A political bomb that had been brewing for some time now blew up last week in Puerto Rico with the publication of a group chat in which governor Ricardo Rosselló and his closest advisors made some pretty offensive comments, and possibly committed multiple crimes.
The publication of the first set of chats happened last Tuesday and the second set was made public one day after the FBI arrested the former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher and Ángela Ávila Marrero, the former Administrator of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration (ASES in Spanish), on multiple corruption charges.
#RickyLeaks or #TelegramGate has been devastating for Rosselló. The governor fired most of his close advisors, his pro-statehood party has practically discarded him politically, and calls for his resignation have been coming from all sides. The ongoing protests in Puerto Rico (that turned violent on Monday) make one thing very clear: the people have had enough. On Thursday afternoon, it is estimated that 20,000 people will protest in San Juan.
I wish I could say that the effects of the scandal end there, but events like these always end up being discussed in Washington, D.C.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health marked-up H.R. 3631 —which would allocate $12 billion in Medicaid funds to Puerto Rico over 4 years— the same day the chat was made public. During the mark-up, several members of Congress stated that more financial controls needed to be included in the bill for it to pass the full committee. Democrats, mind you, were saying that before Republican members did.
They must have had the arrest of Ávila Marrero on their minds when they made those comments. After all, less than a month before her arrest, she testified before that very same committee to appeal for more federal funds to provide adequate healthcare to Puerto Ricans.
The Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Raúl Grijalva, called for Governor Rosselló’s resignation last week. Senator Scott and Senator Rubio tweeted about the need to place more financial controls over federal funding sent to the island, and the government’s lack of credibility.
Scandals & corruption charges in the administration of governor of #PuertoRico are disturbing. We must find a mechanism that guarantees taxpayer funds are properly spent. But cutting disaster aid punishes American citizens for wrongdoing of politicians. https://t.co/94vLR6zeND
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) July 11, 2019
Even Puerto Rican Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) blasted the governor’s remarks and police abuse of protesters this week. President Trump subtly mentioned the scandal when he included AOC on one of his latest tweets alluding to “corrupt countries.” His Deputy Press Secretary, Judd Deere, was not as subtle on Wednesday.
BREAKING: Statement from the White House regarding the political crisis in Puerto Rico pic.twitter.com/qIIL0kmsgd
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) July 16, 2019
The problem is that no matter who ends up being the governor, the fallout from the scandal has made Puerto Rico-related issues radioactive in Washington. The ripple effects didn’t just wipe out the credibility of the Puerto Rico government—it also wiped out the work of the army of lobbyists employed by the Rosselló administration.
As a golden rule, politicians don’t go near other politicians that are toxic, and everyone that participated in that chat is extremely toxic right now. That is why both the people that lobby for the government of Puerto Rico in DC, and those employed by corporations to lobby the Puerto Rico government, won’t be able to buy themselves out of this mess this time around. Their cozy relationship with people in the chat can’t be ignored.
For example, Elías Sánchez —who was Rosselló’s campaign manager in 2016— is one of the top corporate lobbyists dealing with the Puerto Rican government. As the former representative of the Puerto Rico government before the Fiscal Control Board, he had access to confidential information and spoke regularly with Puerto Rico’s lobbyists. He was one of the participants in the chat, and it is clear he used information discussed in it to obtain unscrupulous benefits for his clients. It was reported that he was being investigated by the FBI. Does anybody really think he or any of the other officials and consultants involved in the chat will get a meeting in Congress anytime soon?
The case of Sánchez is an extreme one, but no matter how squeaky clean a lobbyist might be, there is no denying that their work took a hit after the scandal demoralized the few allies that Puerto Rico has in Congress. The Democrats that stood up for Puerto Rico and demanded that any disaster aid package passed in Congress include funding to help the island recover are not pleased with this mess. After all that work and all the criticism they faced, this is how the Rosselló administration repaid them. Who could blame them for not wanting to work with his administration on any issue?
It is clear that in the coming days, the Trump administration, the Republican Party and the supporters of the Financial Control Board will try to use this as an excuse to tighten control over Puerto Rico. They will try to use this as a pretext to slow down the arrival of much-needed funding to help rebuild the island.
We cannot let that happen.
There are still 30,000 families without a proper roof over their heads, that are still struggling to put food on the table. The people of Puerto Rico should not have to suffer because of the mistakes of Rosselló or his corrupt cronies.
So what can we do when the government has lost all credibility, and its army of lobbyists has been sidelined? We do the only thing we can do: organize, organize, organize.
For years, different parties, movements, and institutions have implored us to organize our community in the Diaspora and harness our electoral power to change things back in Puerto Rico. But now, it is our patria (homeland in Spanish) that is demanding that we take the next step. It is for the sake of our dignity that we have to rise and help our brothers and sisters back in Puerto Rico who have said enough, and are taking matters into their own hands.
With more than 5 million Puerto Ricans spread across the United States (including swing states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania), our voices, rising in unison for once, can be loud enough to make change a reality. We just have to get out and do it.
On Wedensday, protests demanding that Rosselló resign were held in cities like Madrid, Orlando, Miami, and DC. All the protests were organized from one day to the other, and they all had throngs of people clamoring for the governor’s ouster.
?Ricky renuncia y llévate a la junta ?Our ask is pretty simple and we will not leave until @ricardorossello leaves and takes the @FOMBPR with him! @Pwr4PuertoRico @latinorebels pic.twitter.com/RiaeCa7J6A
— Frederick Velez III (@frederickvIII) July 16, 2019
Later on Thursday, a massive march headed by Puerto Rican world-renowned artists Bad Bunny, Ricky Martin and Residente will be held in San Juan. In addition, other protests will be held in cities like Houston, San Francisco, Boston, and Cleveland.
¡Boricua en el Bay Area! Mañana 17 de julio a las 2:00PM, llégale. ¡Dale RT! Folks in the Bay Area, joins us to show your support for #PuertoRico.#RickyRenuncia #BoricuasEnSanFran@BoricuaActivate @miguelrios @lilialuciano @Pwr4PuertoRico @lherrero pic.twitter.com/Xb0J8pe5iY
— Mónica Feliú-Mójer (@moefeliu) July 16, 2019
If you genuinely want to help, participate or organize a protest in your neighborhood. Are these the makings of an emerging #CaribbeanSummer in Puerto Rico? You won’t know unless you show up.
Frederick Vélez III Burgos is a former Congressional staff member and has worked in the last three election cycles to get out the vote in the Latino community. Born and raised in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, he now lives in Miami, FL. You can follow him on Twitter at @frederickviii.