In Puerto Rico, 2019 came to a close with a series of earthquakes, a fitting end to a year that shook the island and changed its history. It saw the ouster of an entitled and corrupt administration, the self-immolation of a millennial governor via a chat group and the awakening of the Puerto Rican people to the power of social protest. Disillusion gave way to people’s power, the young voices of La generación del yo no me dejo and hope for change in 2020.
This past 2019 began on Three Kings Day with a shootout in broad daylight in a residential and busy tourist area that was caught on video and went viral. It was a Dodge City like Puerto Ricans had never experienced before. It all went downhill after that.
In the months that followed, escalating crime, blackouts, arrests of government officials, obfuscations from La Fortaleza, more blackouts, no emergency aid from Washington, the marketing of the island as a for-profit Utopia, endemic violence against women and the fire and brimstone trafficked by extreme religious fundamentalists set the stage for a very hot summer.
The culmination was massive protests, led mostly by young women and men and applauded by the Diaspora, against Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his administration.
Ricky, as he is known, self-immolated in a frat-boy chat that insulted almost everyone. It made fun of gays, women, members of this own party, and the more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans who perished after Hurricane María devastated the island in 2017.
Rosselló, son of ex-Governor Pedro Rosselló of the ruling pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), inherited his Daddy’s throne by selling himself as a religious family man. Telegramgate lifted the curtain on the who he really was (shades of Donald Trump Jr. and Animal House’s Doug Neidermeyer) and the nature of his inner circle—toadies who fancied themselves PNP’s Millennial lords rather than public servants.
After being caught red-handed, Rosselló spat out an unconvincing mea culpa.
“I want to begin by saying sorry for the statements I’ve written in a private chat. I’ve lived through days of a lot of intensity, of a lot of work with many pressures,” Rosselló said. “I used this chat to release tension built up from 18-hour days, sometimes with no day off…. None of this justifies the words I’ve written.”
But on an island that has suffered a 13-year recession, a federal control board imposed by Washington and the terrible aftermath of María, this did not go down well. Banging pots and pans, dancing, doing yoga and the Perreo Combativo, Puerto Rico filled the streets of Old San Juan for 15 days. People from all walks and political persuasions chanted “Ricky renuncia,” and “Somos más y no tenemos miedo.”
It was an extraordinary moment. It brought together a fed-up citizenship, a challenge to encrusted corruption and a rejection of the sclerotic power-brokering of a two-party system that has kept the island hostage for decades.
In the end, after much gnashing of teeth and ripping of the bodice, Rosselló relinquished and slithered off, sacrificed by his own party for the PNP’s survival.
The strategists started working posthaste. The whitewashing of the summer of 2019 began just as soon as Ricky resigned. PNP elders did all they could to distance themselves from their less than radiant child and the sense of entitlement and arrogance that ran through his administration like raw sewage.
The spin? All Puerto Rico had to do was rally behind the new governor Wanda Vázquez, ex-secretary of Justice, who squeezed in after fellow PNPer Pedro Pierluisi’s embarrassing palace coup failed, and the economy and investments would start to flow and everything would return to normal.
Since then, Vázquez and the PNP cupula towed the company line (we are not Ricky) and acted as if nothing had happened. Showcase Wanda, the new and improved PNP’s People’s Princess (more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as past indictments against her show) and then bring in Pierluisi when her term was up. That was the plan.
Vázquez, who swore she would never run for governor, developed a liking to La Fortaleza and towards the end of 2019, announced her candidacy for 2020. She says the four months she has acted as governor has taught her much and that “the people are my machinery,” effectively splitting the party into two camps.
Vázquez could very well carry an election, but it is doubtful she would survive her party’s primaries. What she has in her favor is that she appeals to women, a considerable percentage of the island’s electorate, and the fact that Pierluisi is damaged goods, think La Fortaleza coup. He is also doing himself no favors with a wooden, creepy Joe Bidenesque performance on the campaign trail. But Pedro is still the anointed one—and having tasted a week in La Fortaleza, he will do and say anything to get back in.
The main opposition Popular Democratic Party (PPD) has also lost credibility with infighting and internal divisions. It has been incapable of extracting political capital from the Rosselló debacle. The PPD allowed the PNP to close ranks and never got an effective opposition strategy off the ground. Time is running out and their one hope —San Juan Mayor and Trump nemesis, Carmen Yulín Cruz— squandered much of her political capital by spending more time in Washington than in San Juan. Yulín could also win an election, but it is doubtful she will survive her party’s primaries.
But 2019 has been a good year for the Independence Party and new political options, such as Victoria Ciudadana. New candidates and new blood have opened spaces for change. It has also been a banner year for independent journalism, specifically for The Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI), which published the chat and has done solid and consistent investigative work. CPI was recently been awarded the prestigious Louis M. Lyons Award, given for conscience and integrity in Journalism by Harvard University.
The truth is 2019 and that summer began three years ago when Hurricane María blew the island apart and revealed a collapsing infrastructure, poverty, and government malfeasance that Tony Soprano would be proud of. The pieces are now being reassembled by an incompetent, corrupt and ossified power structure to benefit disaster capitalists and their collaborators—the local financial and political elites.
Washington’s living laboratory, its ”special economic zone,” now resembles Cuba in the late 1950s. It is a nation being sold by the pound and overrun with shady Wall Street types, bitcoin shysters and disaster carpet baggers. As Jennifer Lopez says at the end of the movie Hustlers:
“This city, in fact, this whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”
Yet as 2019 came to a close, the events of that summer in Puerto Rico still stand as the hope that those that took to the streets will return to the ballot box and elect a new cadre of leaders that will fulfill the desires of a younger generation that wants change and is unafraid to hold those in power accountable.