico. 

The movement has given Rosselló until Sunday to resign and in preparation they’re mobilizing for yet another massive demonstration. This is a movement reminiscent of the very recent struggles in other parts of the world. Ordinary people from all walks of life in Algeria, in the Sudan and most recently in Hong Kong have shown the power of protests to confront corruption and despotism. The exact tipping point that brings hundreds of thousands onto the streets may not be predictable. However, what is certain is that when it happens, the need to be organized in rallying our forces against a very powerful opponent becomes extremely apparent.

By José Hernandez

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