Protests And Governor Resignation: A New Chapter For Puerto Rico?

Last week, thousands of protestors took to the streets of Puerto Rico with a unified message: Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló must resign. The New York Times reported that for five consecutive days these protestors met and marched near the Governor’s mansion. These protests took a violent turn when protestors tossed fireworks and the police responded by dispersing the crowd around the mansion with tear gas. The New York Times reports that there were several nights of violence in which the protests ended with chaos and conflict with police, and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. MSN claimed that the demonstrations are considered historically large for the country and are made up of individuals from all walks of life. Cultural icons such as Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny, and everyday residents alike all denounce Rosselló and say he has betrayed their trust.

The frustration behind these record high protests has been building for years. According to MSN, decades of fiscal incompetence and economic stagnation led to ballooning public debt and bankruptcy. Then the federal government put in place an unelected and unpopular federal oversight board to manage the U.S. territory’s finances. During Rosselló’s administration, Puerto Rico has seen thousands of layoffs, cuts to public services, school closures, tuition hikes, and the continuation of a 12-year debt crisis. On top of these financial issues, Hurricane Maria hit the entire island in 2017. MSN claims that Maria knocked out power for months, destroyed the already fragile infrastructure, forced citizens to evacuate to the U.S., and caused shortages in food, water, and medicine. 3,000 people are estimated to have died in the aftermath of the storm. The response by Rosselló’s administration after Maria was full of controversy. The New York Times reports that it awarded a $300 million contract, to help restore power, to Whitefish Energy, a Montana company with no major disaster experience. They were criticized for not having standard mutual aid agreements ready, so that outside utilities could be on hand to help quickly. It took nearly a year to have power fully restored. Additionally, MSN reports that Congress approved $42 billion in aid for Puerto Rico, but only $13 billion has been spent amidst scandals and political upheaval. The problems with the aid have strained the island’s relationship with the United States. The Washington Post reports that these tensions boiled over with the release of 889 pages of obscenity-laced online chats between Rosselló and his close advisors.

Unfortunately, the response to Puerto Rico’s current state of disarray has been largely ineffective because of Puerto Rico’s leadership. Time reported in 2017 that the United Nations criticized the U.S. for not giving Puerto Rico the urgency and priority it deserved compared to the mainland states that were affected by hurricanes at the same time. Six weeks after Maria hit, thousands were still homeless, 25% of Puerto Ricans still had no drinking water, and 2.8 million people still had no electricity. The United Nations argued that if three million U.S. citizens would have been in the same conditions, Washington would have rushed to remedy the situation. Worse than the slow response, the aid given by the U.S. was squandered and misused in scandals. This caused the U.S. to lose trust and slow down the flow of aid into the country. Instead of increasing the financial support in Puerto Rico, Congress decided to put regulatory and financial barriers in place to make the use of funds harder for Puerto Ricans.

The financial crisis in Puerto Rico is another wound that keeps bleeding. According to the University of Miami News, in 2006, the U.S. eliminated legislation that gave tax credits to companies that based their operation in Puerto Rico. As a result, many U.S. companies moved operations to cheaper international locations. Additionally, Puerto Rico’s bonds were extremely attractive to U.S. corporations because they are triply tax exempt, and Puerto Rico is required by constitution to pay back debt even before they cover expenses related to public needs. Unfortunately, this eventually led to the collapse of Puerto Rico’s economy. The U.S. responded to this by passing the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act that created a fiscal oversight and management board. This body was not elected or supported by Puerto Ricans and fostered even more frustration. The board’s main objective has been to ensure Puerto Rico pays, no matter the social cost, and this is one of the driving forces behind the protests erupting now from the impoverished nation. University of Miami News also states that when Puerto Rico attempted to declare bankruptcy and restructure the debt (as states in the U.S. federation are entitled) in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down because Puerto Rico is not a state.

It is clear that the “solutions” put in place by the United States have largely led to more problems. The slow and restricted hurricane relief efforts have caused frustration and conditions that are labelled by the United Nations as inhumane. The financial oversight provided by the United States following the economic downfall of the country has been plagued by scandals within Puerto Rico’s government and has only caused more outrage amongst Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans have responded to their crisis in a number of ways. University of Miami News claims thousands have migrated to the United States in search of better economic conditions. Students facilitated a strike in 2017, and now the country has mobilized vast protests. The protests have driven Rosselló to agree to step down as head of party, and as of 25 July  2019, CNN reported that he has also agreed to step down as governor.

Rosselló’s resignation is just the first step in what will be a long healing process for Puerto Rico. The first step is for the U.S. territory to put in power a competent governor. This governor should act in the best interests of Puerto Rico and seek to eliminate the corruption in the government. Additionally, the financial board put in place by Congress should be put up for election, so Puerto Ricans are able to democratically vote for the people making their financial decisions. This will also help direct the focus of the board to improving Puerto Rico, rather than a focus on paying debt. Once the right personnel are in positions of power, real progress can be made.

In terms of their financial state, Puerto Rico has nearly two decades of trouble to reverse. Even though Puerto Rico is not a state, the United States should accept some responsibility for their current financial distress, and allow Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy and restructure their debt as if they were a U.S. state. This action will help alleviate the pressure of Puerto Rico’s mounting debt. Puerto Rico should then move to change its constitution so that the country is not required to pay debts before public needs. This will help lift people out of poverty, improve living conditions, and settle the unrest in the citizens. The United States should be looking to help bolster its territory into better financial status without being overbearing, and Puerto Rico needs to act in the interests of its citizens first.

The second aspect to Puerto Rico’s recovery is healing the wounds from Hurricane Maria and moving forward. Once better and trusted leadership is in place, the U.S. should release the rest of the funds it approved to Puerto Rico. Additionally, the U.S. should consider helping with boots on the ground. When a hurricane decimates a U.S. state, the government rushes to send both monetary and physical aid to that state. The U.S. has sent monetary aid to Puerto Rico, but should also consider sending physical aid such as food, supplies, and people to continue supporting the recovery and progress of Puerto Rico. Once the financial and physical states of Puerto Rico are stabilized, the country should seek to boost its tourism industry to provide a source of steady income to the island. Competent and popular leadership, better financial assistance and management, and full recovery from Hurricane Maria are the keys to putting Puerto Rico back on track and providing a better life for Puerto Rican citizens.