[Marxism] Puerto Ricans in Protests Say They’ve Had Enough

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 19 09:28:30 MDT 2019


NY Times, July 19, 2019
Puerto Ricans in Protests Say They’ve Had Enough
By Patricia Mazzei and Frances Robles

SAN JUAN, P.R. — 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.CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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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