Puerto Rico’s Ouster of Its Governor Isn’t Just About One Administration’s Corruption

Protesters demonstrate near a police barricade on a street leading to the governor's mansion.
Protesters demonstrate near a police barricade on a street leading to the governor’s mansion. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the days and weeks after the eruption of protests in Puerto Rico demanding the ouster of the island’s now former governor, Ricardo Rosselló, a majority of the news coverage focused on the scandal and corruption that encased him — 889 pages of rude, sexist, and homophobic text messages from a running chat of his inner circle were leaked to the press. “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” Puerto Rico’s chief financial officer wrote in the chat, referring to dead bodies in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Two days before the text messages were leaked, two high-ranking officials came under investigation for corruption by the FBI.

The island is on its third governor in a week, after Rosselló’s pick was summarily dismissed by Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court.

But the dust has not settled. Already trending on Twitter are calls for the newest governor, Wanda Vázquez, to step down. It seems the unrest surrounding the government is not isolated to events of the past month but go much, much deeper. To explain, I spoke with veteran journalist Ed Morales, whose forthcoming book, Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico, investigates the impact of the island’s current debt crisis.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Puerto Rico has a governor and Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but it’s not a state. What is it?

The official status is an unincorporated territory. You might remember from history books that different states were not admitted immediately; they were territories first. The unincorporated territory is the first step, and then they become an incorporated territory. The thing is, Puerto Rico never made the transition from being an unincorporated territory to an incorporated territory, because there was a lot of anxiety from people in the United States, led by some conservative legislators, mostly from the South, who felt that Puerto Rico had a large mixed-race population and wouldn’t be very suitable to be on a path to be accepted as a state. It was somewhat racist. So Puerto Rico has remained an incorporated territory.

There were a number of rulings called the “Insular Cases” that were decided by Supreme Court judges, some of whom sat on the Supreme Court for the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which established the basis for segregation in the United States — as you know, Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned, but the Insular Cases were never overturned. So because of that, Puerto Rico is basically a colony as an unincorporated territory.

Then, in the middle of the century, the U.N. was recommending that the rest of the European powers decolonize, and the U.S. sort of found itself with this colony, Puerto Rico, and there was a lot of unrest: labor strikes and a nationalist movement that was somewhat violent from the ’30s and into the postwar era. So the United States decided to allow Puerto Rico to create a constitution that gave it a different kind of status, but it didn’t really legally supersede the unincorporated territory. They call it a “free associated state,” and that allowed Puerto Rico to begin to elect its own governors. You know, before that, all the governors were appointed by Congress, and many of them were military governors.

What about the political parties there? Who are they?

Its politics are based on these two parties that prefer either a commonwealth status as it is or push to be incorporated as a state in the union. But the problem is that Congress has not been interested, especially when it’s dominated by Republicans, to seriously consider Puerto Rico as a possible state. And so that’s one of the reasons why you have some of the problems now, because these parties don’t really mean anything. They say they’re fighting for one or the other, but since Congress controls everything and Congress is not at all thinking of changing the status of Puerto Rico, the parties that exist in Puerto Rico are just there to sort of, like, consolidate their power and keep talking this rhetoric that doesn’t really have much meaning.

The ousted governor was a statehood-ist. Is that party damaged now?

Right now the statehood party has a lot of problems because they’ve been involved in one of the worst corruption scandals that Puerto Rico’s ever had, and it was extremely upsetting to a lot of people, as you know, for all the reasons — sexism, homophobic content of the chats that the governor was involved with, and the infamous comment where one of the governor’s main Cabinet people made a joke about the corpses from Hurricane Maria. So yeah, they’re in crisis, and the whole statehood movement is in crisis because of that. And also because it’s such an embarrassing controversy — if Congress is not willing to consider statehood seriously, they certainly wouldn’t now.

Is it this controversy a death knell for the party in and of itself?

I don’t think it’s a death knell, because they’re still gonna have hard-core supporters. And there are always going to be a lot of people in Puerto Rico who feel that the best solution is statehood because it guarantees people full entitlement, because there’s already a degree of Americanization on the island, even though most people don’t speak English, and because they want to hold on to U.S. citizenship. I’m not saying that’s the majority. The party might be able to refashion itself. But right now, things are in flux.

