Last week, the governor of Puerto Rico resigned after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in two weeks of sustained protest. Leaked inappropriate texts between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his inner circle provided the spark, but corruption and deeper frustrations on the U.S. territory kindled the fury of citizens into mass mobilization. This week, journalist Julio Ricardo Varela explains the political history and dynamics of Puerto Rico and what pushed people to take to the streets and demand a change in leadership.
JULIO VARELA: The system is broken. The political system, the way we are organized politically on this island is broken. We've allowed this Puerto Rican elite class that's mostly white, mostly male, mostly privilege to kind of run this country into the ground for the last 40 years.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Occasionally, there'll be a protest somewhere in the world that will break through with to American news consumption, and American news consumption tends to be pretty America domestic focused. Generally, when you go to other places in the world, they tend to spend a lot more time on other places in the world, and there's a lot of reasons for that. But putting that aside, you will see like a Hong Kong protest, for instance, protest videos, people in the streets, and it's always remarkable to watch people assemble in mass numbers to take to the streets demanding political change.
You know, you'll see the images in the case of Hong Kong, people with umbrellas, hundreds of thousands in the streets, people with masks over their face breaking into the legislature, and you just are completely ill-equipped with the context to understand like, wow, they are really angry and organized and there's a lot of them. Then you may go read an article in the news about the extradition legislation that's been proposed that would essentially allow those in Hong Kong to be extradited back to the Chinese mainland. And this is true to Tiananmen Square. It's true of all kinds of protests. You see the Maidan in Ukraine a few years ago during various color revolutions. Well, we’ve got one of those in the U.S. It's not a foreign story. One of those happened this last week in the U.S. in the American territory.
Some would say, my next guest would say, colony, of Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets through sustained protest for 12, 13, 14 days, somewhere around there, demanding the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, who is the governor of Puerto Rico. That's what the chief executive of that territory, colony, commonwealth has called, the governor. For a while, he was trying to not resign, but then eventually he did. Probably like you, I follow, I read a lot of newspaper articles every day. I probably read literally hundreds. I follow the news extremely closely. I had some idea of what was going on in Puerto Rico, but as I saw these images, as I saw people on my Twitter feed, because I follow some people from Puerto Rico on Twitter, as I saw people I know who are either a Puerto Rican extraction or have Puerto Rican loved ones tweeting about it, I got more and more curious about — I get that people view this guy's corrupt, but what's going on here? What is going on here? And wanted to do a podcast about it. This is said podcast.
Today we're going to talk to Julio Ricardo Varela. Julio is born in Puerto Rico, grew up between Puerto Rico and the states, as you will hear. He's a journalist, he's co-host of the podcast, “In The Thick.” He's founder of a great media organization called Latino Rebels. Both are part of Futuro Media, so he and Maria Hinojosa who you may know, who has been on my program, both in the weekends and on “All In,” they do a ton of reporting on Latinx issues. Not just things like Puerto Rico or migration, but the whole full panoply, and they do incredible work. Julio is just a really amazing, knowledgeable guy and one of our producers saw that he was writing a lot about this, and so we reached out to him at the last minute to say, “Let's do a quick on the news cycle podcast about what the hell is going on.”
Now I should note for the timing, this intro is being recorded on Friday, July 26th. The interview was on Wednesday, July 24th in the afternoon, and as I was speaking to him, everything was on a nice edge, and there was widespread anticipation that Rosselló would resign, but he had not yet. In fact, Julio and I were checking our phones during the conversation. The speaker of the House of Puerto Rico had issued a warning basically saying, “Look, if you don't resign, we will initiate impeachment hearings.” And then that night, maybe four or five hours after we recorded it, he did in fact resign. So, know that we are speaking with the specter of his resignation hanging over the entire conversation. But it hasn't happened yet, but it has happened now that you're listening to this to understand where you are in this timeframe of this whole thing.
If you are curious for some backstory as well, we did a podcast with Naomi Klein last year about Puerto Rico, Maria and the PROMESA, the fiscal oversight board, which you will hear about in this conversation, as well. So, if you'd like this conversation, and you want even more in-depth discussion of the finances and the austere regime over Puerto Rico, you can check that out. But I have to say, I thought I knew a fair amount about Puerto Rico, but this conversation just showed me how little I know about my fellow American citizens on the island of Puerto Rico.
CHRIS HAYES: Right now, you and I are talking, and it is Wednesday, July 24th, and as we're having this conversation, everyone's on tenterhooks in Puerto Rico about whether the governor Ricardo Rosselló is going to resign, right?
JULIO VARELA: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: I want to talk about the protests and Rosselló, but I guess I want to just back like way up on this first.
JULIA VARELA: Sounds good.
CHRIS HAYES: First tell me about yourself. You're Puerto Rican by familial extraction. Although, you weren't born there. You were born here?
JULIO VARELA: No, no, I was born there.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, you were.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah, yeah. You'll love this story. My parents met in the 60s. I was born in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico in 1969. I will say it; I have no problem. It's the year the moon landing when the Mets won, and I'm not a Mets fan but, that's another...
CHRIS HAYES: The two most important accomplishments for humanity in that year.
JULIO VARELA: Exactly. I'm kind of like, this is the year, right? My dad is Puerto Rican, and my mom is Bronx Italian. She came down there, and I was born and raised there. Then when my folks split, when I was seven, I moved to the Bronx. But then I would always spend my summers and my Christmases and holidays in Puerto Rico, and I have tons of cousins, and I actually went back after I graduated. I worked there for a year. Puerto Rico has always been part of me, and I grew up speaking Spanish and English. I'm a native Spanish speaker — bilingual.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay. So you grew up in this sort of milieu. I mean, it's familiar I think to folks, particularly in the Bronx where there's a huge Puerto Rican population, and living in the Bronx and going to Puerto Rico for the summer is a real common thing, right?
