In the middle of a new hurricane season, Puerto Rico is once again destroyed, and it has nothing to do with Category 5 winds and rainfall. The current storm is whirling inside the San Juan executive mansion of the island’s embattled governor, Ricardo Rosselló, who in just one week went from attending the Women’s World Cup title game in France to seeing his political future (and that of the people he serves) implode.
Rosselló’s troubles began last Tuesday, when news of a private Telegram chat between the Democratic governor and his inner circle hit local media. The first 11 leaked pages led to other leaks, which culminated in the publication of 889 pages of group chats on Saturday morning by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. By Saturday evening, the fallout from the group chat — filled with sexist, homophobic and profane language against political opponents and allies, the fiscal control board and journalists, plus conversations that possibly suggest preferential government treatment on contracts, information manipulation and coordinated social media trolling — resulted in the resignations of Rosselló’s second-in-command, Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera Marín, and the government’s chief financial officer, Christian Sobrino, who represented the Rosselló administration on the control board. Other members of the group chat also resigned or were let go.
Everyone except for Rosselló, who said that the private chat — the same private chat in which he threatened former New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and called her a “whore” in Spanish and also joked about a threat against the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz — was just a way to relieve stress.
Was he just relieving stress while his chat buddies mocked people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria?
Despite days of protests and calls for Rosselló to resign, the governor has vowed to stick it out. On Tuesday morning during a news conference that lasted for more than two hours, Rosselló remained defiant as a hashtag demanding his resignation trended globally and after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Old San Juan on Monday night. He even addressed a White House statement about corruption in his administration — two of his former administration officials were arrested last week by the FBI on corruption charges — by saying that corruption happens everywhere, even in the federal government and other U.S. jurisdictions. He also could not specifically name anyone who is still supporting him, just that he was elected by the people of Puerto Rico.
In other words, even more damage was done.
Now leaders of his own pro-statehood party are reportedly looking for ways to replace Rosselló. While the governor promises more transparency and a more focused plan to strike down corruption, it’s just distracting noise. As the scandal starts its second week, it’s clear that the longer Rosselló stays in office, the more political damage he is creating for Puerto Rico.
Last week, the group-chat news was mostly limited to the island and Puerto Ricans living stateside, but now national outlets have started covering the protests (for example, CBS News’ David Begnaud, who earned praise for his award-winning reporting post-Hurricane Maria, arrived in San Juan on Sunday night to report on the scandal).
Considering all the work that so many Puerto Ricans have done to make sure post-Maria funding remains a priority, the Rosselló scandal exposes a harsh reality that must be addressed: If you thought Washington didn’t care about Puerto Rico before, it sure won’t care more now. In the eyes of the federal government, how can anyone take Puerto Rico seriously?
The federal critiques of the latest scandal are already bipartisan. On the Democratic side, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, who chairs the House’s Natural Resources Committee, called for Rosselló’s resignation even before the final blow of #TelegramGate occurred. Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida tweeted that “all credibility has been lost.”
To some the federal condemnation reeks of colonial masters telling their subjects to settle down, but there are very few Puerto Rican political operatives who believe that Rosselló can improve San Juan’s precarious relationship with Washington and the Trump administration. Any hope that progress was being made has vanished. Rosselló has lost all political capital, and it’s unclear exactly who can fix this damage and how it can be fixed.
To those who might sound surprised by this, the signs have always been there. Puerto Rico’s mostly white and male political class has been driving the island into the ground for decades. The debt crisis, as much as Wall Street is at fault, needed its accomplices. Rosselló was part of that political class and culture — the cool kids who thought they were smarter, better and entitled to put their personal interests ahead of Puerto Rico’s. Such attitudes have dominated local politics under several administrations, even when Rosselló’s father, Pedro, was governor in the 1990s.
A defiant Rosselló is the last thing Puerto Rico needs right now. If he truly cared about putting Puerto Rico first, he would find a way to leave office sooner rather than later.