With Ricardo Rosselló out as governor, Puerto Rico 'needs to regain its moral compass and hope.' But, how?

SAN JUAN — The celebration was jubilant and impassioned, lasting into the wee hours.

As Wednesday night turned into Thursday morning, Old San Juan teemed with ecstatic revelers after the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who had come to symbolize everything many Puerto Ricans felt was wrong with their government.

Later Thursday, even though the mission to oust Rosselló had been accomplished, thousands defied the heat and rain to march and demand further changes. The mood was upbeat but decidedly less joyous, and the message was clear: There is still a long way to go.

Puerto Rico remains immersed in a 13-year economic downturn and is saddled with more than $70 billion in debt, in addition to $55 billion in unfunded pensions. The poverty rate of 44.4% is at least twice as high as any state in the U.S., and its unemployment rate of 8.5% is more than double the national June figure of 3.8%.

The territory’s finances are being supervised by an unpopular federal management board that has promoted cuts to public services and is likely to require further austerity measures.

People march in San Juan on July 25, 2019, one day after the resignation of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello.

The recovery from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island’s infrastructure and left most residents in the dark for weeks on end in the fall of 2017, has been a slow and halting process rife with frustration.

Government corruption, an endemic problem for decades, came into sharper focus July 10 when two high-ranking officials of the Rosselló administration were indicted on federal charges of steering $15.5 million worth of work contracts to unqualified, politically connected businesses.

Three days later, a local journalistic agency published 889 pages of a group chat involving Rosselló and several of his Cabinet members and associates – all male – who sounded like frat boys as they made homophobic, misogynistic and crude remarks.

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“People lost faith that Rosselló was with them and represented them,’’ said Gabriel Torres Colon, a cultural anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who has studied Puerto Rican politics. “He came across as a phony and a spoiled brat.’’

Now there’s a power vacuum at the top. The next in line to replace Rosselló when he steps down Aug. 2 is Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, only because Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin resigned as part of the chat scandal, which led to massive demonstrations.

It’s not clear that Vazquez, who inspires little public confidence and was investigated last year for ethical violations, actually wants the job of top executive.

The mounting woes help explain why an estimated 500,000 Puerto Rican residents – many of them the kind of professionals who could help propel the island’s economy – have moved away in the last decade.

“This country needs to take steps toward economic development, steps toward a new governance relationship between its people and its government,’’ said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who plans to seek the governor’s post in next year’s elections. “It needs to regain its moral compass and hope.’’

A territory in ‘misery’

The latter, strangely enough, may be found in the rubble left behind by Maria.

Many of those who labored through months without power or running water, who saw friends and relatives perish for lack of access to functioning medical facilities and who even had to bury family members in their backyards talk about their enhanced hardiness and solidarity.

Neighbors banded together to clear debris-laden streets, set up community dining rooms, locate dialysis clinics powered by generators. In the process, they grew more confident in their abilities to survive without government help. The recent scandals spurred them to action.

Miriam Melendez, a school teacher in Puerto Rico, and her father Angel Melendez participate in Thursday's march. Their sign urges incoming governor Wanda Vazquez to resign and says they don't want Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz to take over either.

“Maria changed the concept of the people’s power and they won’t put up with corruption anymore,’’ said Yomarili Rosa, 28, a librarian who joined the demonstrators in front of the governor’s mansion. “We lost the fear of going hungry and going through a rough time.’’

Heriberto Marin Torres, a longtime pro-independence activist, watched proudly as protesters relentlessly demanded Rosselló’s ouster. At 90, he’d never seen anything like the enormous crowds that turned out for Monday’s march.

El Nuevo Dia, the island’s newspaper of record, cited a geographer and planner who examined aerial pictures in estimating the crowd at more than 500,000. That would be 15.6% of the territory’s 3.2 million residents. Such a percentage applied to the U.S. population of 320 million would come out to about 50 million.

“All the governments in Puerto Rico have stolen. All of them,’’ Marin Torres said. “What happens now is Maria, even though it brought us a lot of misery and a lot of humiliation from (President Donald) Trump, lifted people morally. It made us see we’re a country that needs to raise its dignity. And we are rising.’’

‘This is a revolution’

Much of the impetus is coming from the younger set, whose presence was especially noticeable at the rallies, typically lively affairs with plenty of music, flag-waving and chants, some of them profane.

Growing up in the age of social media, younger people are constantly exposed to information sources, and some of them believe that makes them less prone to voting strictly along party lines than previous generations.

People march through the financial district as they celebrate the ouster of Ricardo Rossello, the Governor of Puerto Rico, on July 25, 2019 in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. After two weeks of protess Gov. Rosselló stepped down after a group chat was exposed that included misogynistic and homophobic comments.

“Technology has opened our eyes to see beyond what they show on television or what a candidate says,’’ said Jean Carlos Marrero, 25, an architecture student. “Let’s study him more, look more into his background to avoid repeating the same mistakes. That has helped me. In the last elections I voted for candidates from both parties. Things are different with this generation. This is a revolution.’’

Maybe so, but Marrero acknowledges Puerto Rico’s ability to recover from its current difficulties is directly tied to the United States, and not just because a federal board is in charge of restructuring the huge debt. Like others, he believes not much will improve unless there are some modifications to Puerto Rico’s status as a territory.

Puerto Rico has its commerce and trade controlled by the U.S, and island residents pay a higher price for most items because of the Jones Act, a 1920 law that requires goods shipped between U.S. ports be transported by vessels built, owned and largely operated by Americans.

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Though Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth, they can’t vote in presidential elections and lack voting representation in Congress.

Torres Colon, the Vanderbilt professor, finds that last limitation especially troubling, saying people in the U.S. should be concerned that some of their fellow citizens don’t have proper representation. Beyond that, he says there’s reason for the mainlanders to care about what has been happening in the small Caribbean island.

“I think Puerto Rico has presented an example of how to conduct a political protest, calling on the people to take action,’’ Torres Colon said. “The number of people who have marched are a significant percentage of the voting public. So, I think Puerto Ricans right now are exemplifying the democratic process, and because of that people should pay attention.’’

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