JULIO VARELA: It's a badge of honor, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: People have been seeing these pictures of these incredible protests. I think they have a vague sense of Ricardo Rosselló because of his sitting next to Donald Trump, and meekly telling him that only 17 people had died in Hurricane Maria when that was off by about 3,000 people. But before we get to that, before we get to Maria or Rosselló, maybe let's just start with like the status of Puerto Rico before all this as a baseline context and condition for what's happening on the island now.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah, I mean I think one of the things, Chris, that I'm trying to bring into the conversation, I've been doing a lot, is that it's okay to call it Puerto Rico colony, as a journalist. And people say it's a U.S. territory, it's part of the United States. We're American citizens. We're a colonial possession and if we really want to break it down, we're actually celebrating July 25th is the anniversary of the invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, which for anyone who knows that time, America was into imperialism.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. This is the peak imperial moment, right? The Philippines and the Caribbean, or the South Pacific and the Caribbean, are the two places when America at its imperial apex, in a classic traditional sense, not in a more post-modern sense, but in the straight up old "we are taking your island" way.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah, exactly. And what's funny is that Cuba was there and Puerto Rico was kind of an afterthought at the end. All of a sudden, they invade Puerto Rico and the Spanish-American War is over. And next thing you know, there's Puerto Rican flags and the Spanish had been taken away, and we're territory, and you see the cartoons of Uncle Sam with the natives, and just such offensive things that you would never think that we would see now.
They were just so incredibly imperialistic, end of the gilded age, Teddy Roosevelt, because there was sugar. It was all about sugar. And you can have these sugar barons that literally took over Puerto Rico, and this agricultural island became a sugar baron empire. So all those people, when we hear like Domino's sugar and all that, your coffee, that has a history. There was a hurricane around the time as well that just destroyed Puerto Rico. And next thing you know, you have all these — we were a protectorate — you have these governors showing up by the start of World War I. We are American citizens. There was act. A lot of people would say that it's imposed, although history can say- when it comes to colonialism, Chris, there's people that have always rejected it, and then there's people who are like, “Oh, the Americans are here. Let me be friends.” You know what I mean? You know what I'm saying?
CHRIS HAYES: Well, I think part of what makes it complicated is that there's a question of what do the Puerto Rican people want? And there's these three options, right? There's statehood, independence, and some permutation of the protectorate territory status. In a weird way, my interpretation always is that you can't really marshal a strong majority for either of the statehood or independence. And so, what you get is the continuation of the status quo over decades and decades. But maybe that's overly simplified.
JULIO VARELA: No, I think you're right. I mean, first of all, I think when we fast forward you got to look at Puerto Rico in the Cold War, in the World War II, early Cold War context as well, and start thinking about the nationalist movement that happened in the 1930s and the 1940s. There was a big politician, his name is Luis Muñoz Marin, who was the grandfather of the Commonwealth — “Estado Libre Asociado…free.” It's known as "ELA." But basically, the best translation is a commonwealth.
But he started as a nationalist, and then there was another nationalist leader called Pedro Albizu Campos who was much more radical. I'm trying to use terms that people understand now because I think nationalism in the 1930s in the 1940s had a much different context, especially when you look at the British empire and places like that. You know, Chris, there was a big movement of "colonialism sucks, let's fight it." Puerto Rico had that movement. But I think in the context of United States after World War II, Puerto Rico became this a strategic place, especially when you start moving into the Cuban revolution in 1959. Puerto Rico started having more interest in the United States geopolitical game, and Luis Muños Marin saw. He was pretty savvy, and kind of saw the United States as a place where it could turn an agrarian society in Puerto Rico into a more modern economy.
In the 1930s in the 1940s and in the early 1950s, he created the El Partido Popular, which is the Popular Party, which is known as the Commonwealth party. I'll never forget growing up in Puerto Rico, I don't know if you've ever seen it Chris, you probably have, I mean you, you're down with the Bronx. It's that red, you know the guy, he looks like a peasant and he has a hat, a straw hat, and it says “Pan, Libertad y Tierra,” which is basically “Bread, Freedom and Land.” It was so funny. What's interesting is that the first part of that political slogan is bread. Luis Muñoz Marin basically was like, “I'm going to feed my people.” And at the same time, Operation Bootstrap was happening. There was a lot of need for cheap labor.
CHRIS HAYES: What's Operation Bootstrap?
JULIO VARELA: Operation Bootstrap was this movement that would send labor to the United States, mostly in textile mills. That's why there's a lot of Puerto Ricans in the Northeast in a lot of ways. If you look at places like Lowell, Massachusetts. When people say, why are there so many Puerto Ricans in western Massachusetts? If you think about the story of mill towns in Massachusetts, people needed cheap labor. There was a lot going on. And as simple as it could be, the nationalist movement in Puerto Rico also caught the interest of J. Edgar Hoover and FBI and the U.S. government and the rise of communism. Muñoz Marin was the moderate dude who was like, “I'll get my people together. Let's create the Commonwealth. Let's not call it a colony; Let's call it a free associated state ‘Estado Libre Associado.’”
We're kind of part of the United States, but we're not. And then at the same time, there was a nationalist uprising. There were suppressions of nationalists in the 1950s. I don't know if people remember the assassination attempt, the shooting in the Capitol in the early fifties where a Puerto Rican nationalist, and Puerto Rican nationalists at the time were kind of, how do I put it now? Like, Al Qaeda terrorists if you look at American journalism in the 1950s. It's like, “radical Puerto Rican nationalists have taken over the Capitol” and also made assassination attempts on Harry Truman.
