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Puerto Rico’s Protests Have Been Long Coming. It’s Time Everyone Listen.

This past Monday was the tenth straight day of protest in Puerto Rico, making it the largest political demonstration in the island’s history. Thousands surged Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s house, banging pots and pans, repeating, over and over, “Ricky Renuncia”—Ricky, resign.

There are a few reasons these protests exploded into a massive movement. Foremost, the leak of Telegram messages between the governor and 11 of his top aides and cabinet members in which they denigrated political opponents using profane, misogynistic, and homophobic language. There’s also the FBI’s arrest of former top officials in Rosselló’s administration along with other instances of corruption in the government. The Puerto Ricans have also been frustrated for a long time, with economic debts piling on top of each other and no solution in sight.

Following is a breakdown of all the reasons the protests are occurring, followed by a description of the actual events themselves.

Leaked Telegram chats indicated misogynistic, homophobic, and profane language from officals in addition to exposing their corrupt behaviour and beliefs.

The Telegram messages, also known as Chatgate or RickyLeaks, have gotten the brunt of media focus, and for good reason. On July 13, Puerto Rico’s center for investigative journalism (CPI — Centro de Periodismo Investigativo) published 889 pages of texts between Rosselló and 11 top aides. 

The PDF of the texts is available here.

These messages date from the end of 2018 to January 2019 and demonstrate that officials fixed polls to advance the public image of the Rosselló administration. They also include a large array of sexual and misogynistic jokes.

When upset that former New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Vivierto criticized Tom Perez, chair of the DNC, for backing statehood for Puerto Rico,  Rosselló wrote that “Our people should come out and defend Tom and beat up that whore.”

A screenshot of the leaked Telegram messages linked here.

Many insults were directed toward San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Sobrino Vega wrote, “I am salivating to shoot her,” — to which Rosselló responded, “You’d be doing me a grand favor.” Yulín Cruz is part of the opposition Popular Democratic Party and is running for Rosselló’s current position.

Another person they insulted was Ricky Martin, a famous Puerto Rican singer and actor. Sobrino Vega said, “Nothing says patriarchal oppression like Ricky Martin. Ricky Martin is such a male chauvinist that he f—- men because women don’t measure up. Pure patriarchy.”

The chat also made light of the growing amount of casualties from Hurricane Maria. “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” one of the officials said, with crows referring to the administration’s critics.

In response to questions from the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) asking whether the chat’s subject matter does not constitute misuse of public resources for political purposes, Rosselló said, “No, well … Yes, yes, uh … Again, the memes we did and things that were done were done on people’s personal time. All people have the right to produce, without obviously charging the Government, in that sense. No, one thing does not interfere with the other.”

Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez said on Friday that an independent committee has been formed to determine whether or not his remarks were illegal. The results will be decided in the next ten days.

Corruption has been evident in top officials for years and recent FBI arrests have exacerbated that.

Minor protests had occurred before Chatgate due to a previous scandal. In early July, the FBI arrested Julia Keleher, who was the secretary of the department of education before resigning in April, and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, who led Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration until last month. This was part of a corruption probe to investigate how they handled $15.5 million in contracts.

Allegedly, they directed out this money in contracts to favored businesses, which edged out others despite allegations that they were unqualified. “The charged offenses are reprehensible, more so in light of Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis,” U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Vélez said.

These scandals are especially damning for the Puerto Ricans because they corroborate Trump’s accusations that the Puerto Rican government cannot be trusted with funding. Already, U.S. lawmakers are beginning to develop new, more stringent, measures to safeguard against potential corruption, especially around Medicaid.

The Puerto Ricans have long held frustration toward the government for various reasons, such as the state of their economy and lack of regard for the people.

The islanders weren’t surprised by any of the corruption being unearthed. They have long felt exploited by the elites, especially after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the following debt crisis. The aftermath of the hurricane not only indicated how neglected Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was, but how indifferent Washington was to the islanders’ plight.

In 2018, Puerto Rico set harsh austerity measures in response to the debt crisis. There were some protests in response, but they were short-lived. 

Puerto Rico currently has an unemployment rate is 9%, and over 40% of the people are in poverty.

When answering why these frustrations detonated after the texts were exposed, Gustavo Velez, founder of Inteligencia Economica, said, “The total mismanagement of the economy is affecting the quality of life here. The middle- and lower-income classes have really suffered, and that’s the reason why people are still really frustrated — because people were expecting the government to execute all the reforms and measures to get Puerto Rico back to normal and out of its financial crisis, so that’s why there is this social unrest and explosion.”

The protests themselves reach across class divides, gender, and political orientation. 

