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Why Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets to oust their governor

Summers in Puerto Rico are usually hot. But the month of July 2019 has been particularly scorching in Puerto Rico, and not just because of climate change.

The oldest colony under the U.S. flag is collapsing. Shocking revelations as to the contents of a “chat” in the messaging application Telegram between Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his closest advisors, caused an unprecedented constitutional crisis.

Days before the Telegram drama unfolded, a federal grand jury returned a 32-count indictment against Puerto Rico’s former secretary of Education, the former head of the Health Services Administration, and other individuals.

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The governor’s “locker-room” conversations suggest political persecution, including the attempt to fire the wife of a political opponent, so she would be replaced by a member of his party. The messages include insults and homophobic slurs against an opposing candidate for governor and his wife. They also show threats of violence (Chief Financial Officer: “I'm salivating to shoot her up [a mayor]”; Rosselló: “You'd be doing me a big favor.”)

It doesn’t stop there. The chat also includes calling the former Speaker of the New York City Assembly a “whore.” They show exchanges of confidential information between government officials and a lawyer for energy companies, about a request for qualifications (RFQ) for the public electric utility PREPA. And the conversations depict efforts to discredit the monitor of the Police of Puerto Rico, appointed by a Federal judge, humiliating jokes against an obese party loyalist and a politically-motivated criminal referral against a political opponent.

The revelations of this chat led to a Nixonian “Saturday Night Massacre,” Puerto Rican style. The governor forced the resignations of his secretary of State  — next in line in the order of succession — as well as the government’s chief financial officer and other participants of the chat.

The surprising nature of this political drama is that Rosselló suffered from a similar scandal in 2018. The revelation of controversial Whatsapp conversations during the 2016 campaign led to the resignations of the governor’s chief of staff and other prominent officials, as well as criminal charges against a former judge.    

Prominent members of the governor’s party, religious groups, artists such as Bad Bunny and Ricky Martin (himself a target of homophobic comments in the chat), and numerous organizations from the private sector and civil society, have called for his resignation. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) stated that “all credibility [of the Rosselló administration] has been lost. It is clear that the families of Puerto Rico need leadership committed to creating better opportunities on the island.” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who is chairman of the congressional committee with jurisdiction over Puerto Rico, joined the calls for resignation.

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The Trump White House stated that “the unfortunate events of the past week in Puerto Rico prove the President’s concerns about mismanagement, politization, and corruption have been valid. We remain committed to Puerto Rico’s recovery and steadfast in protecting taxpayers and the Puerto Rico survivors from political corruption and financial abuse.”

The people of Puerto Rico are frustrated with Rosselló, the island’s legislature and politics in general. Since 2006, Puerto Rico has struggled with an economic depression, as well as one of the largest migration patterns in a non-war-torn country.

An unprecedented fiscal crisis led Congress to create a Financial Oversight and Management Board, which effectively overruled self-government in the commonwealth. Rosselló’s mismanagement in the aftermath of Hurricane María precipitated the deaths of nearly 3,000 residents of Puerto Rico, who suffered for months without electricity or proper health care. Puerto Ricans are tired — and restless.

Rosselló is refusing calls for resignation. Thousands have taken to the streets of Old San Juan, where the Governor’s Mansion, La Fortaleza, is located. Boricuas in Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Texas and even cities of Europe, are marching to demand the governor’s resignation. The hashtag #RickyRenuncia even became a trending topic on Twitter.

After days of hesitation, Puerto Rico’s Speaker of the House of Representatives announced that he would appoint a panel of attorneys to “study” possible causes of impeachment. If Rosselló were to be impeached and removed, he would be the ninth governor in U.S. history to be ousted in that manner.

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Rosselló must resign — or be impeached. As Pete Townshend wrote almost 50 years ago, “We'll be fighting in the streets / With our children at our feet”. We won’t get fooled again.

The events unfolding during this Nixonian summer are the result of failed territorial policies, local corruption and cronyism. Congress and the Trump administration must take appropriate measures so that disaster-recovery appropriations are properly disbursed to the people in need without delay, even while bypassing the failed and corrupt Rosselló administration.

Ramón Luis Nieves is the former state senator for the District of San Juan, Puerto Rico and chairman of the Energy and Banking, Insurance and Telecommunications committees of the Senate of Puerto Rico. Follow him on Twitter @ramonlusnieves.