CHRIS HAYES: Wait, they made an assassination attempt on Harry Truman?
JULIO VARELA: Yeah, it was at the Blair House.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, across the street from the White House.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah, and there was an attempt on his life by Puerto Rican nationalists. So, there's this notion of them being these radicals, but there's a history of repression against nationalists in Puerto Rico who were trying to be like, we need to be an independent country, we need to fight colonialism, and this grand bargain with Luis Muñoz Marin in the United States was the safe thing.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. So, you just got the, you've got this U.S. invades, takes over the Spanish-American War, gets it as a territory, colonial territory turns Puerto Ricans into citizens through a law in the teens and then in the midcentury Marin strikes what will be the kind of deal, the kind of liminal space that Puerto Rico will go on to occupy. But there are always largely leftists, right? Like leftist revolutionary nationalists both nonviolent and violent, I mean quite violent, who are agitating for the straight up throwing-off-the-colonial-shackles independence.
JULIO VARELA: Right. And that continues, and that's why you see a nationalist movement in places like New York and Chicago, as you move from the 1950s in the 1960s in the 1970s. Two things I want to bring up about why this started happening, and I think why Munoz Medina became a darling in the eyes of the Eisenhowers and JFK. There's a great picture, I actually have it in my house of JFK and Luis Muñoz Marin in the White House. But you got to think about the Cold War, right? So Cuba comes 1959 and all of a sudden Puerto Rico is a strategic value to the fight against communism in the Caribbean. You start seeing this push of Puerto Rico is a place for business, tourism. It's not Cuba. Oh, we just happened to have this island near Cuba. There's military bases, there's a military presence and because Puerto Ricans actually, because they're American citizens, they fight in the armed forces, but there is a military presence on the island and it continues.
And then you start getting into the 1960s where the radicalization — you had black power, Chicano power, the young lords. You start looking at people like Oscar Lopez Rivera with the FLAN which was a militant, Puerto Rican, nationalist group. People who grew up in New York City at the time, remember that they placed bombs and Oscar Lopez Rivera was one of the masterminds, although he was never — he was charged with seditious conspiracy, which I find fascinating. It's something that the United States uses for its political enemies.
CHRIS HAYES: I guess the context here that I think is important is when you're talking about Oscar Lopez Rivera and the militant and violent nationalists movement and permutations of that, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, it's in the context of like the PLO, the IRA, like various post-colonial independent nationalistic movements of the militant left that are around the world, all of which are essentially staking a claim to self-determination and independence against what they view as colonial occupation.
JULIO VARELA: Right. But then on the island, because of Cuba, I don't think people realize there was a lot of Cuban exiles. They didn't all go to Miami. They went to San Juan. You start seeing a more — Puerto Rico's very conservative and Catholic to begin with. But I think there was starting to be more of a reactionary, like “we are not the left.” And you start seeing the early roots of a pro-statehood party. Ferré, Luiz Ferré — he was a Republican, founded the pro-statehood party which was basically a party that supported statehood for the United States and was the political opponent of the Luis Muñoz Marine Popular Commonwealth party, which I kind of tend to call the status quo party right now. And so that started happening, and what's really fascinating about this, as you start looking into the 1970s and the early 1980s, Gerald Ford was talking about statehood for Puerto Rico when he was president. Ronald Reagan was talking about statehood for Puerto Rico. It became part of the Republican platform.
CHRIS HAYES: You have basically a status quo Commonwealth party, which essentially is kind of aligned with the Democratic party and then...
JULIO VARELA: Kind of, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And then the Republican alternative, which is a full statehood party, which is the conservative position. And then off the edge of the two main parties, are the nationalist revolutionaries. That's basically the three lanes of the politics.
JULIO VARELA: Right. The other thing you have to add to this, Chris, is because the push for industrialization, because the push for companies coming, mostly pharmaceutical companies in the 1960s and the 1970s in Puerto Rico, things were good. I grew up in the 1970s and in the 1980s in Puerto Rico as a kid. I don't want to say it was like the 1950s Americana, but there is a lot of nostalgia for that time. It was kind of where we were kind of — the suburban life of Puerto Rico was definitely very Americanized, and you kind of still felt Puerto Rican, but it was getting more commercialized. I just remember when MTV showed up on cable, and I was like 12. And I was like, "Wow." You know what I mean? It was like we were starting to be as sort of like the kids of an American-like 1970s and 1980s pop culture.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JULIO VARELA: That was sort of brewing at the same time, and because of these tax breaks called Section 936, it was basically giving mostly pharmaceutical companies, but other American companies to come to the island, set up shop, get a tax break, and create jobs. There's a lot of friends of mine and their dads and their moms, they had good jobs.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. I mean, you've got essentially the establishment of the island negotiating this weird liminal territorial status in ways that will create win-wins for American capital and Puerto Ricans, essentially. Right? I mean the idea is this...
JULIO VARELA: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: You know...
JULIO VARELA: Puerto Rican elite, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: We can create inducements. We have a pool of cheaper labor than in the states. We've got this territory that we have a weird relationship with, but as a bulwark against, I don't know, like the Marxists on Cuba and the Soviets.
JULIO VARELA: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: And we'll create these, you know, the special deals where you can go down and pharmaceutical companies and others and get tax inducements to open. And that was at least at the ground level for sort of the middle class building of Puerto Rico. You're saying it was like a fairly effective, if not necessarily like redistributively just but fairly effective as economic stimulus on the island.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah. And obviously as with any development, this is where sort of the problems start happening because there is sort of a political elite class that I would argue that is really more, you know, San Juan-based, privileged, you know, middle-class, upper-class. Like that's kind of who rules, who has been ruling Puerto Rico for decades. And this is where you start seeing the beginnings of the problems and the problems being that, okay, we're starting to maintain this, we have this industry, you know, we have tourism, and we want to provide services. Let's start borrowing money.
