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Opinion | Pedro Reina-Pérez

Puerto Rico is burning

Demonstrators protest against governor Ricardo Rossello, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 19.
Demonstrators protest against governor Ricardo Rossello, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 19. (Carlos Giusti/AP)

Over the last two weeks, Puerto Rico has reached an unprecedented social crisis born by two events: the arrests of six public officials, including former cabinet members, for corruption, and the publication of a scandalous 900-page chat, laden with profanity and hatred, written by governor Ricardo Rosselló and his staff. The two events have sparked massive daily protests calling for his resignation. The indignation seen in videos and images on social media are unprecedented and deserve an explanation.

Puerto Ricans have lived under extreme duress for the past decade, but this became evident to the rest of the world only after Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the island. A 13-year economic depression, bankruptcy at the hands of a corrupt political class, and the imposition in 2016 by Congress of a seven-member fiscal management board with full immunity, made life miserable for Puerto Ricans. Migration to the mainland is at an all-time high, while federal funds for reconstruction are being withheld for fear of mismanagement. Inequality, discrimination, and disaster capitalism have slowly destroyed hope. It is in this context that the leaked chat conversations should be seen.

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Some wonder why the protests didn’t happen before, and the answer is simple. More than 120 years of American colonialism instilled fear in the hearts of the population. Puerto Rico, as an unincorporated territory, “belonged to but was not part of the United States,” the US Supreme Court said in 1901. It was to be considered “foreign in a domestic sense.” These words carried a powerful message. Ironically, Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917 but denied voting rights and congressional representation. Since 1920, any goods coming in must be transported using vessels built, owned, and manned by US merchant companies, making everything 25 percent more expensive.

Exploitation and wealth extraction for military and economic purposes have been happening since the US invasion of 1898 and continue today, as Puerto Rico’s recent public bankruptcy revealed. Wall Street profited at every turn, at the expense of Puerto Ricans. Wall Street had no qualms about lending and lending more, knowing there was major profit to be had. Excessive government borrowing to pay ordinary expenses started in the 1970s and reached a breaking point in 2014, when $3.5 billion in debt was issued, the largest such offering in US history. But almost $1 billion was used to pay back loans, cover fees, and eliminate risks, as Wall Street banks leveraged the transactions to cover their backs and get out of their positions unscathed. It was predatory lending at its best, thanks to local politicians serving as enablers — until an exposed chat turned them into the target of their fellow citizens’ wrath.

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Taken together, these events inflicted a severe collective trauma, and the leaked chat triggered a spontaneous reaction to suffering that had long been internalized and repressed. “Nos están matando” (“They are killing us”) was a common cry after Hurricane Maria, as the government refused to acknowledge the number of deaths and FEMA fumbled in distributing aid. But the comments in the infamous chat revealed that the government’s stance was willful and deliberate. Then there was an explosion of emotion with a hashtag addressed to the governor, #RickyRenuncia (“Resign, Ricky”), and people took to the streets. Fear vanished, and one collective voice proclaimed: “We are not afraid.”

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The protests will not end until Rosselló resigns. More chat revelations are expected, and additional FBI arrests for corruption are possible in the coming weeks, making things more uncertain.

Rosselló seems to be buying time to secure a future for himself outside of politics, according to reports.

This scandal is but a symptom of an underlying, more complex problem: impunity for a corrupt political class, enabled by voters. To transcend this moment of public anger, Puerto Rico must commit to uprooting any tolerance for privilege and special treatment for politicians. There is a long journey ahead but, as the continued calls for transparency and accountability grow, the healing process has clearly begun.


Pedro Reina-Pérez is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a visiting scholar at Harvard University.