There’s a lot of talk about decolonizing, but the issue of the debt has to be settled and so you never know. Puerto Rico is probably not gonna become independent soon — you never know, maybe ten years down the line there’s a different kind of political situation in the U.S. and there’s more of a willingness. I wouldn’t say it’s the party’s death knell – as constituted right now, they still have so much power.

How is this moment in Puerto Rico also informed by the debt crisis?

The debt crisis officially began in 2015 when the then governor of the other party, Popular Democratic party, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, declared that the debt was unpayable, and he had his lawyers write up this legislation that would allow Puerto Rico to autonomously declare bankruptcy. Puerto Rico cannot declare bankruptcy like other states in the United States, only municipalities and individuals can declare bankruptcy. So that happened in 2015, and because of that, Congress passed a law called PROMESA in June of 2016 that would institute a seven-member fiscal oversight and management board.

In 2010, they had a governor Luis Fortuño, who tried to impose austerity by cutting 30,000 jobs. The austerity was continued by the oversight board but Governor Rosselló, the one who had to resign, sort of pretended to be on the side of the Puerto Rican people and then he would say “no, we’re not gonna cut pensions, we’re not gonna cut pensions,” and there’s a last minute, “say alright, well this is something we can live with, even though we have to cut pensions a little bit.” That’s why people were seeing through the government. The other thing with austerity being imposed way back in 2009, 2010, is that because of it there have been a lot of labor movements and student movements in response to deep cuts in the university system. And these are the people that formed the hard core of the protests that have happened this time around. But the difference now is that you don’t have to be politically minded to be upset about what the governor said in the chat.

What kind of government are Puerto Ricans asking for now?

I guess what’s transgressive or radical about what Puerto Ricans are asking for now is that they’re just sort of saying, “Look, so many of these politicians have been proven to be corrupt that we just want new leadership.” There’s a possibility for a new political party to emerge.

A new party? Wow.

In the last election, in 2016, almost 20 percent of the vote went to candidates that were not in the two traditional parties, so that’s something to be watching. But really what you’re gonna see in the current transition process is that whoever emerges, the people are probably not gonna get their way and the governor who winds up taking over is gonna be from the pro-state party. And then we’ll see whatever happens in 2020. You know, you gotta look at Carmen Yulín Cruz, who made a big name here in the U.S. standing up to Trump — she’s from the Commonwealth Party — but there may be a serious third-party challenge.

Are there other emergent political stars?

There’s this movement called Victoria Ciudadana, which means “Citizens Victory.” It’s trying to be this big tent to get people from all of the existing parties and constituencies together and back either candidates or even what they’re calling a constitutional assembly to come up with new definitions of status possibilities that they want to present directly to Congress from “the people,” not from the Puerto Rican government. So that’s pretty radical. But, you know, there are two, there are three main leaders in Victoria Ciudadana. One is Rafael Bernabe, who ran on this Puerto Rican Workers’ Party ticket, maybe a little analogous to Bernie Sanders, a little younger. Then there’s Manuel Natal, who is younger, he’s pretty much a millennial, extremely sharp guy. He had been a representative — he is a representative in the legislature — but he withdrew from the Commonwealth Party. And then there’s Alexandra Lúgaro, who got the most votes in the 2016 elections. She got 11 percent as an independent candidate, and she’s also extremely well-spoken on her feet. She’s probably the most likely alternative candidate to emerge, given that she got 11 percent last time, she has a very strong command of the issues, and she really has a very forceful personality.

Finally, a colleague wrote for the Washington Post that Trump had defended the pace of relief efforts for Maria with the simple excuse that Puerto Rico is “on an island in the middle of the ocean” where “you can’t just drive your truck there from other cities.” But the deeper reality is that Puerto Rico is also stranded in a faraway place in the American imagination. I’m wondering if today that resonates with you.

I think in many ways it’s true that Puerto Rico has been kind of invisible. I think there may even be an intentional visibility because it is kind of embarrassing for the U.S. to still have this colony, and even making up a commonwealth name is part of that. But I also think Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans are not really strangers to the U.S. I mean, there are Puerto Ricans who have made a big mark for themselves in the U.S., particularly in New York. They understand that we’re bilingual, they understand that we have a lot of mixed-race people, they understand our music, they understand the parade that goes down Fifth Avenue every year. So I think people are not emerging from a completely blank slate.

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