It was a very easy way to maintain these services because Wall Street and financial firms were like, "Yeah, here's some bonds go for it. Puerto Rican bonds are great." And they just kept buying and you know, raising their debt load and everything's good because we have all these companies. And then the mid-1990s come around. And you remember the grand bargain between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I mean I remember that they had a bunch of budget fights, some resulted in shutdowns. They struck a series of budget deals.
JULIO VARELA: So, one of the biggest budget deals was the elimination over the course of 10 years. The section 936, the tax breaks. So, part of...
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah. Part of the big grand bargain between Clinton and Gingrich was, we got to phase these out. So, this is probably 1996. So, if you start thinking about it, Puerto Rico is borrowing a lot of money and you know, oh, there's just happens to be like corruption as well because this is all tied to what's happening now. Pedro Rosselló, who's Ricardo Rosselló's dad was governor of Puerto Rico in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s. So, you know, if you look at his history, there's like 40 people that got, I don't know, it's countless. I don't know the exact number, but there's a lot of people in his administration got arrested for, you know, corruption charges.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JULIO VARELA: So, there's sort of this culture of in Puerto Rico of “where's my piece of the action?” And there's sort of been this culture of whatever happens, you're going to get a financial gain, especially if you're in government or if you have connections. You know one of the things when you talk about the electrical grid and the electrical company, which was called PREPA, it's a subsidiary, right? It's publicly owned by the government of Puerto Rico. So the governor, any governor in Puerto Rico, could assign a political appointee to run the utility company, which I mean if you think about it, that's just... I mean, that's just leads to a lot of problems.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JULIO VARELA: But fast forward to 2006 when the 936 tax breaks start going away and your — this pretty simple…you're spending a lot.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JULIO VARELA: Companies begin to start leaving, you're still borrowing. And people are starting to leave. You're still borrowing, and then we get to this massive debt crisis, probably like you know, 2012, 2013, 2014. That's where it gets all...
CHRIS HAYES: Right. That timing is really useful I think. So, you've got the 936 tax break, which is a special tax inducement for American firms to relocate and to do business in Puerto Rico. You start phasing out in 1996 on a 10-year sunset, 2006 is the end of that, 2007 is peak housing bubble, but the beginning of the financial crisis and then it's financial crisis. That's a real double whammy and then on top of that, and correct me if I'm wrong here, I mean, there's something a little similar to the Greek situation. What happens in Greece is both the Greek economy and the Greek budget are not in great shape, but their sovereign debt is trading as if it's interchangeable with other EU debt.
JULIO VARELA: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Puerto Rico has a similar relation with the U.S., right? Where it's like in some ways, there's a way in which Puerto Rican sovereign debt is being priced in that the U.S. government will backstop it.
JULIO VARELA: This is why I love being a journalist and a political journalist and not a financial reporter because it's flipping complicated.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JULIO VARELA: Because I think they make it complicated in a lot of ways. I've attended a couple of conferences that were in New York, you know, where the governor of Puerto Rico, the former, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who was a pro-Commonwealth governor. Like he was speaking, was at the height of the debt crisis and, "What are we going to do now?" and "How are the Feds going to help us?" And I remember there were bond holders there and they were financial experts. And I'm really trying, you know, I'm like super eager journalist, like Puerto Rican journalist. I'm really trying to understand how this restructuring is going to help sort of this wealth inequality that even though like when we talk about the 1970s and the 1980s, the wealth gap starts definitely beginning to separate, you know, sectors of Puerto Rico.
And I think the political elite was always like, "Oh well, we're going to take care of our own." But, you know, "The poor, eh, whatever." And I remember asking these financial guys at this conference, because I was really trying to be like, "Okay, do they understand the consequences?" And I'm like, "Well, you know, like this is going to close schools, and it's going to end services, whatever happens." And it was all austerity, austerity, austerity. There was no soul or compassion. And that's the part where-
I wrote a piece in 2015 for the Guardian. And the headline was great, and it's actually my NBC Think editor, Megan Carpentier, who used to be at the Guardian and now she's at NBC Think, and she's amazing. And the headline that she wrote for me was, it's like politicians think Puerto Ricans are dumb or something like that, but they created the debt crisis, and we know that. And it really spoke to this level of corruption and complicity with the United States and with financial interest and how we've allowed it as Puerto Ricans to happen and how a lot of people have profited off that, you know, venture capital firms and hedge funds and people in Puerto Rico. That's where I was like, "Wow, this is really going to be like a mess."
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JULIO VARELA: And what's going to happen. And then that's when you start getting into the PROMESA legislation that eventually became bipartisan, that was signed by President Obama that created a fiscal control board. And at the time there, was a lot of people in Puerto Rico, even the governor of Puerto Rico right now, Ricardo Rosselló, who were the vehemently against it. Because guess what? It kind of looked like colonialism again.
CHRIS HAYES: So, let's talk about the aftermath of PROMESA and that fiscal control board right after this.
You've got this weird situation. And so, the legislation that's signed by Barack Obama sets up this bizarre entity, which is the — it meets in New York, and in Spanish, it's called the Junta, right? Someone told me that.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah. Which is like, wait, if you think about it in Spanish, it's like, La Junta.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JULIO VARELA: You know, it's like a bad... can you get something more imposing of... you start thinking of images of, you know, caudillos and dictators. And it's like, La Junta. And when the board — what's interesting is like at the time, because there was a Republican majority in Congress, right, with Obama.
CHRIS HAYES: Yep.
