The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Puerto Rico is in chaos, and some worry continued instability is a major threat

Demonstrators march against Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/AP)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have been taking to the blue cobblestone streets of the old city here demanding that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resign amid allegations of corruption and the revelation of a scandalous group chat involving his inner circle. The protests, increasingly intense, are an outgrowth of widespread indignation that has challenged his administration’s already tenuous credibility and imperiled the distribution of needed federal aid to a territory still reeling from disaster.

The mobilization against Rosselló (PNP of Puerto Rico) — a 40-year-old politician who has refused to abandon the governor’s mansion, known as the Fortress — represents one of the largest demonstrations of public repudiation of the Puerto Rican government in its history. It has resonated across the Caribbean island and its diaspora on the mainland and overseas, bringing together cultural icons such as Ricky Martin, artists like trap musician Bad Bunny and residents like Miriam Ramos Grateroles to denounce a man they say has betrayed their trust.

“I have never participated in a protest before,” Ramos Grateroles, 71, a retired defense attorney, said Wednesday as she steadied herself on a cane and vowed to stay until her legs gave out. “But enough is enough. Rosselló has disrespected the people of Puerto Rico, and if we don’t come together and demand it, he won’t leave.”

Puerto Rico after Maria: Residents see a failure at all levels of government

Frustration has been building here for years. Decades of fiscal ineptitude and economic stagnation led to ballooning public debt and bankruptcy. The federal government installed an unpopular and unelected federal oversight board to manage the U.S. territory’s finances in a move decried by critics as paternalistic.

Police fired tear gas July 15 to quell demonstrations in San Juan, Puerto Rico that demanded the governor resign amid a scandal surrounding leaked chats. (Video: Juan C. Dávila/The Washington Post)

Then, added to that man-made disaster, came Maria. The ferocious 2017 hurricane cut across the entire island, knocking out power for months, destroying already fragile infrastructure and sending people for refuge in Florida and New York and elsewhere. The sluggish aid response from local and federal authorities aggravated festering water, medicine and food shortages. An estimated 3,000 people died in the aftermath.

Sin Luz: Life Without Power

The majority of the appropriated federal aid still has not yet reached Puerto Rico: Congress has approved $42 billion for the island’s recovery, but just $13 billion of that money has been spent, and the scandals and upheaval have further strained the island’s relationship with Washington.

President Trump, who has been assailing the territorial government almost since Maria’s landfall, renewed his ire Thursday, tweeting about the unrest, declaring that the governor was “under siege” and attacking San Juan’s mayor, who has been a vocal critic of the president and his response to the hurricane. He repeated the incorrect “92 Billion Dollars” figure as the amount of hurricane relief aid distributed to Puerto Rico, saying it was “squandered away or wasted, never to be seen again.”

The president keeps citing a 20-year guesstimate as established fact. That's wrong. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“I know the people of Puerto Rico well, and they are great,” Trump tweeted. “But much of their leadership is corrupt, & robbing the U.S. Government blind!”

While Puerto Ricans assemble peacefully in New York, Orlando, Barcelona, Madrid and other cities, the protests on the island turned chaotic and violent in the overnight darkness this week. Thousands of demonstrators packed into Old San Juan’s narrow streets, tagging government buildings with “Ricky renuncia!” or “Resign Ricky!”

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Police in riot gear shot tear gas canisters to disperse throngs of masked young people crouched together in the old city’s plaza, where they were trying to help treat those hit with rubber bullets. The air was full of sweat and acrid fumes, potent and persistent, much like many of the protesters who vowed to return each night the governor remains in office.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hector Sierra said as he watched the protests devolve into pandemonium on television at a San Juan hotel early Thursday morning. “It breaks my heart, but I’m proud the people are standing up to the politicians.”

Unrest in Puerto Rico as protesters call for governor to resign

July 18, 2019 | Protesters march near a street leading to the governor’s mansion. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The governor said in a statement Thursday that he respects the protests as a democratic exercise but condemned those who have been using “incorrect methods and violence.”

But he made clear he intends to retain power.

“I understand the challenge I have before me because of recent controversies, but I firmly believe it is possible to restore confidence and that we can, after this shameful and painful process, achieve reconciliation,” Rosselló said.

'Sleeping giant'

Rosselló largely had evaded the harshest criticism during the recovery, but in recent weeks he has faced political crises brought on by FBI corruption investigations and public allegations from a former cabinet secretary that Rosselló’s government is an “institutional mafia” peddling influence through bribery, extortion and fraud.

Then last week, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published nearly 900 pages of derisive comments Rosselló and his closest advisers made in a private group chat on the Telegram messaging app. The group of 12 men mocked female politicians, celebrities and journalists with sexist and homophobic invectives. The most offensive of all to protesters was a joke about dead bodies piling up in morgues after the hurricane.

The crude commentary shared between Rosselló and what his critics call his “frat boy club” of Puerto Rico’s elite political class laid bare an administration obsessed with its image and rooting out disloyalty. Members of the chat talked frankly about manipulating news coverage, trolling opponents on social media and orchestrating political retaliation that some experts say could merit a criminal investigation.

