Puerto Rico: Toppling Governor is only a first step

By Carlton Joseph

Recent weeks heralded a new era of people power on the island of Puerto Rico.  Mass protests and demonstrations forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to step down – the first time in Puerto Rico’s history that protests have toppled a sitting governor.

An estimated half a million Puerto Ricans took to the streets of San Juan to demand his resignation, several businesses and banks closed in solidarity. Tear gas and rubber bullets failed to stop this spontaneous mass demonstration outside the governor’s mansion in La Fortaleza.

Embolden with their new found people power, some protesters insisted that the struggle is not only to remove Ricardo Rosselló, but to remove the group of corrupt thieves that demonstrated their inhumanity by making fun of people’s suffering.

The catalyst for the demonstration was an 889-page report issued by the island’s Center for Investigative Journalism.  The report leaked chat logs between Rosselló and his inner circle that were crude, misogynistic, homophobic, and contained not only jokes but threats of state violence and political repression.

In one exchange, Rosselló suggested that the wife of local pro-independence politician Juan Dalmau, who had been a vocal critic of his administration, be removed from her government post and replaced with a pro-statehood employee.

The chats also included a conversation on how to interfere with the work of a federally appointed monitor for the police department and repeated discussion of plots to destabilize public institutions.

Governor Rosselló officially resigned, but tried to game the system by naming Pedro Pierluisi a successor, although he was not the secretary of state as per the Constitution.

Caribbean leaders should be cognizant of what’s happening in Puerto Rico.  Corruption, misappropriation of public funds and destruction of the public trust will not be tolerated.  The people now have a live example of the power of mass protests.

Some might argue that the Puerto Rico situation is different from the rest of the Caribbean; I contend that it is not.  There is little difference between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the PROMESA board, the financial control board that is running Puerto Rico.  These entities are not deployed to help in the development of the country they are deployed to ensure that the financial institutions that have “invested” get the financial returns they demand.

Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana should be extremely mindful of the power of mass protests.  They have two major racial groups whose differences are usually exploited during the political election season; also their economies are closely linked to United States (US) multinational corporations.  In addition, the recent discovery of large oil reserves in Guyana makes it a prime candidate for destabilization and intervention by the US in the event that politicians demand that the oil revenue be used to benefit the people of Guyana.

Back in Puerto Rico, The Supreme Court declared Pedro Pierluisi’s swearing-in a week ago unconstitutional and Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez became Puerto Rico’s new governor.  She said,“I will continue to focus on helping our people regain their way in an orderly and peaceful fashion,” and promised to assume the position with “humility and commitment.”

Interestingly, Stantec, a Canadian consulting firm has been impacted by the events in Puerto Rico.  In one of her first moves as governor, Wanda Vazquez announced that she was suspending a pending $450,000 contract that is part of the program to rebuild and strengthen the island’s power grid, which was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. Vazquez added that transparency is a priority for her administration. Stantec believes that the contract will eventually be approved.

I am hopeful that the governor is serious when she says that: “There is no room in this administration for unreasonable expenses.”  Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, which is more than $9 billion in debt, had been expected to sign the contract with Stantec.  It is unclear whether Vazquez’s move will delay efforts to rebuild and bolster the power grid, which remains fragile and is prone to outages that have exasperated many of the island’s 3.2 million people.  My belief is that this is small contract should be awarded since the work is critical to satisfying the energy needs of the people.

Instead she needs to focus on the multimillion-dollar contracts that Puerto Rico’s power company has awarded since the Category 4 storm hit on Sept. 20, 2017.  Many of those deals have come under intense scrutiny, with some being cancelled. A complete audit and review of the $1.8 billion contracts with Mammoth Energy Services subsidiary Cobra Acquisitions, currently facing a federal investigation, must be conducted in order to restore confidence in the procurement system and trust in government.

Since Hurricane Maria battered the island in 2017, people across the island have been forced to live without electricity and running water and to navigate dark streets without traffic signals, bury dead relatives in mass graves, and wait months to receive medical treatment.

For almost two years now, Puerto Ricans have been repeatedly called upon to tighten their belts, accept fewer services, and pay higher taxes and utility costs while managing loss and trauma.  The governor’s job is to remedy these outstanding issues.Restore the budget of University of Puerto Rico which the government has gutted through budget cuts and threatened to close; ensure that Electric Power Authority is not privatized; and restore the government program tasked with rebuilding homes with local contractors and not the current US contractors who are lining their pockets.

I totally support the actions of the people of Puerto Rico and hope that this peaceful removal of the governor, outside of the election period, becomes the norm in the Caribbean.  The people must not tolerate incompetence, corruption, and the sale of their patrimony to foreigners by irresponsible politicians.  I hope this example of people power through mass demonstrations heralds a new era of people-centered decision making in the Caribbean.

  (Trinidad-born Carlton Joseph who lives in Washington DC, is a close observer of political  developments in  the  United States. He can be reached at carl162joseph@yahoo.com)