El pueblo habló … — Pedro Roselló
Shortly before midnight on July 24, 2019, the embattled governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo “Ricky” Roselló, announced that he would resign his position effective August 2 at 5:00 PM.
His announcement followed twelve days of protests unparalleled in the history of Puerto Rico. Reactions to the announcement on social media were noteworthy. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were full of celebratory posts. Worldwide, the “island surrounded by water,” as President Trump once described it, captured headlines and front pages. What really caught my attention though was the sense of joy, unity, and solidarity. Joy makes this movement different from others; it seems as if Puerto Ricans as a whole are fully behind it.
There was unrest in Puerto Rico after the FBI arrested and charged two of Roselló’s former cabinet members and three contractors on corruption charges on July 10. But the protests were triggered by the publication of 889 pages of group chats between the governor and his closest aides this past July 13. The chats, known in Puerto Rico as “Telegram-Gate” for the app on which they took place, are part of a bigger issue and with deeper roots. Uncovered and validated by The Center of Investigative Journalism (Centro de Periodismo Investigativo), the comments in the chats range from homophobic to misogynistic. They provide evidence of incompetence and proof of possible criminal acts. Some contain gloating admissions of corruption.
Worse yet, they reveal outright disdain and disgust for the people Roselló was elected to serve. The Telegram chats confirmed what the people had commented on in songs, in political jokes, and in quotidian conversations: that the political class, the archipelago’s elites, were not only corrupt but also looked down on them. The chats also showed the government’s lack of concern for the suffering the people have endured for at least a decade. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were displaced by economic and fiscal crises and mismanagement. They were abandoned after Hurricane Maria and betrayed and made the object of derision by an incompetent, corrupt, cruel, and childish administration that mocked their suffering even as it imposed more austerity measures. It seems those in power mistook the Puerto Ricans’ resilience for conformism.
Immediately after the release of the Telegram chats, the people filled the streets, and social media exploded. What came after surprised all observers. Initially, the government and mainstream media followed the usual script and downplayed the protestors as the “usual groups,” los mismos cuatro gatos (the same four cats), the professional protesters. Roselló botched a photo op in which he asked for the forgiveness of a campaign volunteer whose weight he mocked in the chat. It backfired. Meanwhile, the cuatro gatos kept growing. Even some conservative religious groups that helped elect Roselló started to demand his resignation.
Roselló and his government came under siege. The demonstrators met every afternoon and marched to the gates of Fortaleza (the governor’s house). They demanded “Ricky Renuncia y llevate la junta!” or “Ricky Resign and take the Fiscal Board with you!” The number of protesters grew larger every night and the chants became louder. The police responded with arrests and pepper gas. A common meme, circulated on social media, compared the Puerto Rican constitution to Cinderella, for it seemed that, close to midnight, it stopped protecting the people’s right to protest. But the demonstrators kept coming. It became impossible to claim that these were los mismos cuatro gatos.
In one of the first chat exchanges to go viral, Roselló called a female political rival “puta” or “whore.” PUTA became one of the banners under which the protestors marched: Pueblo Unido Tomando Acción, “People United Taking Action.” The misogynist word, reappropriated as an acronym, could not be a more appropriate rallying cry for protests that had morphed into a people’s movement. The LGBTQ community and its allies, and famous artists such as Ricky Martin, René Pérez, and Bad Bunny, closed ranks with organized labor, academia, and grassroots organizations, along with Puerto Ricans who did not identify with any of these groups and had never been to political demonstrations.
An Army Reserve unit composed of Puerto Ricans took a selfie while training in Kentucky with the hashtag #RickyRenuncia. The news that the soldiers would be disciplined and possibly suspended caused outrage in Puerto Rico. COPS (Corporación Organizada de Policías y Seguridad), one of the police unions in Puerto Rico, asked the governor to resign for the sake of the police officers’ safety. These last two examples underscore how widely the discontent with the current administration had spread.
The crowds grew to hundreds of thousands in an island of only 3.2 million inhabitants. And they have not been alone. They have been supported by el cacerolazo, who make noise with their pots and pans at 8:30 PM, and by those who demonstrated in New York City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Washington, D.C., and wherever there are Puerto Rican communities.
It is difficult not to romanticize the events taking place in Puerto Rico. What is happening feels like a true revolution in the full meaning of the word. The protests are spontaneous, organic, and cross-sectional. The protests bridge generations, even as the archipelago’s youth leads the way. The movement unites the most diverse groups, surpasses political and ideological divisions, and transcends gender, racial, and even class barriers. Rey Charlie (King Charlie) and the thousands of bikers from the poorest neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, acting almost as a mythical cavalry, ride to the rescue at the last minute. Popular musicians and common people, playing and dancing reggaeton as well as traditional rhythms such as bomba and plena (usually identified with Afro-Puerto Rican culture), have been instrumental in energizing the protesters.
The process we are witnessing is unprecedented. This is the first time in which a people’s movement has brought down a government in Puerto Rico. In 1934, Franklin Delano Roosevelt replaced governor Robert H. Gore in view of mounting political opposition and violence. But that was an appointed governor, not an elected one, and he did not resign. And Gore was replaced by another FDR appointee.
After Roselló’s resignation, the celebration across the island continued well into morning hours of July 25. Ironically, this date marks the anniversaries of both the American invasion in 1898 and the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, with all their unfulfilled promises. This July 25 is different. It finds the people of Puerto Rico united like never before. The governor may have agreed to resign, but it was never just about that; that would be too little. The protests are about building a new Puerto Rico.
Whatever happens, much has been accomplished. Puerto Rico cannot go back to the two-party system that has caused so much damage; it cannot go back to the rampant corruption of governments interested in lining the pockets of their supporters and families and perpetuating themselves in power. We have reason to hope that the hundreds of thousands taking to the streets, and the millions supporting them, have changed the game. Indeed the whole system has been changed by the people.
As he implemented unpopular neoliberal policies, Pedro Roselló, the former governor’s father, himself a two-term governor, once proudly boasted: “El pueblo habló y yo obedezco” (The people have spoken, and I obey). Today, the people of Puerto Rico are speaking and the whole world is listening. They are also taking action into their own hands.
Harry Franqui-Rivera is an Associate Professor of History at Bloomfield College. He is the author of Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952.