It’s been a couple of rough years for Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory never fully recovered from the devastation left behind by hurricane María, a deposed corrupt governor, and a terrifying string of earthquakes that left thousands of families without a home. Months later, COVID-19 has shutdown the world and, subsequently, the island. However, many Puerto Ricans must face the global pandemic without a trustworthy government to look up to.
The current measures taken against the virus show improvement from the government. Juan Pablo Díaz, a singer/songwriter and content creator for his YouTube channel “Estado Crítico,” notes that “despite the lack of trust towards the government, there seems to be a disposition to obey. People seem to be paying attention and following instructions.”
Governor Wanda Vázquez was one of the first to implement a curfew beginning on March 15, which has further changed as the situation becomes more dire. The most recent curfew, lasting between the hours of 9pm and 5am, has been extended until May 3. The beaches remain closed. In order to control traffic, a measure was implemented, but later eliminated, where if a plate ends with an even number, they are allowed to transit on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. If the plate ends with an odd number, they are allowed to travel during the other days— Sundays being an off day for everyone except essential business.
El Nuevo Día reported that the governor has also approved a $500 check to every self employed citizen in order to boost the economy. The same news outlet also reported that the Financial Control Board, imposed by Congress through PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability) after the government filed for bankruptcy on its $72 billion debt, approved a $160 million stimulus to soften the economic blow.
According to Christian Bautista, owner of Los Paleteros, located in the heart of Old San Juan, local police officers are enforcing the measures in the capital.
“They punish bars and businesses that remain open by giving them a fine and taking their liquor licenses away,” Bautista said.
Earlier on Thursday, protesters in their cars were also fined and even arrested.
BREAKING: Puerto Rico Police are giving fines, ticketing protestors, and arresting organizers of a protest caravan in San Juan. pic.twitter.com/yad3agkMET
— Yarimar Bonilla 👩🏾💻 (@yarimarbonilla) April 30, 2020
Even though Puerto Ricans are following the implemented measures, they also are weary of their government’s actions.
“María marked us a generation,” Díaz said. “Before the hurricane there was already a huge mistrust on the government. Not only mistrust, but a major sense of disappointment in general.”
When asked if Puerto Ricans felt like they are more a part of the U.S. in terms of support, or if they feel isolated like in the case of the hurricanes and earthquakes, Díaz responded by saying that ever since the government failed to heed the call during the past crises, the people of Puerto Rico have always felt like they needed to take matters in their own hands.
“While we’re obeying the measures being placed, we do it out of an understanding that the situation is serious, and not out of trust from our government,” Diaz said.
Bautista seconds the lack of trust in the government, despite Puerto Ricans following the rules.
“I have zero confidence in the government. There have been countless times where we have been able to see how we can’t trust them,” he said.
Bautista believes that in multiple occasions the government has had the chance to be efficient but instead has lacked transparency in their crisis management.
At first glance, the measures seem like a way of making up for years lacking in diligence. Despite government efforts and the disposition of Puerto Ricans to follow the rules, corruption and deceit strengthen skepticism throughout the island. El Nuevo Día reported that the government almost spent $40 million purchasing COVID-19 testing kits from a construction company that had no experience dealing with medical equipment, and had strong ties with the current governing political party. The cost was apparently way over the usual spending price for these tests. This incident directly echoes the initial government attempts to rebuild the electrical power grid after Hurricane Maria by hiring an unexperienced company by the name of Whitefish.
Currently, there are government hearings investigating those responsible for acquiring the COVID-19 tests. Despite not offering a press conference in over a week, the Governor made an appearance in a famous gossip talk show “La Comay.” In the show, she appears to avoid taking responsibility for the mismanagement of funds and lack of oversight in obtaining the tests. She appeared to play down the importance of the hearings. “I don’t see a purpose for these hearings,” Vázquez said. “We need to focus on the people being protected and following the measures to ensure that the people stay healthy.”
The government has shown efforts of attempting to manage what information is spread amongst the citizens. An official press release from the governor declared that: “any person who transmits or allows to transmit by any means, through any social network or mass media, false information with the intention of creating confusion, panic or collective public hysteria will be penalized with a $5,000.00 fine.”
The Vázquez government has come under fire, being accused of suppressing the press. It was reported earlier this month that no other major news network will be allowed to participate on a series of task force television specials shown on the government news channel, WIPR. Many took to their social media accounts addressing the measure as a violation of freedom of the press, including the president of Telemundo Puerto Rico.
Now, Vázquez is scheduled to address the island again on Thursday night. Who knows what she will say?
The story paints a picture of a crumbling government that is most likely to make the same mistakes of the past. When asked if they were afraid of this happening, both Díaz and Bautista seemed pessimistic.
“As a human I do not wish that my island suffer anymore, but the present does not lead me to believe things will be different,” Díaz said.
Sebastián Villarini-Vélez is a journalist at Fordham University. He tweets from @el_seb_seb.