Colonial Uprising

The protests that brought down Puerto Rico’s governor are also about the island’s troubled relationship with the mainland.

Demonstrators protest in front of the mansion of Puerto Rico's governor.
Demonstrators protest in front of the mansion of Puerto Rico’s governor in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday.
Eric Rojas/AFP/Getty Images

This article was adapted in part from Jonathan M. Katz’s newsletter, the Long Version. Subscribe at katz.substack.com.

The tidal waves of scandal and public outrage had grown too big to be put off any further. On Wednesday, facing a crowd of clamoring reporters at the Capitol, the speaker of the House made the executive’s options plain: resign or be impeached.

It could have happened in Washington, at nearly the same hour. But it didn’t. Instead, the moment of truth came at the periphery of empire in the territorial capital of San Juan. While the political press was focused on downplaying Robert Mueller’s recounting of his damning report before Congress, Puerto Ricans showed how a leader—dogged by mounting allegations of corruption, illegal campaign activity, and dereliction of office—gets held to account.

Just before midnight, a few hours after the speaker of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives made his threat, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced his intention to resign—the island’s first chief executive to do so since the United States began allowing it to elect its own governors in 1947. Toppling him took the diligent work of defiant journalists and public officials willing to do their duty. But above all, it took the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans massing in the streets and grinding business to a halt to force the hand of those in power.

When he announced his departure, the crowds, who had waited all day to hear his decision, burst into celebration.

Rosselló was already reeling from allegations of widespread corruption when, on July 13, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism dropped a bomb: 889 pages of Telegram chat logs between the governor and his inner circle. Rosselló’s pals—known in the island’s Spanglish as “los ‘brothers’ ”—were caught trading sexist, homophobic cracks and mocking the victims of the 2017 hurricanes Irma and Maria. The jokes added insult to injury for a people still reeling from the climate change–fueled storms and ensuing yearlong blackout—the result in part of bureaucratic indifference and incompetence at both the federal and territorial levels.

It wasn’t just crass jokes. Even more damning was evidence of the pillaging of millions of dollars of public funds by the governor’s inner circle. These revelations, which seemed to confirm already-mounting allegations of high-level corruption, included an apparent influence-peddling scheme to steer overpriced hurricane-recovery contracts toward clients of a lobbyist who was also Rosselló’s former campaign director and the best man at his wedding.

The scandal landed on smoldering rage over decades of neglect and an ongoing economic collapse. “We were already in the Great Depression of Puerto Rico,” José Caraballo-Cueto, an economist and associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico–Cayey, told me in a blacked-out San Juan café in the aftermath of Maria. It’s gotten worse since.

Of course, millions of people on the mainland are no strangers to neglect and inequality. And it will someday take an encyclopedia to begin to list Donald Trump and his inner circle’s acts of corruption, inside dealing, pay-to-play, election interference, and other assorted criminal behavior—including most likely in Puerto Rico. (That’s before you get to the president’s own voluminous racism, sexism, homophobia, and his own insults against the hurricane dead.)

To understand why the results have been so different between the island and the mainland, it helps to understand the complicated relationship between the hemisphere’s first republic and its oldest remaining colony.

In 1898, shortly after the United States declared war on Spain over the status of Cuba, U.S. warships cruised east to seize Puerto Rico. While anti-imperialists in Congress prevented President William McKinley from fully annexing Cuba, Puerto Rico instantly went from being a colony of Spain to a wholly owned colony of the United States.

A few years later, Congress authorized Puerto Rico to issue tax-exempt municipal bonds in an effort to attract mainland investors and build up the colony. The debt from the bonds was somewhat balanced out by tax breaks that attracted other U.S. companies to physically set up shop on the island.

In 2006, thanks to a law Bill Clinton signed 10 years earlier, a lot of those tax breaks came to an end. Companies started to leave. Puerto Rico’s budget went upside down. The territorial government tried to make up the shortfall by issuing increasingly sketchy bonds, financed by Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and others. In 2015, the then-governor was forced to admit that most of the now–$124 billion debt could not be paid.

Instead of forgiving the crushing debt burden laid on a captured colony, Barack Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA. (The cute Spanish backronym means “promise.”) In exchange for protecting the territory from lawsuits, the U.S. president—whom Puerto Ricans are not allowed to vote for—got to appoint a seven-member Financial Oversight and Management Board that would control its budget and negotiate its debt restructuring.

Puerto Ricans call this board La Junta. It meets in New York.

Under Trump’s leadership, the board has imposed even stricter austerity, worsening the impact of the financial crisis on Puerto Ricans. Scores have left for the mainland. The hurricanes helped push out even more. I’ve been to the island to report twice this year, in March and June. Each time it seemed like more people had stories of family members leaving, schools closing, and businesses shutting their doors.

A key difference between Washington and Puerto Rico is power: Federal leaders have decided that they can act above the law. The territory cannot. The planned articles of impeachment against Rosselló included his alleged misuse of public funds, failure to fulfill the obligations of his office, and use of the office to “promote the electoral interests of a party or candidate.”

Contrast that with Trump. Mueller said on Wednesday that his office never even considered indicting the president, despite ample evidence of his obstruction of justice, because the Justice Department has decided, for now, that a sitting president can break the law with impunity so long as Congress declines to act. (The Justice Department has also spent months fighting Congress’ ability to act.) The Hatch Act, which, similarly to Puerto Rican ethics laws, prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in election-related activity, specifically does not apply to the president.

But the biggest difference was in the streets. For days, cities from San Juan to Mayagüez to Ponce were filled with marchers. They shut down major highways and replaced tourists in the cobblestone pathways of Old San Juan. At night, they braved tear gas from police. It was not left up to Rosselló to prevaricate, or Carlos Méndez Núñez, the speaker of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, to act. The people made the decision for them.

That movement may be just beginning to sense its own power. Hours after Rosselló’s announcement, protesters were out again, celebrating their victory while denouncing his planned successor, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced. The signature chant until the resignation was “¡Ricky, renuncia … y llévate la junta!” That means: “Ricky, resign and take the Oversight Board with you.” They may not rest until the second part is completed.

In some ways, it was the lack of political power, inherent to being a distant, second-class colony of the richest nation in the world, that lit the fuse. To suffer and die, to have no say over who your ultimate leader is, and then have that leader come to your home and throw paper towels at you in your hour of need—all of it provided sparks.

Many Puerto Rican activists had despaired for years that the islands’ people weren’t standing up for themselves. Some issues that could have triggered mass protests had been seen as too niche, or they favored one political faction over another. Perhaps it was the unifying experience of the hurricanes or the grotesque immediacy of the leaked chats that finally spurred people to action. “His comments were not only an affront to me—they were an affront to all women, and an affront to Puerto Rico,” former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told journalist Adrian Carrasquillo.

Or maybe, in the end, it was simply seeing themselves on the streets, and realizing where real power in a democracy resides. One of the other slogans of the protests was: “Somos más y no tenemos miedo.” It means: There are more of us than there are of you. And we aren’t afraid.