“We woke up!”
That’s how my friend Nelly Cruz, a publicist in San Juan, explained the massive street protests that led to the resignation of Puerto Rico’s feckless and corrupt governor last month.
A lot of my fellow Puerto Ricans had not expected such an awakening in our lifetimes. There was just too much to overcome – too much political neglect and corruption and graft and abuse of power. Among the Puerto Rican people, there was too much poverty and despair and political lethargy.
And yet, improbably, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, and 15 days later, Gov. Ricardo A. Rossello, the 40-year-old son of a former governor, agreed to leave office. Since his July 25 resignation, his constitutionally designated successor, Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez has refused to step up and others in the line of succession have quit, or been fired or arrested. On Wednesday, Rossello named Pedro R. Pierluisi, who formerly represented the island in Congress, his new secretary of state, a role that means he will likely take over as governor when Rossello’s resignation becomes effective on Friday.
But heady and exciting as the whole thing has been, the most important days are to come. The next few months will tell whether the crisis will devolve into political chaos or lead to fundamental changes, and which it will be is far from certain.
Puerto Rico’s next chapter won’t be written on a blank slate. The revolt comes after 15 years of economic crises that have included a massive debt load, a bankruptcy and restructuring plan and new austerity and budget rules imposed by a fiscal oversight board.
The island is still struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, something made more difficult because of an inept government response and the disdain shown for the island and its residents – who are American citizens – by President Trump.
The current upheaval grew out of more recent scandals. First came revelations in late June of an “institutional mafia” operating in the Treasury Department. Days later, in a separate case, two top former Cabinet members were indicted on federal corruption charges.
The lid was blown off on July 13, when private text messages involving the governor and his inner circle were leaked. Hundreds of pages revealed plots to manipulate public opinion and crude comments against LGBTQ advocates, victims of Hurricane Maria and a variety of women. (In the messages, the governor called former New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito a “whore.”)
Public outrage about the scandals was immediate and widespread, touching every sector of the island’s 3.2 million people as well as Puerto Ricans on the mainland. Led by throngs of young people, popular music stars and women’s groups like Colectiva Feminista and Victoria Ciudadana, the protests spilled over expressways, neighborhoods and the protest’s epicenter, the streets leading to La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion, in Old San Juan.
So now what?
Some fear that the federal oversight board, known as the junta, will expand its powers over the island. Some fear that chaos and instability will drive more Puerto Ricans to leave and tourists to stay away.
Everyone agrees that change is essential, but it is unclear who can steer that change.
For now, the island’s two largest political parties have little credibility. The protesters who rose up so effectively have little trust in any status quo politician, even Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of San Juan, who plans to run for governor in 2020.
Carmen Haydee Rivera, an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico, believes whatever happens next is in the hands of the younger generation. “They are the driving force.”
Some political watchers are looking to Alexandra Lugaro, who ran for governor as an independent in 2016 and is affiliated with the progressive Victoria Ciudadana, or citizens’ victory, movement. She “may be one of the emerging leaders of Puerto Rico,” said Jorge Duany, director and professor of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Lugaro received only 175,000 votes in the 2016 election, or about 11%, but that was the biggest showing for an independent candidate in decades. Her path won’t be easy. The island has a long tradition of passing power back and forth between the Partido Nuevo Progresista, which advocates statehood for the island, and the Partido Popular Democratico, which does not. But some Puerto Rico watchers believe the recent demonstrations have changed the calculus entirely.
In the long term, Puerto Ricans must deal with the festering problem of the island’s status. Since it is neither a state nor an independent nation, its residents cannot vote in presidential elections, though they are citizens, and the island has no vote in the U.S. Congress.
Andres W. Lopez, a San Juan attorney and political insider, hopes that will soon be addressed. “Puerto Rico must use its newfound power to change its unequal relationship with the United States,” he told me. “The emerging voices are clamoring for justice and for change. The future will bring about the full equality of statehood … or independence. ”
I hope he’s right. I left Puerto Rico as a teenager to attend private school in the United States and have never lived there full time since. But like all Puerto Ricans who left, I want my birthplace to thrive. For me, Puerto Rico’s status has always been at the heart of its intractable problems. It needs to become independent, or at least an American state. To be a colony in the 21st century is an anachronism.
But before tackling that, the island must decide whether the recent exuberant demonstrations will lead to longer term change and better leadership. And that is something only the island’s residents can decide.
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa is a journalist and former editor at the New York Times. She is the author of two nonfiction books, most recently, “Before the Rain: A Memoir of Love & Revolution.”