PUERTO RICANS are all too conscious that the mainland treats them like second-class citizens. Unfortunately, their local government also treats them with disdain. That sad fact was laid bare with the recent leak of coarse and dismissive messages exchanged among Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his inner circle, prompting protests that hopefully will lead to long-needed changes in how the U.S. territory is governed.
Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published hundreds of messages from a private group chat that included homophobic and misogynistic attacks and jokes about dead bodies that piled up in the wake of the hurricane that devastated the island almost two years ago. The leak was seemingly the last straw for Puerto Ricans weary of government that doesn’t serve their interests. Decrying the government’s poor response to Hurricane Maria and the recent arrests of former top officials on corruption charges, they took to the streets with calls for Mr. Rosselló’s resignation. “We are tired of the abuse. . . . We are here to make a revolution,” one protester told CNN. “I haven’t lived under a government that hasn’t been corrupt,” a 34-year-old teacher told the New York Times.
The scandal over the messages, dubbed “Ricky Leaks,” has already resulted in the resignation of two top government officials, but the governor has refused to step down. Even if he leaves — and it’s hard to see how he can hang on — it is clear that the island’s problems won’t be solved simply with his departure. Serious, systematic reform is needed.
That the Federal Bureau of Investigation undertook an investigation into government corruption — indicting two former officials for allegedly steering lucrative contracts — was actually good news, a step in the right direction. Aggressive law enforcement is an effective antidote in rooting out corruption, and it’s important that efforts to hold people accountable continue. Included here must be rigorous oversight of the federal disaster relief funds going to the island.
A federal oversight board was created by Congress in 2016 to help manage Puerto Rico’s recovery from its debt crisis, but its effectiveness has been hampered. Not only has it been locked in battles with local authorities who have resisted its reforms, but also it doesn’t have authority to ensure operational changes. Congress should take steps to strengthen the board. A good model is the D.C. fiscal control board created in the 1990s that made the hard decisions and effected the structural changes that helped put the city on firm fiscal footing. That the local D.C. government today is far better off with enviable finances is due, in part, to those years of temporary federal control and oversight. That should be the aim for Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans, said one protester, have been “putting up and holding back” for “too many years,” and it took the devastation of Hurricane Maria to open their eyes to how thoroughly government had failed them. They are now demanding better. It’s time that government — in Washington and San Juan — starts delivering.