Why Puerto Rico is in crisis

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‘Ricky resign!’: Protesters call for resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor amid chat scandal

Police fired tear gas July 15 to quell demonstrations in San Juan, Puerto Rico that demanded the governor resign amid a scandal surrounding leaked chats. (Melissa Macaya, Juan C. Dávila/The Washington Post)

By Amber Phillips , July 19

The allegations against Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló make him look like a villainous politician straight out of a cartoon: He allegedly participated in profane chats that made light of dead Hurricane Maria victims, and there are corruption charges against his administration officials. And now tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, many of whom are already frustrated with life on an island still struggling to recover from financial crisis and natural disaster, want him out.

They’ve spent much of the past few days protesting in the streets of San Juan and in Puerto Rican strongholds such as New York City and Barcelona, with celebrities such as singer Ricky Martin headlining what is fast becoming the largest modern political demonstration in the U.S. territory’s history. (Martin is a central part of this story — more on that later.)

But even as they protest for their governor’s ouster, Puerto Ricans could be the ones most wounded by the scandal, left behind without leadership and without a federal government willing to help it recover from the hurricane and decades of mismanagement.

Here’s a primer on what’s going on there.

There’s much more to the story, but let’s start with the private chats

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló speaks at a news conference on July 11. (Carlos Giusti/AP)

They are the spark that lit the fuse. On Saturday, the Puerto Rican nonprofit Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of private chats between Rosselló and his officials and aides from last year, conversations conducted over the messaging app Telegram. All men, they made misogynistic jokes, made fun of gay people, insulted journalists, joked about shooting San Juan’s female mayor, made light of Hurricane Maria victims, and joked about the weight of a citizen with whom the governor posed in a photo.

CNN’s Ricky Sanchez did a good job of highlighting and translating some of the most jaw-dropping chats from various officials close to the governor. Such as:

On Hurricane Maria victims: “Now that we are on the subject, don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?”

On Martin: One chat called him a “male chauvinist” and used vulgar language to say that Martin is gay “because women don’t measure up. Pure patriarchy.” (In response to this, in Puerto Rico, the chats have been dubbed by some as “Chatgate or “Rickyleaks,” the Associated Press reports. “It’s pretty much barbaric what he’s doing,” Martin told “CBS This Morning.” “We’re tired. We’re angry.”)

On San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz: “I am salivating to shoot her.” (“You’d be doing me a grand favor,” the governor replied.)

Thousands started protesting in San Juan, the capital, almost immediately. By Wednesday, an estimated 75,000 people marched in San Juan, calling for the governor’s ouster, reported “CBS This Morning.” Some of the protests turned violent during the night.

With police still on the scene, and protesters gone this was our story from San Juan, Puerto Rico for @cbsthismorning telling a story to the nation that millions of Puerto Ricans want people to hear, staying with their Governor @ricardorossellopic.twitter.com/tzX7wGElZo— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) July 18, 2019

After the chats leaked, the governor apologized and said by way of explanation that there were days he and his aides had worked “18 hours” and were tired. But he has refused calls to resign, even as members of his own party, the New Progressive Party, turn against him in Puerto Rico’s legislature. Some are openly talking about considering impeachment.

Puerto Rico’s government has been in crisis for a while

Puerto Ricans agree: Trump’s response to Maria has been a failureIn the town of Yabucoa, residents say the Trump administration let them down and their struggle continues. (Whitney Leaming, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Last week, the FBI arrested some Rosselló officials, including the secretary of education, on charges related to fraud involving $15.5 million in federal funds that prosecutors say went to companies they were friendly with.

Puerto Rico has also declared bankruptcy, with an oversight board installed by the U.S. government now managing the island’s finances.

And the island is still struggling to recover from a devastating hurricane. About 3,000 people died in the 2017 Hurricane Maria, and governments at all levels — including in Washington — have been criticized for their sluggish response. Thousands of people still live under blue tarps rather than roofs, The Washington Post reported.

Congress approved $40 billion in aid after the storm, but Puerto Ricans have lost confidence they’ll see that money, stuck in a bureaucratic pipeline from Washington to San Juan.

[The politics of disaster aid, explained]

Oh, and others involved in the chat, including Puerto Rico’s secretary of state — who would be next in line for the island’s top job — resigned, raising the question of what would happen if Rosselló did go.

Also, hurricane season is starting up.

Whether Rosselló stays, the losers in all this could be regular Puerto Ricans

Singer Ricky Martin; rapper René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente; and reggaeton singer Bad Bunny take part in a demonstration demanding Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation in San Juan. (Eric Rojas/AFP/Getty Images)

This all fits neatly into President Trump’s narrative of Puerto Rico. His administration has been accused of prioritizing Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery below recovery from hurricanes that hit U.S. states around the same time, including by a majority of Puerto Ricans.

But he’s pointed the finger back at Puerto Rico’s government. He started a feud with San Juan’s mayor, said his administration did a “fantastic job,” and now is all in on highlighting this latest controversy — calling the government “corrupt” in a Thursday tweet and incorrectly saying Congress gave Puerto Rico $92 billion.

What’s most worrisome for Puerto Ricans though is how Trump said Congress “foolishly” gave Puerto Rico the money, suggesting that the island under Rosselló didn’t deserve substantial aid from the hurricane.

….of which was squandered away or wasted, never to be seen again. This is more than twice the amount given to Texas & Florida combined. I know the people of Puerto Rico well, and they are great. But much of their leadership is corrupt, & robbing the U.S. Government blind!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2019

That’s a dangerous thought for many Puerto Ricans. As The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Jeff Stein report, some powerful lawmakers in Congress are considering what they can do to put tighter restrictions on federal funding to Puerto Rico.

As public school teacher Rafael Capo Garcia told Hernández so succinctly: “I’m worried that people will think Puerto Ricans cannot govern themselves.”

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