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On August 2nd, Ricardo Rosselló finally resigned as Puerto Rico’s governor, nominating Pedro Pierluisi as his successor.
On July 22nd, the headline of El Nuevo Dia, the country’s leading newspaper, read: ‘Governor, it is now time to listen to your people: you must resign.’
Since July 13th, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans had filled the streets. The trigger? The Centre for Investigative Journalism’s (CPI) publication of 889 pages-worth of messages exchanged between former governor Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Rosselló and members of his inner circle. All group participants were men. The New York Times reported that these messages were misogynistic and homophobic in nature. These included indelicate jokes about devastating 2017 Hurricane Maria, and went as far as saying that bodies piled up in morgues should be fed to ‘our crows’, meaning their opponents.
The widespread unrest was not going to stop until people were given what they wanted. After two restless weeks of protests which were strongly backed by artists such as J Balvin, Daddy Yankee, or Residente Calle 13, Rosselló presented his resignation as governor.
“Despite having the duty to assume the mandate of the people who have democratically elected me, today I feel as if continuing to do so would represent a far too important obstacle for the success of our nation,” he explained. Rosselló added that he took the decision to resign “after hearing the demands, talking with [his] family, and praying.” His resignation date was carefully chosen so as to allow a transition ‘as ordered as possible.’
The Constitution establishes that, shall the governor resign, the secretary of state would succeed him for the rest of his four-year term (in this case, seventeen months). However, that position is now vacant since the resignation of Luis Rivera Marín. Theoretically then, the secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez would assume the governorship, though she claimed to not want the job. Many others have ruled themselves out until Puerto Rico holds elections in 2020. Taking the job is ‘political suicide’, says Carla Minet, the chief editor of the CPI.
The public outrage that led to the disclosure of the chat was accentuated by recent public corruption-related arrests by the FBI. Amongst those arrested, former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher and former director of Health Insurance Administration, Ángela Ávila. Around $15 million-worth of Health and Education funds are said to have been diverted to several companies and individuals. This points to one of Puerto Rico’s deeper problems. Characterized by a two-party political arena shared between the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the New Progressive Party (PNP), corruption has been endemic for generations. Politicians on both sides offer heartfelt deals to friends in high places. This results in the money needed to win elections. José Villamil explained to The Economist that “The political system basically creates an institutional infrastructure that promotes behaviour which will sooner or later lead to corruption.”
After suffering from years of economic mismanagement, a bloated public sector coupled with high levels of poverty, the island has long failed to capitalize on its many assets. The latter range from the natural beauty of its landscapes to the artistic creativity of its people, which was on display for the world to see during the country’s lively protests. Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico in 2017 only made matters worse, sparking mass emigration to the United States mainland.
Pedro Pierluisi lost to Rosselló in the 2016 NPP primaries. It is now in the hands of George Washington University’s law graduate to dismantle the system of patronage that has built up in Puerto Rico over the years. It is important to add that Puerto Rican politicians have had a habit of replacing officials with their own cronies every time there is a power transfer. This means a loss of expertise, each and every single time.
Traditionally, the electorate has split between those who support statehood and those who are happy to see it remain a commonwealth, under American jurisdiction but with no vote in Congress. But anger with the government has had a tendency to unify both ends. That means that a simple faux-pas from Pierluisi could easily restart the protests that helped push out Ricky. We’ll just have to wait and see.