JULIO VARELA: Basically what it comes down to is there were four Republican appointees and three Democratic appointees on the board. Some are Puerto Rican, some are not. I mean, there's, I think. And they basically came down, and they're like, "Okay, we're going help you run your finances.” And I will give Rosselló credit on this. Ricardo Rosselló, he was one of the people who was like, when he was running for governor in 2016, he wasn't for it.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JULIO VARELA: And so La Junta brought back some bad colonial memories, and it kind of reminded Puerto Ricans that "yeah, we're not really American." You know, when people say like, "Oh, Puerto Ricans are American citizens," I'm like, "No we're not. We're second class. We don't have rights. And here we go again."
And then they'd go to these meetings, Chris, and some would be in New York, right, most of them. And some would be in San Juan and they're trying to be transparent and they're like dealing with like pensions and school closings and the fact that the government spends too much and you know, you can't have holiday pay. In Puerto Rico, it's like a culture you'd get, you know, you'd get like a Christmas bonus. It's like no Christmas bonus for you. Which is like, what is this, Scrooge? Like that's the part where you're like come on. And they were very... You know, especially when you had non-Puerto Ricans on the board, they would, I remember one of them in a report was talking about, you know, "Puerto Ricans can't work. Their work ethic is not as strong." And you're like...
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JULIO VARELA: Okay, we're just, we're just going back to like 1898. And so this was happening, and Rosselló is trying. And then September 20th, 2017 happens, which is Hurricane Maria.
CHRIS HAYES: So you've got the devastation of Maria. You've already got the conditions of the fiscal oversight board, the debt crisis. The fact that you have essentially like an austerity junta that meets in New York, that is essentially has a kind of veto over your budgetary restraints, right, that's making very drastic cuts to state budgets. You've got this PREPA, which is a utility company that is extremely dysfunctional, and a sort of locus of corruption with local politicians, and you've got a Rosselló. So that sort of gives us enough, I think, context to bring us to the doorstep of now. So let's just explain to me what is happening on the island now. Why are people in the streets by the hundreds of thousands telling Rosselló to resign?
JULIO VARELA: Well, there's a history of corruption in the administration, which I could use any administration in Puerto Rico. And I think the quick answer is like people, when they're asking them to resign, they go to this sort of group chat, a Telegram chat that after a certain time that they would start to get leaked. And then I believe like two Saturdays ago, or I'm trying, I've already lost count of when it was. The Center for Investigative Journalism, which is like one of the greatest journalistic organizations in the world. I've been working with them for like five, six years, publishing their work. They're just amazing. They publish the entire 889 private Telegram chats with Rosselló and his associates and members of his cabinet that show just, you know, homophobic language, sexist language, death threats against San Juan Mayor Carmen YulÍn Cruz.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, just to be clear, really dark and disgusting jokes about her death.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah, it was awful. Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: They're not...
JULIO VARELA: Joking. I think like, so the junta representative for the government, Christian Sobrino, was like, "Oh, I'll take a gun and shoot her," and Rosselló's the administrator of the group chat and he's like, "Yeah, that would do me a favor, dude." It was very frat bro-y. I mean, they also went after Melissa Mark-Viverito, who's a former New York City council president, the speaker. And you know, they called her like a whore, and it's like, we got to like beat her up. And so there's a lot of sexist, like disgusting language.
CHRIS HAYES: It's real gross. I mean, I've only seen highlights, but it's 900 pages of linked transcripts of basically they're kind of like fratty, bro-y group chat, where they just talk shit about people, and say really shit about everyone.
JULIO VARELA: But at the same time, there's also not only that, this is where it gets problematic, is that they're also discussing government business and contracts and social media trolling, and they're also threatening journalists. And it kind of gives you a sneak peek of, we know that our politicians in Puerto Rico are corrupt — there's a history of corruption. Oh look, there's 889 pages that's proving our point. And it became that powder keg for these protests because it's not about a group chat. It's about this frustration that people have had, you know, no opportunity, migration, post-Hurricane Maria. I wrote about it for NBC Think that this was, you know, this was all festering. And all of a sudden, this group chat comes out, like the full 889 pages comes out like two or three days after two former Rosselló Administration officials get arrested by the FBI for corruption charges. So can you imagine it's like — this was Ricardo Rosselló's worst week, which I call.
Remember the Women's World Cup final, Chris? That was on a Sunday. He was in France. He was literally in France at the World Cup. There's actually a picture of him and Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, where I'm like, okay, why are you taking a picture with a guy who was, you know, who was caught in a massage parlor in Florida? So that was Sunday. Tuesday, the first 11 pages of this Telegram leak chat come out, and they're kind of bro-y, and they're kind of frat boy-y and they're like, “oh boys will be boys.” But the next day is when the secretary of education, Julia Keleher, and the secretary of the health insurance administration both get arrested by the FBI.
CHRIS HAYES: Just to be clear, that's the U.S. DOJ FBI.
JULIO VARELA: Exactly. This is the federal arrests. There is a consultant for BDO, the accounting firm. You know, the more you know, BDO. It was like, you know, you scratch my back, I'll get you contracts, you know, give me public contracts for my friends.
CHRIS HAYES: Just to, because I think it's a little unclear, because it gets hand waved away, like my understanding of the accusations is that they were using their official positions to steer government contracts to associates and friends.
JULIO VARELA: And friends. Exactly. And so that happened on Wednesday. And then on the Thursday, right after, a second set of Telegram-gate pages come out. And that's when you start seeing... That's a threat against Melissa Mark-Viverito. So that's when that comes out, and she comes out and he issues a statement. So people were like “whoa,” and then people are starting find out, wait, there's more. And then after the governor on Friday is like, "No, no, this is, you know, everything's false, that, you know, I'm doing my thing. I'm blowing off steam." Which I'm like, seriously dude, you're blowing off steam, and you're talking about threatening women? I mean...
