1. There were allegations of fraud — and then came 889 pages of leaked chats.
Widespread allegations and mounting evidence of government corruption sparked outrage among Puerto Ricans, but last week’s leaked chats between Rosselló, top aides and a former campaign manager turned lobbyist detonated a huge round of protests. These chats revealed that Rosselló and people in his close circle conspired to suppress dissent within his party as well as from political rivals.
Many Puerto Ricans were angry that these conversations insulted supporters, opponents, activists and civil society figures; joked about those who died during Hurricane Maria in 2017; and coordinated efforts to control news media narratives through cyber-trolling campaigns and close ties with major news outlets. Leaked chats showed that Rosselló and his aides pleaded with the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board to alter documents that disparaged the Rosselló administration’s handling of the ongoing fiscal crisis, while privately insulting FOMB members; and undermined federally mandated reforms of Puerto Rico’s police.
2. Puerto Rico’s economy remains in deep crisis and is a source of discontent.
The social, economic and political bases for the current unrest emerged well before events unfolded this month. Puerto Ricans were reeling from an economic crisis since the Clinton administration began phasing out federal tax code incentives in 1996, the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and a history of U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico.
Many in Puerto Rico have shown their discontent with both main parties, Rosselló’s ruling New Progressive Party (NPP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), in the streets and at the ballot box. Both parties garnered significantly fewer votes than in previous elections, voter turnout declined and independent candidates gained substantial support.
Puerto Rico has a long tradition of protesting government corruption, and a history of pro-LGBTQ, student, feminist, pro-independence and socialist activism. In my research I detail how, during the early NPP administration under Gov. Luis Fortuño, from 2008-2012, Puerto Ricans protested austerity measures by forming coalitions and new organizations, and university students launched two strikes. I find that protesters from these movements spilled over into other movements and formed new groups.
Outraged by the mismanagement of a hurricane relief aid charity under the leadership of first lady Beatriz Rosselló, and the revelation of officials joking about the deceased, solidarity groups are now using their networks to organize protests across the globe. Mutual assistance groups set up in neglected Puerto Rican communities in the aftermath of the hurricane are also canvassing widely, effectively mobilizing local support for the protests.
3. Many Puerto Ricans believe their leaders have become increasingly undemocratic.
There are concerns that Rosselló is expanding the reach of the executive branch through executive orders, blurring the lines that separate the judiciary and the executive branches. And there are concerns about the curtailment of constitutionally granted civil rights.
The Fortuño administration packed the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, which tends to rule in the NPP’s favor, often citing NPP-produced documents in their decisions. Puerto Rico Attorney General Wanda Vázquez Garced initially characterized the leaked chats as “incorrect” but did not point to any legal wrongdoing. Vázquez later announced that she would recuse herself because she had been mentioned in the chats, as Rosselló advisers celebrated that she had been found not guilty of using her position to exert undue influence over a case that involved her daughter.
In turn, Rosselló affirmed that private lawyers had concluded that the chats did not involve any illicit activity — but was unwilling to provide the analysis or name the lawyers. Puerto Rico’s Justice Department gave the governor and his aides until July 19 to hand over their cellphones, a week after the leak, prompting widespread concerns about the destruction of evidence.
During a live TV interview, Puerto Rico’s police commissioner said he would “defend democracy until the last drop of blood” and mobilized riot police units and a correctional department riot police division that surrounded the governor’s mansion. The American Civil Liberties Union unsuccessfully challenged their deployment in a federal-district court. The court expressed its concern over their deployment but determined that the ACLU did not have standing.
During a July 17 demonstration, which drew an estimated 300,000 marchers and a caravan of 3,000 motorcyclists led by an underground activist known as Charlie the King, police officers detained and injured reporters, demonstrators and bystanders. Residents of Old San Juan district, the historic neighborhood where the capitol and the governor’s mansion are located, were subjected to indiscriminately fired tear gas. At the height of the demonstration, police officials announced via loudspeakers that the protest was no longer protected by the constitution. Shortly before midnight on Monday, police again declared illegal a protest in front of the governor’s mansion.
4. What do protesters want?
Demands vary, but they include calls for policies that prevent corruption, revolving doors and lobbyist influence. Protesters also want greater media transparency and autonomy, the development of a feminist curriculum in K-12 education, the declaration of a state of emergency to respond to the crisis of gender-based violence, auditing and canceling Puerto Rico’s debt and the removal of the FOMB. Sen. Vargas Vidot answered the call for systemic changes by introducing legislation that would create a new constitutional assembly.
Protesters and netizens from all walks of life repeatedly state that the protests are not just about the leaked chats and FBI indictments — but cite far deeper concerns that the problems that ail Puerto Rico go beyond the governorship.
Fernando Tormos-Aponte (@fernandotormos) is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins University.