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Puerto Ricans pushed out a sitting governor for the first time in history

The massive protests worked.

People celebrate on July 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announces that he will resign.
People celebrate on July 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announces that he will resign.
Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

Puerto Rico’s embattled governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has announced that he will resign after 12 days of massive anti-government protests.

“Despite the mandate I was given by the public that elected me democratically, today I feel that continuing in this position could make it difficult for the success reached to continue,” he said in a Spanish-language statement posted around midnight on Facebook.

His resignation represents a historic moment for Puerto Rico — it’s the first time that a governor has been pushed out of office without an election. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans had blocked the main avenues in San Juan for more than a week, calling for Rosselló to step down after a series of corruption and social media scandals rocked the administration.

There was much confusion about whether Rosselló would resign on Wednesday. Media reports said his resignation was imminent, but a spokesperson for the governor issued a statement later in the day dismissing them as “rumors.”

Around midnight, that changed. Rosselló’s said he reflected, prayed, and spoke with his family before making the decision to step down. When he made the announcement, protesters in the streets cheered. Some cried.

Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez will take Rosselló’s place as governor until the 2020 elections, according to El Nuevo Día newspaper in San Juan. Under the US territory’s constitution, the secretary of state would be the next governor, but he resigned days ago for his role in one of the scandals.

The demonstrations have been growing since investigative reporters on the island published leaked Telegram app messages that showed Rosselló and his inner circle joking about casualties from Hurricane Maria and ridiculing political rivals with violent, homophobic, and sexist language. Two government officials who were part of the chat —the secretary of state and the government’s bankruptcy board representative — have since resigned, leaving two key positions unfilled. Rosselló said Saturday that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020, which did nothing to quiet calls for his resignation.

But the leaked chat messages were just the second scandal: Earlier this month, the FBI arrested two former cabinet officials in Rosselló’s government as part of a corruption probe over their handling of $15.5 million in post-hurricane contracts. The officials, former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and Ángela Ávila-Marrero (former chief of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration), are accused of funneling the government contracts to businesses they had personal ties to.

12 days of demonstrations led to the governor’s resignation

On Monday night, riot police in San Juan shot tear gas into the crowds after hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans packed the capital’s main avenues for the ninth day of protests. Each day, the number of people calling for Rosselló to resign had kept growing. And each day, Rosselló had tried to make clear he has no intention of leaving.

But the public pressure became too much. On Tuesday, one of Rosselló’s biggest donors, who owns the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean, urged the governor to step down.

Puerto Ricans were already dealing with a lot. They’re bearing the burden of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy, the lingering economic recession, and the botched response to Hurricane Maria. The two recent scandals sent them over the edge.

The incidents triggered the largest government protests in modern Puerto Rican history, surfacing decades of pent-up public anger at the island’s two main political parties. Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party and its rival, the anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party, both bear much blame for driving the US territory’s economy into the ground while doing nothing to ease widespread poverty.

What Rosselló’s resignation means for the future of Puerto Rico is up in the air — and so much is at stake. About 3.2 million Americans live on the Caribbean island, and the political upheaval could push Puerto Rico deeper into an economic black hole, or bring about sweeping reform to Puerto Rico’s failed politics. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Washington are paying close attention, as Puerto Rican voters will play a key role in the 2020 presidential primaries and the general election.

Washington’s lack of trust threatens Puerto Rico’s recovery

It’s been nearly two years since Hurricane Maria flattened homes and left millions without power. While San Juan’s colonial buildings have been restored and repainted, most of Puerto Rico has yet to return to normal.

Jobs are scarcer than before. The storm wrecked the tourism industry, a critical source of income for the island, and unemployment is at 7.7 percent (nearly double the rate on the US mainland). About 30,000 families are still displaced or living in hurricane-damaged homes without proper roofs. Most of them are still waiting for disaster aid from the federal government.

Others need Congress to pass a budget that includes funding for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid health insurance program.

“We’re talking about $12 billion. If that’s not approved in the next two months, it would leave 600,000 people without health insurance,” Carmelo Ríos, Puerto Rico’s Senate majority leader, said Sunday on CNN en Español. “Then there’s the $30 billion to $40 billion that [Congress] promised to send to the island two years ago but still hasn’t arrived.”

Washington lawmakers have shied away from publicly commenting on political affairs in Puerto Rico, but the corruption scandal is hard to ignore.

“I believe the scandals emanating from the governor’s administration imperil future federal assistance, meaning the people of Puerto Rico who have done nothing wrong could pay the price for the corruption of the few,” Rep. Nydia Veláquez (D-NY) said on Twitter last week. Velázquez, who is from Puerto Rico, was one of the first members of Congress to urge the governor to step down.

