What’s next for Puerto Rico?

Ricky is leaving. What comes next?
Ricky is leaving. What comes next?
Image: Reuters/Alvin Baez
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Puerto Rican protesters achieved the unprecedented feat of ousting a governor for the first time in the island’s history. So what next?

Ricardo Roselló is stepping down Aug. 2 after days of massive demonstrations over the crude, sexist, and homophobic conversations he held with his allies in a secret chat. Justice secretary Wanda Vázquez, a member of Roselló’s party, is the next in line to succeed him.

But the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who for two weeks protested under the motto “Ricky Renuncia,” or “Ricky quit,” appeared to be after more than that.

After their chants for Roselló’s resignation, many added the tag “y llévate a la junta,” or “take the board with you”—as in the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, the US Congress-created body that is restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt.

Some protesters shifted to “Renuncia Wanda,” after it became clear Roselló was leaving. Others demanded an end to corruption and the austerity measures set in place in the aftermath of the island bankruptcy in 2017. At some protests, attendees broke out into the Puerto Rican revolutionary hymn, written in 1868 when Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony. “We want freedom and our machetes will give it to us,” they sang.

It seems Puerto Rico is at a turning point in its troubled political history. In the best case scenario, the uprising could move the island past the static, two-party system that produced Roselló, the son of a former governor whose own administration was tainted by corruption. In the worst, it could further erode Puerto Rico’s threadbare finances and strip away even more of the little power its leaders now have. The route Puerto Ricans take could even shape its colonial relationship with the US, a constant source of tension since the island became an American territory at the end of the Spanish-American War.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Pedro Cabán, a professor at University at Albany. “What we have right now in Puerto Rico is a political vacuum.” 

A problematic status

Much of Puerto Rico’s current troubles can be traced back to its condition as a US territory, which has put it in an eternal status of subordination to the US Congress. Under the US Constitution, “Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” Puerto Ricans have US citizenship, but can’t vote in presidential elections.

The arrangement has not worked well for Puerto Ricans. The interests of mainland lawmakers don’t necessarily match those of Puerto Rico. And for the most part, the island’s fortunes are not a front-and-center issue for Congress, where Puerto Rico has a single representative who doesn’t have the power to vote.

That has resulted in a variety of policies that have set up Puerto Rico for dysfunction. Monetary policy, for example, is tailored for the world’s largest economy, not Puerto Rico’s decade-long recession.

A tax incentive program launched by the US in the 1970s to help Puerto Rico avoid Cuba’s communist fate boosted Puerto Rico’s economy by encouraging mainland manufacturers to switch production to the island. But the US’s decision to phase out the tax breaks in the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse gutted the local economy. The island lost more than 85,000 manufacturing jobs. Unemployed Puerto Ricans left the island in search of work, taking their purchasing power and tax payments to the mainland. That policy alone explains much of Puerto Rico’s economic woes, and its bankruptcy.

Of course, local governments haven’t helped the situation, given their sprawling bureaucracy, sloppy management, and corruption. This time around might be no different.

A more powerful Junta?

The governor may be on his way out, but the chat’s revelations, along with the recent arrests of several former Roselló administration officials on fraud charges, can still inflict plenty of damage.

Even before the current mess, US president Donald Trump and other mainland elected leaders claimed that Puerto Rican officials were unfit to manage their own affairs, including the billions of dollars in federal aid for recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria.

Roselló is now providing the evidence for that argument, said Mariely Lopez-Santana, a professor at George Mason University. Some, including the Washington Post’s editorial board, are already calling for Congress to give the Financial Oversight Board more power. The Junta, whose members were appointed in 2016 by then president Barack Obama, already exerts considerable oversight. Though it’s negotiating with creditors on Puerto Rico’s behalf, the local government has no vote—just a seat, like Puerto Rico’s congressional representative.

The board also has to sign off on how the Puerto Rican government spends its tax dollars, and has promoted the kind of austerity measures  protesters are complaining about.

Creditors, too, could now make the case that Puerto Rico actually does have money to pay them back, but politicians are stealing it. So they are less likely to make concessions, added Lopez-Santana.

That would leave whoever replaces Roselló with even less leeway to run the island and an even tighter budget—the opposite of what many clamored for in the streets. “The board is going to stay,” she said. “The question is what will be the new government’s relationship with the board.”

Beyond two parties?

It’s hard to imagine street protesters dislodging the Junta as they did Roselló. But the #RickyRenuncia movement could at least spark a local political revolution. The scope of the protests was unprecedented, both in size, geography, and intensity. Fernando Tormos-Aponte, who has studied social movements, doesn’t see the urge for change dying down soon.

“People can barely sleep,” said the post-doctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. “These protests won’t stop until we have a process that is more representative. The possibilities are endless.”

Among those he includes a crop of new political players that crack Puerto Rico’s partisan system, a drive for statehood, or even independence from the US. For any of that to happen, the spur-of-the-moment uprising will have to become more organized. It will also have to build consensus over more complicated and touchier issues than kicking out Roselló. One example: how to root out a tradition of cronyism and corruption among the island’s elected leaders.

With a more transparent, representative government, Puerto Rico would be in a stronger position to renegotiate its colonial relationship with the US. It could, for example, launch a campaign to lobby US Congress members, many who have boricua constituents given the mass exodus from the island in recent decades. Unlike their relatives on the island, the transplants can vote in presidential elections.

“What we have learned this time is that Puerto Ricans are very creative in coming up with ways to express themselves and ideas to change society,” Cabán said.