clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

9 questions about Puerto Rico’s political crisis you were too embarrassed to ask

What in the world is happening in Puerto Rico? We’ve got some answers.

A man salutes a march from a rooftop.
A man waves a Puerto Rican flag the day after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced he will step down on Wednesday, July 25, 2019.
Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

For more than a week, hundreds of thousands of protesters stormed the streets, demanding that the governor of Puerto Rico step down. But now that he has agreed to go, no one seems to know who will replace him.

It’s all understandably confusing. The 3 million Americans who live on the island, which is a United States territory, are going through a lot: a lingering economic crisis, a government bankruptcy, the aftermath of a deadly hurricane, and now a major political scandal. Puerto Rico is facing an existential crisis of sorts, but the way islanders have responded to that crisis is nothing short of remarkable.

After 12 days of massive anti-government protests, Puerto Rico’s embattled governor, Ricardo Rosselló, announced last week that he will resign. 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, calling for Rosselló to step down after a series of corruption and social media scandals rocked the administration. When he finally announced his decision, the streets erupted into cheers.

But over the weekend, the woman in line to replace him, Justice Department Secretary Wanda Vázquez, said she doesn’t want the position. So what does this all mean? And why does it matter? We’ve answered some of the questions on your mind.

1) Why did Puerto Ricans kick out their governor?

Puerto Ricans have been patient through decades of government incompetence and corruption, and they’ve had enough. They’re bearing the burden of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy, the lingering economic recession, and the botched response to Hurricane Maria. But two recent scandals sent them over the edge.

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.

Then, three days later, 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 a government representative on the bankruptcy oversight board — have since resigned, leaving two key positions unfilled.

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 little to ease widespread poverty.

All the corruption allegations are taking a toll on the public too. Elected officials in Puerto Rico have been involved in so many corruption scandals that they’re hard to keep track of. Countless government leaders have pleaded guilty to charges accusing them of accepting bribes and giving government contracts to businesses they favor. For example, the last time the anti-statehood party was in power in 2008, the FBI arrested a dozen government officials on charges of money laundering and campaign finance violations. The governor at the time, Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, was arrested too (though he was acquitted during trial).

Frustrated voters kicked the party out of office in 2009, but the pro-statehood party has its own corruption problems now. And unlike last time, voters weren’t willing to wait around until the next election to show their frustration. Demanding Rosselló’s resignation was, in a sense, a demand for respect and ethical government.

2) So who’s in charge of Puerto Rico right now?

Rosselló is still in charge, but not for long. He said he is stepping down Friday, and no one knows who will replace him.

Under Puerto Rico’s constitution, the secretary of state is next in the line of succession, but that office has been vacated, too. Luis Rivera Marín resigned his post last week for his role in the leaked chat scandal. The secretary of justice is the next in line, but Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez says she’s not interested.

“I reiterate, I have no interest in occupying the position of governor,” Vázquez said Sunday on Twitter. “It is a Constitutional dictate.”

Instead, Vázquez asked Rosselló to appoint a new secretary of state before he leaves office, so that person can then take his place as governor. So far, that hasn’t happened, but two elected officials in his party are reportedly jockeying for the position, according to El Nuevo Día newspaper.

One of them is Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, the congressional delegate who represents Puerto Rico in the US Congress, and the other is Puerto Rico’s Senate president, Thomas Rivera Schatz. Both are party insiders who were reportedly weighing a primary run against Rosselló in 2020. Whoever wins will have to work hard to keep the pro-statehood party in power after all this drama.

3) How does Puerto Rico’s government work?

Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1898, when it was annexed 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 not all the power and benefits of being a state — including a lack of real representation in Congress.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but they generally don’t pay federal income taxes if they live and work on the island (unless they are federal employees). They do pay payroll taxes to fund Social Security and Medicare. The island gets limited funding for Medicaid and food stamps. It doesn’t have representation in the Electoral College, so Puerto Ricans can’t vote for president unless they live in one of the states.

But they can vote in the presidential primaries like any state.

The 3,500-square-mile island in the Caribbean looks tiny on a map, but the population is dense — more Americans live in Puerto Rico than in Nevada, Montana, or Maine. So voters who live on the island send a fair amount of delegates to the Democratic National Convention during primary season. Puerto Rico’s estimated 59 delegates outnumber those in more than half of US states.

For example, about 58,800 voters in Puerto Rico cast ballots during the June 2016 Democratic primary. The island ended up pledging 37 delegates to Hillary Clinton and 23 to Bernie Sanders. In the Republican primary that year, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio won all 23 delegates.

In many ways, the federal government expects Puerto Rico to act like a US state. Puerto Rican residents and businesses must comply with federal laws, with few exceptions, which is why the FBI has jurisdiction on the island.

The island’s political status is closely tied to Puerto Rican identity and has divided Puerto Ricans for decades. A 2018 survey shows that the largest group of Puerto Ricans who live there favor statehood, followed by those who would prefer to remain a US territory. A smaller number favor full independence from the US. But there still appears to be no consensus.

