VEGA BAJA, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico has reached a turning point, with hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding that a generation of corruption, graft and class warfare here come to an end. Their target: Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who is facing the threat of impeachment as the streets fill with anger, frustration and impatience.
Puerto Ricans have come together as a singing, chanting, pot-banging union of voices in Old San Juan and far-flung pueblo plazas. They are arriving en masse by car, kayak, boat and horse day after day. Night after night, their numbers — volume, length, diversity and spontaneity — grow without any clear leader guiding the masses in their call for Rosselló to step down.
On Monday, organizers say they expect more than 1 million residents — about a third of the U.S. territory’s population — to join an unprecedented national march, part of an ongoing demonstration against the governor and Puerto Rico’s entire political system. They plan to shut down San Juan’s main avenue, where businesses are planning to close for the day, and many downtown offices are giving their employees the day off.
The immediate unrest stems from the disclosure of an infamous 889 pages of leaked chat messages, in which Rosselló and his inner circle of administration officials, lobbyists and friends targeted opponents, journalists and female politicians with vulgar taunts, and, perhaps most egregiously, appeared to poke fun at those who suffered in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island two years ago.
But the chat messages were just at the surface: The embarrassing exchanges unmasked a political class detached and indifferent to the suffering of the largely working-class and poverty-stricken population still rebuilding their lives after the hurricane. Parents lost jobs. Families were broken. Communities fractured. Homes were destroyed. Schools were shuttered. And thousands died. All while the elite allegedly squandered aid money and got in the way of recovery — actions that cut across the political spectrum and have left many saying that the current government no longer serves the people.
“What we are seeing now is trauma spilling into the streets,” said Marisol LeBrón, a University of Texas at Austin professor who has studied Puerto Rican activism.
The scandals in the governor’s mansion triggered an explosion of repressed rage not seen here since 1999, when errant bombs killed a man in Vieques — an island community to the east of Puerto Rico’s main territory. That incident led to an uprising that expelled the U.S. Navy from the island after six decades. As it was then, the fuse for the current upheaval was ignited long before the governor joked boorishly with his buddies.
On Sunday evening, Rosselló announced on Facebook Live that he will not seek reelection in 2020 but will stay in office to do the work he was elected to do. He also has stepped down as leader of his party. He said he respects and welcomes the process the legislature began in exploring impeachment.
“The priority should be the people of Puerto Rico,” he said.
The local legislature is exploring impeachment. The government has lost legitimacy with voters, federal lawmakers and businesses, a loss of faith that could slow down investment and aid. An unelected federal oversight board is in a position to ask Congress for more power over the U.S. territory, a move that experts say could bring more unrest.
Rosselló’s office posted photos on social media of the governor meeting with members of his Cabinet over the weekend, as if business were back to normal. He also met with the heads of Puerto Rico’s agencies on Sunday, a meeting a spokeswoman said had previously been on his calendar.
Puerto Rico finds itself in another historic tempest — a reckoning of the island’s colonial-era struggle for self-determination and contempt for the government that protesters believe contributed to the horrors of the hurricane.
“It is the after-Maria effect. The reservoir of patience has been exhausted,” said Héctor Cordero-Guzmán, a professor at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. “People had to fend for themselves and were empowered. Organized social disdain and anger is something no government can resist for long.”
“How do you spell ‘vete?’ ” asked 12-year-old Alexander Ocasio Berrios, tapping a Sharpie to his lip. “Is it with a ‘b’ like ‘burro’ or ‘v’ like ‘vaca’?”
A troop of neighborhood children argued over the correct spelling of the Spanish word for “go away” as they prepared protest posters in Lin Benitez’s Vega Baja home. The adult supervising the project settled the matter.
“ ‘V’ like Victor,” said Benitez, 49. Alexander quickly finished what he wanted his sign to say, a message to the governor to go away, now: “Ricky vete ya!”
Benitez opened her home to the children of her barrio, Almirante Sur, after the hurricane ravaged the community about 30 miles west of San Juan. They had no electricity for seven months. It took four months for reliable water service to return. Forty-four died and dozens moved away. The children walked around confused, with nowhere to play.
No outside help arrived in the early weeks after Maria, so the residents helped each other, she said. Benitez decided to start a garden with the children, where they learned to cultivate their own food, including papaya, guava, strawberries and potatoes.
The neighbors joined in to help, donating soil and seeds. As they worked in what became known as the Maravilloso Huerto de los Niños or the Children’s Marvelous Garden, their fears and insecurities trickled out.
“I never brought up the hurricane, but they talked about it every day,” Benitez said. “It was like PTSD. They talked about dying, going thirsty and not having food.”
