Just like every other Puerto Rican in the world, I could not sleep on Tuesday night, July 23.
I sat in my bed looking at live feed from Old San Juan, thinking how the people of this tiny and humble island might have just taught the world the greatest lesson in democracy.
A governor who had been brought to power through one democratic process was being rightfully removed from power by another, even greater, democratic process two and a half years later. And it was all accomplished through peaceful demonstrations – through the union of many, with one voice – by the people and for the people.
On that sleepless Tuesday night, after 12 days of protests – on the island and around the world – calling for the resignation of Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló, he finally gave up. And the Puerto Rican diaspora, myself included, dutifully watched the news feeds as we chatted with each other.
Funny posts floated about all afternoon, showcasing how most of us watching were so glued to the feed that we couldn’t even take a break to shower or eat dinner…we just didn’t want to miss the on-again-off-again big announcement.
And as Rosselló finally said “I resign” before midnight, we saw masses of mostly young people begin to scream, cry, rejoice, sing, jump, and hug each other in the streets of Old San Juan. They were victorious and had made history for all of us.
We cried mostly of happiness — not because we hated the governor as a person, but because the governor and his chat-group-buddies represented the latest version of the corrupt leadership that Puerto Ricans have put up with for a long time.
In fact, the last time I remember any progress reaching the Puerto Rican majority on the island was when I was getting ready to leave for college in 1981. Back then, through a series of state and federal tax incentives, plus increased employment opportunities from pharmaceutical and other manufacturing companies, the American dream finally felt attainable. Life in the island paradise was good.
Unfortunately for our young protestors, they have only witnessed both their local and federal governments mismanage, abuse, shortchange, and disrespect them and their families. Their generation has seen massive debt increases, a mass exodus of educated people, hundreds of school closings, cuts to university budgets, depletion of their parents’ retirement funds, scarcity of medical provisions, and the unprecedented destruction brought by two back-to-back category 4 and 5 hurricanes causing thousands of deaths. They have witnessed the lack of urgency with which the U.S. federal government handled aid to Puerto Rico after these disasters. They dealt with the “uncounted” and unaccounted deaths of loved ones to whom they could not properly say goodbye because of the loss and mishandling of bodies at the morgue.
Most recently, these young Puerto Ricans witnessed how federal prosecutors filed criminal charges for fraud against Roselló’s cabinet members. While protestors understood that the President of the United States might be right to blame island leadership for mishandling of funds, this sharp generation is not blind to the fact that U.S. policies have created the insurmountable debt owed by Puerto Rico.
Many of the laws between the United States and Puerto Rico operate to keep Puerto Ricans on the island from making lasting progress. Puerto Ricans pay taxes but get much less aid per dollar paid than any other jurisdiction. Puerto Ricans can’t vote for the U.S. president, and they don’t have a single voting member on Capitol Hill.
The Jones Act compels merchants to use U.S. boats to bring imports to Puerto Rico and results in double taxation of imported goods, which for an island of its size is pretty much everything, including food. Those benefiting financially and otherwise from these inequities seem not to care to change the current status.
So, two weeks ago, when the 900 pages of chats in which the governor and his close advisors called women whores, made fun of LGBTQ people, and joked about feeding some of the accumulated dead bodies to the crows were made public, the people of Puerto Rico – young and old – had had it. They would no longer stay silent.
The young ones took the lead; they organized and flooded not only the streets, but the ocean on boats and the air via skydivers. They protested in literally any way, shape, or form they could find. I personally received protest support images from Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Prague, Italy, Spain, and from cities throughout the U.S.
Lastly, and just as importantly, even though Puerto Ricans did not have much else to lose, they took painstaking efforts to make sure the protests remained nonviolent. Even on the day of the most massive gathering – 1.5 million people were estimated to have gathered in Puerto Rico’s main artery, Route 22 – not one life was lost. Every morning, police could be seen engaged in prayer chains right along with protestors on the streets, as well as in Fortaleza (the governor’s mansion).
Demonstrations were orderly. Youth leaders posted a morning schedule of “protest events” on the internet to let people join as they saw fit. This included instructions for maintaining peace and remaining nonviolent. They even included cleanup. In fact, the entire population has already cleaned up trash and graffiti.
Ousting the Governor of Puerto Rico may not be the end of corruption, but it certainly feels like the beginning of the end. After that happy Tuesday night, politicians will certainly know that if they misbehave, the people will respond.
A Puerto Rican native, Anabel Rosa (pictured at left) is an attorney-shareholder at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin. Much of her work on and off the job involves helping the Hispanic/Latinx community in NC. She serves as chair to the City of Durham Mayor’s Hispanic/Latino Committee and on the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic Latino Affairs.