After the scandals erupted, protests exploded. Mario Negrón Portillo, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, said to the Guardian that Rosselló’s texts were the final straw for the islanders. “Everyone woke up one day and the governor was spouting vulgarities,” he said. “There’s nothing worse for a politician than losing legitimacy. I think Ricardo Rosselló has lost legitimacy.”

 Pamela Calderón, who owns a restaurant on Calle San Jose, said that, “Unfortunately, there is always corruption in the government. But with the publication of the chats, people in Puerto Rico saw how the corruption affected the response to the hurricane. There’s a sense of, ‘You left us to die.’

“There are still people without electricity or a roof. There is a perception of being abandoned by the government, a lack of planning and the inept way government managed the crisis.”

The protestors themselves have enormous diversity, spanning various age groups, political orientations, and social classes. Many have been chanting “Puerto Rico se levanta”, or,“Puerto Rico is waking up”, a slogan which was first used after Hurricane Maria.

“We’re writing history,” Juan Carlos Rivera Ramos, a Puerto Rican activist, said when contacted by The Nation. “Our people, in all their diversity of colors and flavors, ideological plurality, are expressing dignity on the streets. My eyes are tearing.”

After the Monday protests, Rosselló reiterated himself. In a news conference at his mansion, he said, ““I understand perfectly that this was a message against me personally. I’m going to keep working for the people of Puerto Rico.” His viewpoint is simple: “I have not committed illegal acts,” Rosselló said. “I committed inappropriate acts.”

Rosselló has even posted on Twitter a picture of himself at the head of a conference table surrounded by advisors. “I’m going to continue,” he repeated in a radio interview. “We are all bruised — I’m bruised — but I recognize it, and I have to get back up.”

On Sunday, however, Rosselló compromised. In a video posted on Facebook, Rosselló says he will not seek re-election and will step down as the head of his party; however, he will not resign from his position as governor of Puerto Rico.

Mensaje al pueblo

Mensaje especial como presidente del Partido Nuevo Progresista y gobernador de Puerto Rico.

Posted by Ricardo Rossello on Sunday, July 21, 2019

The day after the march on Monday, three women went to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Rio Piedras, which is a principality of San Juan, and removed Rosselló’s portrait from the wall in protest. This act has inspired a series of copycat gestures throughout offices in Puerto Rico.

On Wednesday, another demonstration ended in violence. Thousands had flooded into Old San Juan earlier in the day to listen to speeches from celebrities such as Residente, a leader of the reggaetón-hip hop group Calle 13, his sister iLe, who sang a patriotic hymn  “La Borinqueña”, Bad Bunny, a trap rapper, and Benicio Del Toro, an actor.

Around 11:30 P.M., thousands were gathered at La Fortaleza when tear gas was set off again after demonstrators threw plastic bottles at the police. The police announced that the protest was no longer legal, and according to videos, a few minutes later fireworks began to explode on the police side. The majority hit a few yards behind the police.

The protest, however, has other dimensions besides violence. El Rey Charlie has organized people and crews of motorcyclists to engage in audio warfare against the governor. He went into San Juan twice after stopping in public housing projects called residenciales. At night, El Rey Charlie and the people he gathered revved their engines outside the governor’s mansion.

However, when a group of 3,000-4000 attempted to ride into Old San Juan, the police called the protest over, said the Constitution no longer applied, and began to forcibly remove protestors from the area. 

Many groups have been present at these protests. The Colectiva Feminista en Construcción is one. For a long time, they have been asking Rosselló to acknowledge the epidemic of violence against women that Puerto Rico has.

Another major group is a new political coalition called Victoria Ciudadana

These demonstrations have nearly been completely peaceful. People have sang, have danced to pleneros (plena being a folkloric storytelling genre common at Puerto Rican protests), and have simply loitered on the streets. Police violence, however, has been an unwanted specter,  especially the hated fuerza de choque (riot squad).

Many celebrities and political figures have also spoken out in support of the protestors. Ricky Martin, who was mentioned in the leaked chats, is one of them. “They mocked our dead, they mocked women, they mocked the LGBT community, they made fun of people with physical and mental disabilities, they made fun of obesity. It’s enough. This cannot be,” he said.

Music has been a large part of this protest. Shortly before a rally on Wednesday, Bad Bunny, Residente, and iLe released a protest track called Afilando los Cuchillos (Sharpening the Knives). It has been watched 4.5 million times, more than the population of the island itself.

“Your apologies are drowned in rainwater / In houses that still don’t have a roof,” Residente raps in Spanish, attacking the administration’s actions to help the islanders recuperate after Hurricane Maria.

These protests, the people say, will continue daily until some sort of change occurs. A national strike, intended to block major highways, occurred Monday, July 22. Over 500,000 people attended protests throughout the island.

Photo: Oscar Rohena/Flickr

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Richa Patel
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