While Puerto Ricans have been fighting about their political status for decades, Congress has shown little interest in changing anything. Washington lawmakers have introduced more than 130 bills to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status, and none has gone anywhere. That’s partly because there is no defined process for statehood. But Puerto Rico’s recent economic crisis makes the issue more urgent than ever to resolve.

4) Why is Puerto Rico broke?

Puerto Rico is worse off than any US state. Unemployment is at 7.7 percent, nearly double the national rate, and 44 percent of residents live in poverty.

President Donald Trump likes to remind everyone that Puerto Rico was already a mess before Hurricane Maria.

It’s true; the government was completely broke. And while Puerto Rico’s leaders deserve rightful blame for the island’s corruption and financial woes, so do lawmakers in Washington. They created numerous tax breaks for investment in Puerto Rico, then repealed them, driving up its debt.

Congress also made it more expensive to live and do business in Puerto Rico for most of its history as a US territory. That’s largely a result of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, which requires companies to hire US-based shipping crews to transport goods between US ports instead of letting them hire crews who offer the best price. The law did not exempt Puerto Rico, even though it’s an island in the Caribbean and can’t get anything trucked in. The law makes it harder for Puerto Ricans to buy food, gas, and basic consumer goods from the mainland — and for US companies to operate there.

Then, starting in 1996, Congress began to remove a tax-incentive program to encourage investment in Puerto Rico, prompting US companies to leave the island, taking jobs with them. Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble Company and drug makers Pfizer and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries were among the many companies that closed Puerto Rican factories after the tax incentive was repealed. That move, which coincided with the Great Recession, collapsed the territory’s tax base and led the Puerto Rican government to issue even more bonds and rack up massive debt to pay its bills.

The island has yet to recover.

Rosselló filed for bankruptcy-like protection in 2017 after defaulting on payments to Wall Street creditors (Puerto Rico owed $74 billion in bond debt). Then Hurricane Maria came that September and made everything worse. The storm inflicted about 94 billion in damage on the island, shuttering some businesses for good and temporarily wrecking its valuable tourism industry.

Yet the government is still operating under strict federal fiscal oversight as part of the bankruptcy, which has brought punishing austerity measures. An independent bankruptcy-like court operating under the Promesa Act has been helping Puerto Rico restructure its debt, and board members asked Rosselló to come up with a new, post-hurricane fiscal proposal.

The Obama-era Promesa oversight board — which acts like a controlling parent — is expected to submit its latest plan to a federal judge in August. A spokesperson told me last week that nothing about the plan has changed as a result of the political drama. It will likely include more unpopular austerity measures, such as cuts to pensions and benefits for public-sector workers, and more budget cuts to public education.

Meanwhile, investment in Puerto Rico has spiked post-Maria, and tourism has picked up again. In April, tourists booked at least 185,788 hotel rooms and other accommodations, a 31 percent increase from April 2018. But it’s nowhere near enough to lift up the economy enough to pay off the government’s debts.

5) What do all the scandals have to do with Hurricane Maria?

The scandals touch on Hurricane Maria but only peripherally. In the chat message scandal, Rosselló and his allies were mostly insulting Puerto Rican politicians and celebrities, such as San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and pop icon Ricky Martin.

Sobrino Vega, the former chief financial officer, joked about shooting Yulín Cruz, who is a critic of Rosselló’s administration. He also made a cruel comment about hurricane victims when someone in the group chat asked about the budget for forensic pathologists. He responded with a joke about the growing piles of dead bodies at the morgue in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

”Now that we are on the subject, don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” he wrote in an apparent reference to government critics. “Clearly they need attention.”

The corruption scandal, which involves mismanaged government contracts, has more to do with Hurricane Maria than the chat message one. The education secretary, for example, was accused of giving charter school contracts to businesses she favored, even though they had less experience than other businesses that bid on the contract.

While those contracts do not involve hurricane relief aid, the arrests raise questions about whether or not the Puerto Rican government can be trusted with billions of dollars in federal hurricane recovery grants. Which gave Trump more ammunition to criticize Puerto Rico.

6) Why is Trump always ranting about Puerto Rico?

President Trump is still really upset that Puerto Ricans haven’t shown him the respect he thinks he deserves after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. More importantly, he blames Puerto Ricans for the negative media coverage he received in the hurricane’s wake, which often compared his administration’s reaction to George W. Bush’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

Hurricane Maria’s Category 4 winds flattened homes across Puerto Rico and left everyone without power, causing the largest blackout in US history. Many people ran out of food and water within days. The reaction from the Trump administration was painful to watch. Trump didn’t visit the island until three weeks after the storm hit, and once he was there, he downplayed the severity of the storm and accused Puerto Rico of costing the government too much money.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency did send thousands of emergency responders, but they were unprepared for the task. The agency delayed crucial reconstruction aid to Puerto Rico and hired inexperienced contractors to send much-needed supplies, including one company that failed to deliver thousands of meals. The federal government has treated disaster victims in Puerto Rico far differently than other US disaster victims, even though federal law views Puerto Rico as a US state in the event of a natural disaster. Politico ran a good piece that sums up the different reactions.