“A sleeping giant of indignity has awakened,” said Puerto Rico Sen. Eduardo Bhatia of the Popular Democratic Party, who is expected to run for governor and hopes to challenge Rosselló in 2020. “The chat was the alarm clock.”

The chat’s derogatory content was, as goes a popular Puerto Rican saying, the final drop that tipped the glass. And what spilled over was rage, said 74-year-old Ingrid Tirado, whose cancer-stricken husband died after Hurricane Maria because he could not receive necessary treatment.

“If you stay silent, you become an accomplice,” Tirado said, who attended the massive Wednesday march in Old San Juan with her family. “He can no longer represent us.”

Rosselló has lost nearly all of his public support. Congressional Democrats, the leaders of the Puerto Rican Senate and House, religious groups and nearly every major figure in his party have encouraged the governor to step down.

But in a two-hour news conference Tuesday, Rosselló defied calls for his resignation and dismissed the corruption accusations as a malady that afflicts every society. He did not say if he would run for reelection in 2020.

Rosselló’s apologies came a week after the FBI arrested six officials tied to the government, including Education Secretary Julia Keleher and the head of the Medicaid office, on charges those agencies steered millions of dollars in federally funded contracts to favored firms.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Douglas A. Leff hinted this year that more investigations are in play and that it would be a busy summer for his San Juan agents. An FBI spokesman declined to elaborate.

“It is has been very difficult and deeply painful,” said Puerto Rico Sen. Zoé Laboy, a member of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party. “The best thing for Puerto Rico is for the governor to step down and let us move on.”

The president of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, Carlos “Johnny” Méndez — one of the targets of the group chat’s mockery — is assembling a committee to evaluate possible impeachment. A two-thirds vote is required to begin proceedings.

But removing Rosselló presents a problem for Puerto Rico. Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín was among the recent resignations following the chat’s publication. He was next in line to the governorship.

Puerto Rico After Maria: A year of disruption

Christian Sobrino, Rosselló’s finance guru and representative on the Financial Oversight and Management Board, also resigned after his participation in the group chat was revealed. That is particularly complex for Puerto Rico because it lost its most experienced representative on a board that is restructuring the territory’s estimated $74 billion in debt.

“There’s still work to be done,” said Natalie Jaresko, the board’s executive director, adding that about two-thirds of the debt has been restructured so far. “We are making solid progress.”

Recovery at risk

The potential power vacuum Rosselló’s exit would bring worries Edgardo Roman, president of Puerto Rico’s lawyers association.

“The survival of the political system as we know it is at risk,” he said.

The scandals come at a particularly sensitive moment for the island. Thousands of Puerto Rico homes still rely on blue tarps to keep the rain out. In April, Rosselló asked House lawmakers for $15 billion to cover its Medicaid program for the next several years, noting its federal funding is set to begin drying up this September and could affect 1.5 million residents. The island is pleading for Congress to release the rest of the Hurricane Maria aid, just as the Atlantic prepares for another hurricane season.

‘Water is everything.’ But for many in Puerto Rico after Maria, it was still scarce a year later.

Every day Rosselló stays in power further erodes the credibility of the local government, giving federal agencies reason to put conditions on any public money afforded to the island, said Jay Fonseca, a popular commentator who has a nightly news show on local Puerto Rico television.

“Trump was right,” Fonseca said. “The saddest part of all this is that it helps justify any effort to delay or deny funding.”

Members of Congress such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have been careful to emphasize that beneficiaries of federal programs should not be punished.

But federal lawmakers reacted to the chaos by advancing stricter oversight measures for Puerto Rico. Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, won approval Wednesday for his plan to impose a slew of additional safeguards on federal funding. Those new provisions included mandatory audits of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program for “waste, fraud and abuse,” as well as a new requirement that the island’s government create a tracking system for the allocation of all federal funds.

“This certainly doesn’t help,” Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said of the corruption allegations. “We need to root it out, but that doesn’t mean we just stop helping people.”

Noel Zamot, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who served as revitalization coordinator for the fiscal board, said the political instability could slow Puerto Rico’s recovery, affecting private investment and causing multinational firms to question whether doing business on the island is worth it. The protests already have caused cruise ships to skip San Juan.

Zamot, who resigned in February frustrated by what he experienced working with Rosselló’s government, has shared information with federal authorities.

“It’s fair to say that based on my experience with government officials, that Rosselló’s administration has made Puerto Rico their economic playground,” he said. “This all will have a material effect on the recovery.”

Underlying the rage propelling people to the streets is a quiet fear that the unrest might not settle, further upending a territory that has been conflicted about its future and its relationship to the U.S. mainland.

Puerto Rico — a spoil of the 1898 Spanish-American War — achieved a measure of autonomy nearly 70 years ago from the U.S. Congress. But as an unincorporated U.S. territory of more than 3 million U.S. citizens, many argue it is still a colony subject to the will of the federal government.

People such as Rafael Capo Garcia, a public school teacher, worry that instability here increases the chances that Washington could impose its will on the island.

“I’m worried that people will think Puerto Ricans cannot govern themselves,” he said.

Stein reported from Washington.