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JULIO VARELA: I mean, you know, when my parents got divorced, Chris, my mom came back up. She was a single mom. She was a nurse in Montefiore Hospital.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh wow.
JULIO VARELA: And you know, I grew up in the matriarchy.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
JULIO VARELA: I knew how to — and so to see those words, I was kind of like, “Wow.” And you're saying you're blowing off steam. That's what domestic abusers say. You know. And you're the governor of Puerto Rico, and you're doing this at a press conference?
CHRIS HAYES: And this, just to be clear, as you're laying this out, it's like there are arrests of people in the cabinet.
JULIO VARELA: Former. They had resigned.
CHRIS HAYES: I see, I see. Right.
JULIO VARELA: Yeah, yeah. There's a lot of steps that got us here. And I don't want to get like too Puerto Rico 101, but I will say a lot of local Puerto Rican media has done an amazing job getting to this corruption. And one of the things that we do at Latino Rebels, is we try to do it in English. I have someone in San Juan to be like, “These are important stories. We need to do them in English.” Because I think what you're saying is this is universal. Like everyone understands political corruption.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JULIO VARELA: So this just didn't happen like overnight. There's been, you know, allegations against a lot of people in Rosselló’s administration about, you know, something's shady. And then obviously because your dad, who was governor of Puerto Rico, kind of had a similar administration, you know, people were wary of him. And you have to understand, when he won governor and when he won the governor's election, believe it was like 42 percent of the vote. And it was actually... he didn't win. Like, he didn't kick butt. I think he won by like 60,000 votes against this Commonwealth opponent. It was a close election. So, he-
CHRIS HAYES: He does not come in with an enormous mandate or some groundswell of support.
JULIO VARELA: Exactly. And the thing is, it's also, he's a moderate Democrat. And the best way I can explain it, it's like he's kind of like the Puerto Rican Joe Manchin.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay.
JULIO VARELA: That's the only way I can put it. I don't know what that is, but I probably put, you know, I'd probably put an image of Joe Manchin.
CHRIS HAYES: That makes sense. Yeah, that’s legible.
JULIO VARELA: But then that Saturday morning, he comes back from France. And then Saturday morning, 889 pages come out. All hell breaks loose. By Saturday night, Chris, the secretary of state, who's sort of the second in command of Puerto Rico. He's not the vice president. He's not the vice governor. He's not elected. But he's kind of like second in line. He resigned. The representative, the CFO, Sobrino, who's the government representative of the junta, he resigned. The public relations people that he was associated with, his consultants, who actually would have access to the governor's mansion anytime, they all got fired from — all the government contracts suddenly go away. And there's the governor of Puerto Rico... I’ll never forget this saying, "Well, I'm going to change things. And so everyone else is gone except for me."
Which I'm like, "Dude. So basically, you're the admin of the group chat, and then everyone else loses a job, but you're still the governor of Puerto Rico.” And he was saying, "Well, I have a mandate. The Puerto Rican people have elected me." Meanwhile, you start seeing protests every day, right? You start seeing them every day. There's these amazing images of people near the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza, which is in old San Juan, for people to know Old San Juan, they're very narrow streets, beautiful part of San Juan. And you start seeing reports of tear gas, the Puerto Rican police, after 11. You know, there's a saying in the last two weeks, Chris, that the constitution of Puerto Rico stops at 11 o'clock. And… you start seeing it. And given the history of the Puerto Rican police, I mean, I believe in 2011 there was a DOJ report about Puerto Rico, and the police and their abuses, and the fact that they have to have actual reform and monitors.
There's a history, like I mentioned the Ponce massacre, the police have had of history of suppressing protests. It even happened a year ago in the May Day protest in Puerto Rico. And that was mostly leftist protesters, and there was tear gas used, and did they throw it first, who threw this? And so there were questions and you start seeing social media. People are like, "Did police instigate the protests?" So that was happening at night. But then you start seeing actual peaceful protests. And Rosselló continues to dig in his heels and say, "I'm not leaving." On Monday, there was a massive march, the largest march in Puerto Rico. I don't know how the Associated Press, I hate to be like media critic, but the AP said it was like tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans. I grew up literally, I literally grew up off that highway as a kid, Chris.
And we used to travel it all the time. I texted my dad because it's like you know when you know. It's like you know your neighborhood and I'm like, "Papi, this is not tens of thousands." I had people on the ground — we had three or four people on the ground covering. Everyone's like, "I have never seen anything like this before. This is the greatest display, was very peaceful." It was amazing. It's okay to say 500,000 to a million. It's somewhere in between. This is why I think so many people showed up, and this was all through social media organic, this wasn't organized. And this is people from all political ideologies, pro-statehood-ers, commonwealth-ers, independents, a lot of young people led by women, but on Sunday when people were expecting Rosselló to the resign, he basically, all he did was like, "I'm not running for re-election, and I'm stepping down from the head of my pro-statehood party."
