Why are thousands and thousands of people — maybe over a million — participating in a protest and national strike on Monday in San Juan?
As one person told a radio anchor in Puerto Rico about the investigations into the leaked chats of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, “I feel now like I felt back then with Hurricane María, only with TV and power.”
What Hurricane María did to the psyche of Puerto Rico two years ago went much deeper than the physical destruction and tragedy that left thousands dead, millions of dollars in damage and a loss of population. The 2017 storm exposed the harsh truth that the American colony had been politically and economically destroyed by Washington and its own corrupt administrators way before the Category 5 hurricane struck.
The last 13 days, then, are just the culmination of the worst political crisis in modern Puerto Rico's history. Rosselló, a pro-statehood Democrat, faces daily protests but has so far resisted calls for his resignation, even though the #RickyRenuncia (Ricky Resign) movement has gone global. On Sunday, Rosselló announced that he won’t run for re-election and stepped down as the head of the pro-statehood party — two moves that everyone saw coming — but stopped short of giving the people of Puerto Rico what they really want: his immediate ouster. And so, the protests continue.
To paraphrase the Beatles, Ricky’s a real nowhere man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.
Rosselló’s world started spinning on July 9, when a leaked 11-page Telegram group chat went public, culminating in the full 889-page release days later by the Center for Investigative Journalism. The chats were sexist, homophobic, misogynist, violent, crude and cruel. They verbally attacked and threatened political opponents, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
They also showed how Rosselló and his closest advisers were actually using a frat-boy private chat thread to try and govern, too — or at least presented the impression that it was both perfectly fine to conduct government in a private setting and benefit from it. Rosselló has apologized and insisted that he did nothing illegal, but the fallout was swift: All the chat’s other members either resigned from their government posts or were fired. Political allies ran away from the governor and talks about an impeachment process have started. Yet Rosselló, now the loneliest man in Puerto Rico, says he is not budging.
And, two former Rosselló administration officials were arrested on charges of corruption by the FBI on July 10.
But even before Rosselló's chats, and even before María, there were signs that Puerto Ricans had lost faith and trust in the political process. A massive debt crisis, primarily caused by the island’s political class and Wall Street, led in 2016 to the creation of a fiscal control board, which pushed for extreme austerity measures that hurt the people of Puerto Rico, but lined the pockets of lawyers, consultants and financial experts.
Rosselló, who won with only about 42 percent of the vote after the establishment of the control board in 2016, was already shamed for his poor handling of the María death count in 2017 and his lack of any really spine in confronting Trump.
A post-María world in Puerto Rico has raised serious questions about where the island will go next. Despite the outpouring of sympathy toward “American citizens,” the second-class nature of U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans has never been more obvious than in the wake of the hurricane. Trump and his administration show little (if any) support for Puerto Rico. Rosselló’s pro-statehood push was just a sham that went nowhere, while several advocacy groups have had to work on all fronts to get more federal money sent to San Juan.
However, such moves are seen as classic examples of colonial dependency, and there are many voices in Puerto Rico who have begun to challenge that.
And there has been a serious re-examination of political society. Yulín Cruz, the political opponent who one of Rosselló’s former chat members threatened to shoot, become the media star of U.S. media — even though some on the island consider the San Juan mayor an imperfect candidate who is part of the same system that has lost the trust of the people.
All of this dysfunction is a product of a corrupt (mostly white, mostly privileged) political class that has ruled the island for decades. Mix that with indignation and anger that has been simmering ever since María put Puerto Rico literally in the dark; the paper towels tossed by President Donald Trump; the feelings of rage when federal aid didn’t arrive, when temporary blue tarps became permanent roofs, and when the official María death count went from 64 to 2,975; and a group chat mocking the lives lost by the people who should have been in charge of saving them, and, yes, you will have people taking to the streets.
These protests, according to many observers, have gone beyond politics, though — possibly because when María ripped through Puerto Rico almost two years ago, communities became stronger and more united out of necessity. The #RickyRenuncia movement is multigenerational, nonpartisan and, yes, women are playing a big role in it.
It is too early to tell whether we are all witnessing a transformation of Puerto Rico, but this is clear: Ricky Rosselló might believe that he can ride out this crisis, but, so far, the people of Puerto Rico are clear that they're not going to let him. Once you have gone through the hell that was María and seen your own resilience and determination, your will to determine your own path forward only gets stronger.