One of the boys asked Benitez how long a person could go without drinking water before they died. A girl turned to her while working at the garden and said: “Now, we will never go hungry.”
Two years later, the children are connecting the scarcity and loss to the corruption allegations and the governor’s mocking comments about dead loved ones.
“They stole the money and that’s why we didn’t get help,” said Jonuel Rodriguez, 10.
Kaelyn Silva-Berrios, 13, chimed in: “I don’t want a governor like him in Puerto Rico.”
They can’t get to the big protests outside the gates of the governor’s mansion in San Juan, so they plan to have their own protest this week. Their message: “The children are also outraged.”
Barrio Almirante Sur’s story of self-sufficiency born out of necessity was repeated in communities throughout Puerto Rico. Help eventually came, but the weeks of darkness and death shook communities into action, said University of Puerto Rico professor Carmen Vélez Vega.
The hurricane brought an awakening to the island’s vulnerability. While government was hampered by contracting scandals, missing disaster aid, and failure to fulfill basic functions, life on the island one year after Maria still felt like the day after the hurricane. The FBI this month charged top members of Rosselló’s Cabinet with misusing federal aid.
“The chat exposed how pervasive the corruption was after Maria,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former New York City Council speaker, who was the target of a misogynistic slur in the chat. “We need a reset, to try something new that will get money directly to the people.”
The Democratic politician suggests Congress redirect federal aid to Puerto Rico’s mayors and the dozens of community-based nonprofit organizations that went into high gear after the hurricane. They created neighborhood kitchens, legal aid and social education workshops, and public health initiatives. Barrios banded together to devise their own disaster plans and stockpile medicine for the sick.
“These were the folks who responded to the emergency, won the trust of the communities and organized the people,” Vélez Vega said. “It was done without the government’s help.”
Government corruption in nothing new here. Previous administrations encountered varying degrees of scandal, but people were conditioned to accept some level of misbehavior so long as the economy and government functioned, said attorney and political commentator Mayra López Mulero.
Hurricane Maria exposed the dysfunction to the entire world.
“The people are tired of this,” said López Mulero, who is representing a former Cabinet member who has publicly claimed that the governor oversees and directs a crooked administration. “Where are the billions for health, education and development?”
The anger extends to the federal government. One of the more popular chants on the streets is: “Ricky resign and take ‘la Junta’ with you!” It’s a reference to the federally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board that is restructuring Puerto Rico’s billion-dollar debt. Congress passed the legislation that created the board over the objections of critics who called it an imposition from Washington that threatens Puerto Rico’s autonomy.
A black-and-white Puerto Rican flag began appearing on the island in the weeks after President Barack Obama signed the law in June 2016. The debt and the anemic economy have depressed wages, led to college tuition hikes, and limited career and business opportunities.
“We have not been taken seriously,” 25-year-old aviation student Joedaniel Jimenez Padilla said of the federal government. He vowed to protest every night he can until the governor leaves office. “With or without the United States, this has to change.”
In Almirante Sur, Marilyn Santiago is asking lots of questions. A former loyalist to Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, she used to refuse to hear dissenting opinions or negative reviews of the government from neighbors.
But watching her elderly mother deteriorate to a quick death after Maria provoked many questions. Watching her neighbors band together to meet basic needs independently made Santiago wonder what her vote had gotten her all these years.
“My eyes were opened,” the 45-year-old mother of two said. On Wednesday, Santiago attended her first protest in San Juan. She made a poster with pasted pictures of three family members who died after the hurricane, traveled eight hours round-trip and spent four hours waiting in line with hundreds of others for a ferry to take her to the capitol building.
The demonstration, she said, was cathartic.
“I cried like a child,” Santiago said when she heard trap artist Bad Bunny — who grew up in Almirante Sur — and rapper René Pérez using verses of their new protest song “Afilando los Cuchillos” or “Sharpening the Knives.”
“Your apologies drown in the rainwater inside those homes that still do not have roofs,” says one line directed at Puerto Rico’s governor.
The raw feelings are so pervasive that in the streets around San Juan, when people shout “Resign!” there is a chorus that joins in. A simple image of a black box with white letters saying “Ricky Renuncia!” has gone viral on social media.
The unity of purpose behind Puerto Rico’s protest movement has buoyed Benitez, the founder of the children’s garden. She believes change is imminent.
What’s less clear is what happens next for the American territory of more than 3 million U.S. citizens.
“Everyone recognizes there is a breakdown,” said Benitez, who favors independence for Puerto Rico, a reinvention of the island. “We are not at the point yet when we can define what that is, but the colony is making demands. The world should watch and listen.”