The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want democratic accountability? Look to Ricky Martin, not Robert Mueller.

Direct action, not endless hearings, is the key to real political change.

Ricky Martin, flying a gay pride flag, joins a protest to demand the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rossello from office, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 22. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/AP)
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Seeds of discontent are growing in both the United States and in Puerto Rico. But while a democratic revolution blooms in the streets of Puerto Rico and produces real results — the governor finally agreed to resign — no equivalent appears on the horizon in the U.S.

Indeed, many Democrats and critics of the Trump presidency put their faith in Robert Mueller’s investigation to achieve justice. Yet while the investigation produced indictments and damning evidence against the president, without the political will to initiate impeachment hearings, it is unlikely to create political change or provide accountability. Those tuning into Mueller’s testimony this week to see democracy in action should have looked to Puerto Rico instead.

There, when leaders proved unable or unwilling to hold a corrupt executive accountable, the people took to the streets — repeatedly and with determination and joy. After 12 days of historic protest involving hundreds of thousands of people, the legislature initiated impeachment proceedings, leading Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to announce his resignation.

Even after his resignation was secured, the protests continue — because this uprising is about more than personnel change. For years, Puerto Ricans have been organizing in opposition to U.S.-backed austerity policies supported by the island’s conservative politicians. For Americans wanting to not just challenge Trump but the very social, cultural and economic structures that have emboldened him, Puerto Rico provides inspiration.

The Puerto Rican protests were ignited by the revelation of almost 900 pages of crude and offensive texts between Rosselló and his inner-circle. They built on years of organizing in opposition to the austerity policies. But the real root of the protests actually dates back to the United States assuming colonial control over the island in 1898, leaving the people of Puerto Rico both part of the U.S. and outside of it — a curious condition the Supreme Court once endorsed as “foreign in a domestic sense.”

Puerto Ricans can be drafted to the military but they can’t vote for president, and the island’s congressional representative can’t vote, either. The United States has used Puerto Rico as a laboratory of cruelty for military drills, police surveillance and austerity. The U.S. has also overdetermined the island’s political economy, first through decades of outright military rule and then, since the island implemented a form of self-government in 1952, by holding veto power over it.

The U.S. transformed Puerto Rico into a monocrop sugar economy in the early 20th century; a few decades later the U.S. pharmaceutical industry all but controlled the island’s economy. In addition to causing heavy pollution, pharmaceutical companies tested their products on Puerto Ricans — often involuntarily — which led to massive sterilization of Puerto Rican women, as scholar Laura Briggs has written. The establishment of the PROMESA financial management board and the ensuing acceleration of austerity policies in 2016 was simply the latest reminder that control of the island resided in Washington, not San Juan.

Like the United States, Puerto Rico grapples with racism and sexism. But the severity of those problems and the divisions they exacerbate has not prevented people from taking united action against exploitation. Puerto Ricans have long shown that protest and other forms of collective action are key to overcoming injustice and callous disregard for their fates.

One such issue has been the U.S. military presence on the island. In 1975, Puerto Rican activists forced the Navy to stop running bombing drills on Culebra. For the next three decades, a protest campaign resisted U.S. military use of Vieques, another island in Puerto Rico’s archipelago. A dramatic series of civil disobedience actions finally led the U.S. military to leave Vieques in 2003. As Puerto Rican fishers blocked military drills in simple dinghies, they showed that persistent sacrifice for the higher good can accomplish big changes. Nonetheless, unexploded munitions remain a toxic hazard on both islands, now popular tourist sites.

In the 1970s and 1990s, Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions also organized for the freedom of Puerto Rican independence activists imprisoned in the U.S., resulting in presidential commutations for 21 people who had all served decades in prison. While Beltway pundits lament the absence of bipartisanship in Washington, the successful campaigns to free these political prisoners united erstwhile antagonists — statehooders and independence supporters — in service of a larger moral vision.

Hard hit by financial crisis in 2006, Puerto Rico’s debt grew rapidly. The island’s conservative government responded with steep budget cuts — unpopular and unsuccessful moves that the PROMESA board has accelerated since 2016. Opposition to austerity, imposed by U.S. banks and then by Congress, has brought Puerto Ricans into the streets repeatedly in the past decade. In 2010-2011, and again in 2017, students across the University of Puerto Rico campuses went on strike against steep budget cuts, tuition hikes and layoffs.

In addition to cuts, the PROMESA board has also tried to privatize Puerto Rico’s power supply and reduce pensions and vacation time for public workers. In May 2018, students and unions joined forces in a general strike against PROMESA, known on the island as “la junta,” a term typically reserved for military dictatorships.

This long tradition of activism set the stage for the current uprising. The Puerto Rican people understood that they had the power to topple the governor, who has supported these deeply unpopular policies, as well as being plagued by accusations of self-dealing against him and his cabinet. But the protests have loftier goals: They aimed not just to depose Rosselló, but also to secure meaningful self-governance and social welfare for the people of Puerto Rico. Theirs is a call for justice long denied by both the United States and by self-dealing political leaders whose failure to address deep inequities have accelerated in the failed recovery from Hurricane Maria.

The marches in Puerto Rico this month have been as joyous as they are indignant. Popular musicians Bad Bunny, Calle-13, Residente and Ricky Martin helped lead the protests, which promised to “make the country unmanageable” unless Rosselló resigned. Martin, who is gay and was a target of homophobic slurs in Rosselló’s text messages, paused his career to join the protests. He can be seen waving a rainbow flag atop a truck, surrounded by Puerto Rican flags and people laughing, dancing and chanting. That joy, echoed in videos of Puerto Ricans watching Rosselló’s resignation speech, was a reminder that even in hard times, collective action can be a joyous affair. In fact, it can supply the joy needed to survive hard times.

What’s happening in Puerto Rico, and among the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, is a reinvigoration of the 1960s slogan that “politics is in the streets.”

Americans, including elected officials, who are frustrated with their political leaders should follow the lead of Puerto Ricans. Rather than watching spectacle on television, they should be demanding action by taking action.

To be sure, Americans have taken to the streets in recent years in support of black lives and to resist the Trump administration’s excesses and cruelty. Mass protests and sustained advocacy have changed our political discourse and turned back some extreme manifestations of Trump’s will, such as the airport protests of his first Muslim ban and recent demonstrations to prevent deportations during planned ICE raids.

Yet Democratic leaders have hesitated to begin impeachment hearings against Trump, and the daily onslaught of news of American cruelty has left many feeling powerless. While demonstrations against immigration raids and concentration camps continue, many people have turned their sights to the 2020 election in lieu of acting in the present.

Events in Puerto Rico, however, show that holding back is no recipe for change. There, concerted, consistent protest against a corrupt executive turned what may have been just another scandal into the governor’s resignation. This action not only laid the blueprint for removing an unfit political leader, but also for building the unity and energy to enact deeper societal change and prevent future such leaders. We in the United States need to learn a lesson from Puerto Ricans and rise up. Our democracy — and our humanity — is at stake.