The government of Puerto Rico was unprepared too. Rosselló couldn’t get government employees back to work and had no plan to get food and water to Puerto Rican families trapped on remote parts of the island. The electric utility company took nearly a year to reconnect everyone to the power grid.

Both Rosselló and Trump downplayed the casualties from the storm, initially celebrating that it was only a few dozen. That turned out to be false, with academic research later suggesting that 3,000 to 4,000 people died as a result of the storm.

Instead of acknowledging the deaths, Trump is angry that Puerto Ricans have criticized him. And he never misses a chance to let Puerto Ricans know he’s still upset about it.

Also, despite what Trump says in his tweet, the US has not given $92 billion in hurricane relief to Puerto Rico.

7) How does this all affect the statehood movement?

Right now, it doesn’t. The statehood movement has been building support since Hurricane Maria, but it’s not like Congress was about to admit Puerto Rico into the union.

While members of both parties have long vowed to support whatever Puerto Ricans want, it’s still unclear whether a majority wants statehood. Rosselló’s administration held a referendum vote to resolve that question in June 2017, but the wording on the ballot did not meet federal standards (Rosselló’s party did not want to give voters the option to remain a so-called “colony”). So even though 97 percent of voters chose statehood, fewer than a quarter of registered voters turned out to the polls, part of a boycott from the anti-statehood political groups, including a small number who favor full independence from the US.

Another reason there’s no immediate impact: A statehood bill — introduced in June 2018 by Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón — doesn’t have enough support to pass the House. Right now, the Puerto Rico Admission Act only has 58 co-sponsors (32 Democrats, 26 Republicans) who support Puerto Rico’s bid to become the 51st US state by 2021.

As a state, Americans citizens living on the island would have the same rights — and pay higher taxes — as those who live on the US mainland. It’s unlikely Democrats will try to pass the statehood bill without a referendum vote that meets federal standards. Rosselló said earlier this year that he was open to organizing another referendum.

All this points to one fact: No one knows if the chaos will help or hurt the statehood movement in the long run.

Rosselló’s successor will certainly be a member of his pro-statehood administration, and the New Progressive Party will still have control over both chambers of Puerto Rico’s Congress for the time being. One possibility is that the new pro-statehood administration will focus on government ethics reform and organize another referendum vote on the statehood issue before the 2020 election. That could help resolve the issue for once and for all.

But the corruption and political chaos could end up damaging the trust of the New Progressive Party beyond repair, leading it to lose the governor’s mansion (a.k.a. “La Fortaleza”) and local congressional seats in the 2020 election. That would do more damage to the statehood movement than anything else.

8) Could any of this have an impact on the 2020 presidential elections?

Absolutely. The million people who marched to kick out Rosselló are US citizens. They may not be able to vote in the general election, but they will certainly have a say in the primary race.

The recent protests show that young Puerto Ricans are politically engaged, and they’ll likely pay close attention to which 2020 presidential candidates address their concerns.

So far, Democrats have blown opportunities to do so.

During the first Democratic presidential primary debates earlier this month in Miami, moderators and Democrats on the stage basically ignored Puerto Rico. There were no questions about the US territory’s debt crisis. No questions about the island’s high poverty rate. No questions about how to fortify the island’s fragile power grid. These problems have existed for years but came into sharp focus after Hurricane Maria’s Category 4 winds pummeled the island in September 2017.

In fact, Puerto Rico was only mentioned once during the back-to-back debates. Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro brought it up when asked about the cost of preparing for climate change.

With the exception of Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’ve made campaign stops in San Juan, the Democratic candidates vying for the White House have made minimal efforts to address the issues that Puerto Ricans care about.

From a purely political perspective, ignoring Puerto Rico is a big mistake. Not only can millions of Puerto Ricans who live on the island vote in the primaries, but there are also millions who live on the US mainland who can vote during the general election. For example, the estimated 1.2 million Puerto Ricans who live in Florida are an important voting bloc in a super-competitive state.

9) What do Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland think about all the scandals?

Puerto Ricans seem united in their anger about the scandals and united in their joy over Rosselló’s resignation. The anti-government protests in San Juan inspired similar protests in New York and Orlando, both of which have large Puerto Rican communities.

When Rosselló finally announced his decision to step down, Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland expressed nothing but deep pride for the historic moment. For days, the hashtags #RickyRenuncia (#RickyResign) were trending on Twitter, then #RickyRenunció (#RickyResigned) was soon trending too.

Presidential candidates may be ignoring the island, but Puerto Rican voters are not.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.