But not all of Puerto Rico’s Democratic allies in Congress called for Rosselló to resign. Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) suggested that Puerto Rico’s legislature should launch an impeachment investigation first.

The scandal has given President Donald Trump more ammunition to try to withhold federal aid while Rosselló remains in office. On Monday, he relished the chance to antagonize Puerto Ricans:

To be clear, the federal government has not spent $92 billion in hurricane relief for Puerto Rico — that’s just the estimate of the storm damage. The island hasn’t even received half as much two years later. But any future disaster recovery aid requires congressional approval and Trump’s signature.

But the corruption arrests are straining more than just San Juan’s relationship with Washington. They are disrupting business. The protests, dubbed #ParoNacional (National Stoppage), have brought business in the capital to a near standstill. Royal Caribbean cruise ships, for example, have been rerouting trips to avoid stops in San Juan.

The missing tax revenue will surely put a dent in the government’s coffers. And the governor still needs to continue paying off Puerto Rico’s debt.

The Financial Oversight and Management Board, the federally appointed monitor of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy-like process, told Vox that the resignation of Elías Sánchez Sifonte, Puerto Rico’s government representative on the board, will not change the latest austerity plan for the island. (Sánchez Sifonte was one of the politicians sharing offensive chat messages on social media.)

“The Oversight Board continues to move forward with its work to achieve fiscal responsibility for Puerto Rico and with the plan of adjustment for the Commonwealth. Filing a plan of adjustment is the mandate of the Oversight Board, not the government,” Matthias Rieker, a strategic adviser for the board, wrote in an email to Vox.

The corruption scandal has seriously weakened the credibility of Rosselló’s administration. Protesters have made clear that they want him gone, now. Famous boricuas (people with Puerto Rican backgrounds) such as Ricky Martin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and reggaeton icon Daddy Yankee joined the protests in San Juan and New York City.

While stepping down was inevitable for Rosselló, the political chaos could threaten Puerto Rico’s fragile economic recovery and put the statehood movement at risk.

Losing public support could threaten the statehood movement

Rosselló’s main political success has been to build momentum for the effort to admit Puerto Rico as the 51st US state.

The status of Puerto Rico has been the main political issue on the island since the United States annexed it in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War.

Over the years, Congress has ceded small amounts of autonomy to Puerto Rico, which now operates as a quasi-state. It has an independent elected local government, but without all the power and benefits of being a state — including a lack of real representation in Congress.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but they don’t pay federal income taxes if they live on the island. They pay payroll taxes to fund Social Security and Medicare, but the island gets limited funding for Medicaid and food stamps.

Strong political divisions within Puerto Rico over the future of the island have made it easy for Congress to ignore petitions to become a US state. There’s no consensus among the island’s 3.5 million people about whether it’s better to join the United States, remain a commonwealth, or gain complete independence.

The island’s current economic crisis, which began around 2008, has renewed the effort to gain statehood. More federal money would flow to Puerto Rico if it were a state, though it would also increase federal taxes on the people who live there.

Rosselló’s pro-statehood political party, the New Progressive Party, swept into power in 2017, taking control of the local House, Senate, and governor’s mansion. The latest scandals are bad for the party, which makes them bad for the statehood movement.

His party has been building public support in Washington for Puerto Rico statehood, and has been arguably more successful than previous efforts.

Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress, House Delegate Jenniffer González-Colón, recently introduced two House bills that would allow Puerto Rico to become the 51st American state — one before Hurricane Maria hit, and the other last summer.

The Puerto Rico Admission Act would create a task force to immediately start the process of transitioning Puerto Rico into a US state, which would happen by January 1, 2021. The latest bill has 53 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. While it’s still far from becoming a reality (there’s the question about whether or not most Puerto Ricans even want statehood), Americans on the US mainland are more supportive of the idea than ever.

Two out of three Americans living outside of Puerto Rico say they’re in favor of admitting the island as a US state, according to a June Gallup poll.

But nothing has moved forward since, and the scandals could weaken support for the pro-statehood party in 2020. A key challenge may come from San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who gained fame and notoriety in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria for her harsh criticism of the Trump administration’s response. She is reportedly weighing a run for governor as part of the Popular Democratic Party, which wants Puerto Rico to remain a US territory. But her party has had its own share of corruption scandals too.

Ríos, the Senate majority leader and member of the pro-statehood party, insists that the government corruption is not systemic. Instead, he said Congress will focus on rooting out the bad apples and filling the empty positions with other members of their party.

“We have talent to spare to reinvent ourselves and maintain stability,” he said Sunday on CNN en Español.

So far, that stability is nowhere to be seen. However, Rosselló’s resignation is an important step to regain the public trust, and could signal the start of much-needed reforms to fix decades of entrenched political corruption.

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