The rebuilding of Puerto Rico starts with honest governing

The rebuilding of Puerto Rico starts with honest governing
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Last week, the Puerto Rican community, on both the island and the mainland, celebrated the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Roselló after weeks of protests by thousands of Puerto Ricans from all over the United States.  

The governor was driven from office after private conversations were leaked. Hundreds of pages of secret chat transcripts between Roselló and members of his administration showed them mocking their constituents — an awful situation in any context, but especially offensive in light of the tragic circumstances surrounding recent natural disasters and the human suffering that followed. In fact, some of the leaked text messages shockingly joked about deceased victims, casualties of Hurricane Maria.

The massive protests demonstrate that ordinary citizens still do matter and can make a difference.  Congratulations to them — but of course now the real work begins. It will be a difficult process to rebuild trust following that level of betrayal, and the next wave of leadership must lead with integrity if the island is to overcome the heady challenges that linger.

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The issue of what the right course is now is still unresolved in the eyes of many Puerto Ricans with concerns about incoming Gov. Wanda Vazquez, the recent justice secretary who has ties to Roselló. She already has said she doesn’t want to stay in the job, perhaps in part because she was a target of protestors unhappy with her role in the Roselló scandal, as well as charges of mismanagement following Hurricane Maria. 

Regardless of who the next elected leader is, he or she will have to continue exploring ways to revive the poor economic conditions on the island. Puerto Rico is billions of dollars in debt, with no easy path to generate revenue outside of a competitive tourism market.

Then there is the continued arrangement under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) of 2016. Under that legislation, a fiscal oversight board was established to ensure that the island’s finances would be properly disbursed to pay off debtors and help people on the island. In addition to calls for its disbandment from many protesters, they will have to navigate their controversial responsibilities in an environment that is clouded with uncertainty.

Resources will have to be managed efficiently to aid a community that has been facing cuts in public services and utilities. Many of these services haven’t been the same since the hurricanes that devastated the island in recent times and left many without water, electricity and other basic services for months. 

These daunting tasks can be accomplished by rejecting the practices that plagued Roselló and embracing the values of the community that revolted against him. Transparency of the entire governing process is needed, as is a real-world understanding of what will serve the well over 3.5 million Puerto Ricans on the island.

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The first challenge may be keeping that population number stable. Recent years have seen an exodus of Puerto Ricans from the island to the mainland areas of the United States, such as Florida. Whether from the American territory of Puerto Rico or from other countries, the people moving understand that the degree and level of opportunities they need to succeed are just not the same in Puerto Rico. They seek opportunities for good work, safe communities and a solid education for their children. 

Incoming Puerto Rican leaders would be wise to try to recreate these circumstances on the island through an honest governing process, especially at the municipal level where there have been problems in the past.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen the strength of the Puerto Rican people as they united on the streets to march for a better government and for a better future.

While that level of unity will be hard to maintain as substantive policy discussions begin to develop, anyone wanting to build a better future for Puerto Rico would be wise to focus on simple, fundamental changes to alter the problems of governance that have persisted for far too long.

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes liberty, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. He writes about the intersection of free-market issues and matters that have significant impact on Hispanic and/or underserved communities. Follow him on Twitter @MarioHLopez.