It was kind of like the worst kept secret in Puerto Rico and I think that almost fueled people the next day to be like, "Oh really, dude? Like this is... all right, we're going to show up." And that happened. It was peaceful until after 11 o'clock at night, where you see tear gas. I mean, there were images, I don't know how many images you saw, Chris, but it was a war zone. I mean, I was like, "I can't believe this is old San Juan." It was hard to watch. I published stories. It was hard to take those photos, upload them and be like, "I can't believe this is happening where I'm from." And while this is all going on, he goes on Fox News and gives this sort of tone-deaf interview and says, "Yeah, well, you know, I'm still going to stick out here. I'm all about fixing corruption and Medicaid reform and procurement, and I'm trying to fix the procurement process in Puerto Rico." And I'm like... he was so out of touch. So out of touch about it.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, he's basically dug in his heels. You could feel the sort of growing calls for him to resign. #RicoRenuncio is the hashtag that has sort of been the kind of focal point of social media protest. And the point you made there before, their May Day, sort of anti-austerity protests, protesting against cuts against the university, that were very much mobilized by the sort of, like, the left and sort of students. This seems, from what you're saying from all the reporting I've read and from the people that I've talked to, this has sort of crossed all sectors of society. It's kind of like mass mobilization. Rosselló has to go, and I guess the question is, people are going to listen to this and he will or will not have gone. Right now, as I'm talking to you, the speaker of the House has said, "Either he resigns or she's being begin impeachment proceedings."
But what is the meaning of this political moment? This mobilization clearly was building for a long time. There's a lot of frustration with a declining standard of living. The fact that 3,000 people died in Maria, people feel like they don't have a huge amount of economic future. There's been mass exodus from the island in the wake of that, the austerity and the cuts, there's the corruption. Clearly all of that stuff is building up to this sort of explosion we're seeing, and then the question becomes, what are the politics of this moment over and above Rosselló?
JULIO VARELA: Yeah, that's a great question, Chris, because the way I'm trying to look at this is that I'm seeing an organic movement talk. I've talked to so many people about this, and everyone's kind of like, "The system is broken. The political system, the way we are organized politically on this island is broken. We've allowed this Puerto Rican elite class that's mostly white, mostly male, mostly privileged, to kind of run this country into the ground for the last 40 years." And we've seen the proof, right? We talk about the debt crisis, we talk about the growing, the arrogance. And I think one of the things about that group chat was sort of this — it kind of proved exactly how that political class views people who are less than them.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, like it was worst way that you would imagine what happens in the smoke-filled room...
JULIO VARELA: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: ... of the elite ruling class of the islands with their hands on the lever of power, the contempt that they have for everyone that's not in their little circle.
JULIO VARELA: Right. And when I go back to when we go back all the way to the beginning, when we talk about 1898 and when the Americans showed up, there was a group of people who were like, "Yeah, the Americans are here. Yay." And that's sort of always been there. This is when you look at colonialism and it's like colonizers can't have a system unless they have accomplices. And I think the Rosselló world, I have to say, I grew up in that world because it's San Juan-centric. We go and study abroad in U.S. schools, we come back, we go to private school. And on the island, they were ruling it, and they were messing it up.
And I think people are just so angry. And I also think it's because Maria, they went through hell. People went through hell and back. And when you talk about the dead and the Hurricane Maria dead, I was one of the reporters that was saying this is the most important story. I was actually on MSNBC two days after, and they wanted to talk about Trump and Puerto Rico. And I'm like, "No, no, no, no. We're not talking about Trump and Puerto Rico. We're talking about the fact that this death count is low. This is an undercount." I said at the time, I'm like, "From what I understand from my sources and people I talked to, there's at least hundreds that we're not even talking about."
And what was interesting about that is I pursued that story, and we worked with the CPI, the Center for Investigative Journalism. And there was an arrogance by this administration to journalists. They hated us — that we would ask tough questions, and that's what I mean. It's like this sort of arrogance, "We're better than you," like, "Get away, look at our little club and we're going to take our personal interests and make money off the island and the rest of Puerto Rico can suffer." That's what the group chat is all about. That was sort of like the proof is in the pudding. After that is a big question for me because I don't know where it's going to go. I really don't know where it's going to go.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's the thing to me. I keep coming back to is, it reminds me a little bit of Brexit where they're in this position where they kind of get together a majority for one of the six possibilities and they can't get enough people to vote for any of them. At the end of the day, Rosselló goes, and PROMESA is still the law of the land and the board still exists. Although clearly reforms to that seem like a necessary demand, I mean, whatever comes next. But my understanding is there's probably not a strong majority for statehood or for independents and thus... you know, right? The weirdness of that relationship and the deficiencies it has from a democratic theory perspective, which is the PROMESA act is passed with zero representation from Puerto Rico because Puerto Rico doesn't have a member of Congress, and it doesn't have two senators.
JULIO VARELA: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: What would it be like if you tried to get relief for a flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri didn't have any senators, right?
JULIO VARELA: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: This is the basic premise of representation of self-determination and democracy, which is not afforded to the people of Puerto Rico. And yet, on the other side, it's like it doesn't seem to me the case that there is a mandate for a fundamental structural departure from the status quo.
JULIO VARELA: Right. And that's the thing. I think there's a lot of reasons, like we've allowed ourselves as Puerto Ricans to accept the status quo. And I think it's because once a colony, always a colony. When you start having three or four generations, or five generations, of living under a colonial system, there's a colonial thinking.
There's a great term, because I studied Puerto Rican history and literature, and I wrote my thesis about it in school, and I was really into it. It's a great term from the 1930s called ‘"insularismo." Insularism. Right, "insularismo." Which is literally meaning sort of insular thinking on the island that we're never big enough, that we're never like bold enough, that we've kind of accepted this situation. And what's interesting is I've always wondered, and this is one of the things that I've done as a journalist for years, and I've actually had a lot of agreement with people that ideologically might not agree with each other. What if we took out the option of Commonwealth? Don't give us that option and you have to decide, you either in...
CHRIS HAYES: All in or all out.
