Protests in Puerto Rico

The Movement that Overthrew a Governor

Poster calling for national action on July 22. Art by Taller Grafico PR, photography by Mediapersona.

On July 17, 2019, thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan to demand the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló. At first, the government insisted that the protesters amounted to no more than 12,000, later grudgingly admitting numbers closer to 90,000. Such statements were drastically undercut by viral videos on social media that claimed the participation of half a million protesters. Most media outlets validate that there were “more than 100,000,” a rough estimate which is significant in itself. 

Although this figure was astonishing at the moment, it pales in comparison to the participation achieved on Monday, July 22, when Puerto Ricans overtook one of the most important highways in San Juan. Media reports say there were between 300,000 and half a million protesters paralyzing the capital—not counting the large demonstrations that were also held in different parts of the island. 

However, these are only the highlights. The island has been in a permanent state of protest since July 11. During the last couple of weeks, Puerto Ricans have brewed up some of the largest political demonstrations in the country’s history, surpassing that of the struggle against the occupation of the island of Vieques by the United States Marines, two decades ago. The protests have brought together different sectors of society that usually struggle to find common ground. More importantly, they brought a much needed victory: the resignation of now ex-governor Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló. Our new challenge is to continue shaping Puerto Rico’s history.

Rosselló’s government represented the continuity of the economic and colonial crisis that has encumbered Puerto Rico since 2006, as well as the neoliberal policies that have accompanied it. This continuity, however, took the form not of tragedy but of farce. Ricardo Rosselló, the son of former governor Pedro Rosselló, based his political career on having his last name (jokingly, it has been said that being the governor of Puerto Rico was Ricky’s first full-time job). He campaigned for the repayment of Puerto Rico’s massive $72 billion debt—most of it illegal, illegitimate, and unconstitutional—without any moratory, only to admit later on that neither the full repayment nor the suspension of the moratory was possible. Although he initially favored the Junta de Control Fiscal (Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico, an unelected oversight apparatus imposed by the Congress of the United States through the PROMESA Act of 2016), a power struggle eventually ensued between Puerto Rico’s executive branch and the Junta (The struggle, however, is of degree: just how neoliberal the Puerto Rican budget will be. The main ideological and political currents of the government and the Junta coincide.) Rosselló won the 2016 elections with only 41% of the votes, the lowest in the country’s history, but governed as if he had overwhelming support.

Puerto Rico has had massive May Day demonstrations since 2017. That year also featured an impressive student strike that included students of the public university campuses throughout the island. But the political opposition (broadly speaking) had failed at creating continuity between these demonstrations, failed at creating a political force that could channel this large discontent and, ultimately, challenge the neoliberal and colonial aggression that has dominated Puerto Rico while creating an alternative economic model for the island. Political resistance was growing weaker with the passing years, in stark contrast to the Rosselló administration’s constant problems and the people’s increasing disapproval of its policies and actions.

These last weeks have imploded and expanded all of the social tensions and contradictions of Rosselló’s colonial government. Raúl Maldonado, a former key figure, was quickly fired after he spoke of the existence of an “institutional mafia” within Puerto Rico’s Treasury Department. This sparked a chain of events that started tumbling the government. Six people were arrested by the FBI and charged with fraud and money laundering. The most important of these were Julia Keleher, ex-Secretary of Education, and Ángela “Angie” Ávila, who managed the state-funded health insurance.The FBI has announced upcoming arrests and hinted that they may involve the Treasury itself. 

Weeks later, a Telegram chat with 889 pages leaked. Along with Ricardo Rosselló, there were eleven other men in the chat, some government-appointed figures but also a lobbyist and the media gurus of the Rosselló administration. Among other things, the leak revealed conspiracies against multiple figures of the Puerto Rican political sphere and public funding being used to manipulate media and polls. The more horrifying texts revolved around jokes regarding deaths caused by Hurricane María and a number of misogynous, homophobic comments.

The outbreak was immediate. Rosselló’s response… not so much. Before the full 889 pages were released, he held a press conference in which he apologized, stating that he used the chat as a way of releasing stress, and promised that that was part of his past. Most were not convinced. When the whole chat was released, the chant was spontaneous and clear: “Ricky, ¡renuncia!” (“Ricky, resign!”). He fired most of the political figures involved in the chat, which included second-in-command Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín. He publicly asked for forgiveness in a church. No one was buying it. The daily protests spontaneously started July 11 in front of La Fortaleza, Old San Juan, where the governor resides, and fourteen days later culminated in his resignation. 

The massive demonstrations contain a tension. On the one hand, they are the result of the accumulation of popular discontent towards corruption in all spheres of the government, as well as a disavowal of the neoliberal policies of privatization and budget cuts in all public services. On the other, they had, until the early hours of Thursday, July 25, one simple, unitary demand: the resignation of Rosselló. 

That demand has been accomplished. Although broader political slogans and chants (against the Junta de Control Fiscal or other members of the corrupt government) were heard and sung by thousands, it is unclear how much of these mobilizations will continue now that the unitary demand has been fulfilled. Although unions organized the logistics of most of the massive activities, Puerto Rican celebrities and artists have led the demonstrations, not always with a clear political vision of what should come next, or what this even means.

For progressives and socialists alike, the new obstacle to overcome within this massive struggle will be, precisely, to provide a political orientation, to make this a struggle that does not end with the governor’s resignation, while avoiding alienating a large part of the protesters and sympathizers. Rosselló’s resignation was, evidently, necessary, but also not enough to change the political, economic, and social situation of Puerto Rico. Whether the left is capable of creating a new political force that can finally channel all the accumulated discontent as well as develop and implement a transitional program that defies neoliberal and colonial policies, time will tell.