JULIO VARELA: ... with the United States. All in or all out. I feel like until we get to that situation, at least from the status question, because I also think this protest movement is not about status yet. It could be. I don't know where it's going. It's about, “This system sucks. We need to do something about this. The best thing we can do right now is to get rid of this governor. Look at all these corrupt politicians. If it's not Rosselló, it could be, here's 10 other ones that have screwed us over.” And I think that's what you're going to start seeing and you'll continue to see. But it comes back to the essential question of, are we ready as a Puerto Rican people to either worry about our destiny? Or saying, "Okay, yeah, we are part of the United States. Let's do this." But at the same time, Chris, what's missing in all this, is that the colonizer, I mean, do you really think that like — you know how many Republicans in the United States are like, "Yeah, Puerto Rico, let them go. They're a bunch of welfare moochers."
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, what's weird about this is sort of the final note of the politics of this, is the politics in the U.S. are probably inverted, right? So the idea on the island, if you just sort of roughly mapping the left/right spectrum, is that independence is a sort of left position. Statehood's are right position, and if you go to the U.S., like you hear Democrats talking all the time about the idea of like D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood. I think Tom Perez even said it the other day, and Melissa Mark-Viverito got mad at him, right, because it's like, "No, that's the opposite of our view of the Puerto Rican left." Like the American left is like, "Yeah, come on board Puerto Rico."
JULIO VARELA: Well, that's a great point.
CHRIS HAYES: "We'd love to have you." And the Puerto Rican left is like, "No, no, no. That's not our position." And then it's probably the inverse again for Republicans. I don't think the Republican Party on the mainland wants two senators from Puerto Rico.
JULIO VARELA: Not now.
CHRIS HAYES: Not now.
JULIO VARELA: I mean, you saw Mitch McConnell. I mean, he was like, "It's all the..." But this is a really interesting point, and I don't want to oversimplify the statehood movement because there's a lot of progressives in Puerto Rico who get lost in the statehood movement.
CHRIS HAYES: Meaning there are progressives who favor statehood who are-
JULIO VARELA: Yeah. But that's seen as-
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JULIO VARELA: So, like someone like Rosselló is a moderate Democrat, he definitely aligns more, I think, right of center, and he's very institutional Democrat. We're still not at the point where at least from a self-determination standpoint, the independence movement has sort of been cornered as just being communist radical, and we're going to be the next Venezuela. There's a lot of people in the middle who are kind of like, "Well, what about worker's rights? What about racial justice?" There's certain things that appeal to Puerto Ricans when they look at politics stateside, but because institutional Democrats have aligned themselves traditionally with the popular Common Wealth Party, it's more of an institutional thing.
And I actually think that's even going to get challenged hard because when you look at the presidential candidates, they all had a comment on Puerto Rico and some of them didn't call Ricardo Rosselló to resign, and people are like, "Oh, you're out of touch." And remember, the primary in Puerto Rico next year where you have all these candidates, these delegates are going to have to count. It's actually early next year in 2020. So, I think this notion of Puerto Rico becoming a political question, I actually am very hopeful.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. that's interesting.
JULIO VARELA: Because I think the hurricane, the protest, because they led every newspaper. My prediction is there will be a question on the Democratic debates next week about Puerto Rico. But I do think Puerto Ricans who are on the island, who are looking at this movement, are questioning it all. And I think we have to allow ourselves. This could be our process to de-colonize ourselves, but to de-colonize ourselves doesn't mean that we're going to be independent. I think we have to start having a deeper examination-
CHRIS HAYES: That's really interesting.
JULIO VARELA: You know what I'm saying? A deeper examination of, “What is our relationship with the United States? Do we want it? Should we talk about reparations if we're talking about independence?” A lot of things that Americans stateside might attribute to other parts of other issues, I think that's going to start bubbling up in Puerto Rico.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, if you want a good brief articulation of the inherent frustrations, even rage, that is induced by being governed by a government across a body of water, the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America which drafted July 4th, 1776, has a pretty good bill of particulars about what a pain in the ass it is to have folks across the water telling you what to do without a proper representation. Julio Ricardo Varela is a co-host of “In The Thick,” he's founded Latino Rebels. He is a Puerto Rican journalist and it's a great, great pleasure to have you on. Thank you.
JULIO VARELA: I had a blast, Chris. Thanks so much.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Julio Ricardo Varela for making himself available at such short notice and for such an informative conversation. Of course, this story is still moving. If you're hearing this on Tuesday there are bound to be questions about the successor, there are protests about that. So, this is a very fluid situation to continue to monitor. We'd love to hear your feedback, of course, here at "Why Is This Happening?" You can email, although I think Tiffany is digging out. I just got an email from Tiffany being like, "Maybe point them towards the Twitter feed. Maybe just point them towards the hashtag." I'm blowing up her spot because she's not here. I think she may be drowning in all the emails. She's going to absolutely kill me when she hears this. You can hashtag, you can tweet us at the hashtag #WITHPOD. We've got a lot of great — when I put out a question to you, do you like the intros? Now we got a ton of great response, which is really interesting to see. So, I'm going to put on another question, I'm going to start doing that.
So, I'm curious for stories in other parts of the world. Obviously, Puerto Rico is part of the United States. But are there stories happening in other parts of the world? Like for instance, the concentration camps or re-education camps for Uighurs that we did a podcast about, that you are interested in? You know those kinds of stories that they're kind of at the corner, they're peripheral vision for your news consumption. You know there's a thing happening but you don't really quite understand it and would love someone to sort of talk you through it so you feel like you have a grasp of the basics. Let me know. Let us know. Tweet a hashtag #WITHPOD with stories that you would like us to cover in that fashion.
“Politicians think Puerto Ricans are dumb. But we know the debt crisis is their doing” by Julio Ricardo Varela
You might also like:
Destruction in Puerto Rico with Naomi Klein (June 19, 2018)
"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.