'Onward, forward': popular protests demand change in Puerto Rico

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Thousands gather in from of the capitol of Puerto Rico demanding the governor resign. Image: Jose Hernandez/Wikimedia Commons

Just before midnight on Wednesday, Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rosselló announced in a pre-recorded video message that he would resign, effective Friday, August 2. This capped close to two weeks of non-stop protests.

In Old San Juan, cries of "¡Ricky Renuncia!" had been ringing out alongside the traditional refrain, "¡Pa'lante!" The first was a demand for the embattled Rosselló to resign, while the latter means, "onward, forward." The Caribbean island (along with its smaller islands, Vieques and Culebra) is at an historic crossroads. Hundreds of thousands have been marching and protesting daily, following the July 13 release by Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism/Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) of close to 900 pages including shocking text messages between Rosselló, staffers and advisers. The group chat message, from late 2018 through January 2019, are riddled with misogyny, homophobia, profanity and violence. The leaks and accompanying articles by CPI sent shockwaves through the Puerto Rican government and drove Puerto Ricans from all walks of life into the streets, demanding change. This is a story of the power of the people, and an independent press.

The texts, mostly in Spanish, included jokes about the death toll of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Rosselló referred to Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Puerto Rican New York city council speaker, as a "puta" ("whore"). He also wrote, "You would be doing me a big favour" when another described salivating to shoot San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. She announced in March her plans to run against Rosselló as governor in 2020. Legendary pop star Ricky Martin was also the target of crude homophobic comments.

The texts surfaced as Puerto Rico struggles through an immense debt crisis and debilitating austerity under the bankruptcy-like process imposed by the federal PROMESA law. Enacted three years ago, PROMESA created the Financial Oversight and Management Board, an unelected body with sweeping powers to overrule Puerto Rican democratic control at any level.

On July 11, just two days before "RickyLeaks" broke, federal authorities arrested two top Rosselló administration officials and others in what the Justice Department described as an extensive, multimillion-dollar fraud scheme related to government contracts.

Puerto Ricans have long suffered as a result of their island's colonial status, both at home and in the diaspora across the United States. Fifty years ago this week, a chapter of the revolutionary Puerto Rican group, The Young Lords, formed in New York City, to confront the injustices experienced by impoverished, inner city Latinos.

Juan González, journalist and Democracy Now! news hour co-host, co-founded the Young Lords New York chapter. Born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York, he described the group's history:

"The conditions in the ghettos of East Harlem and the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn was what got us going. We constantly dealt with the direct issues confronting the community on a daily basis, whether it was garbage or health care or the lack of teaching of Puerto Rican and African-American histories in the schools."

They barricaded streets until the city agreed to increase sanitation services. They took over a church, to provide morning breakfast and child care for those who needed it. They hijacked a mobile health clinic van to provide medical care in underserved areas. Like most radical groups of that era, they also faced serious repression by the police and the FBI.

Over the last few weeks, as pressure mounted on Rosselló to resign, Juan González noted the significance of this moment: "Puerto Rico has a long history. In its 500 years of governance … there have been 286 governors. Never has a governor been forced to resign by a popular protest."

But Gonzalez also warned, ""History is replete with examples of popular uprisings that got rid of a corrupt or dictatorial government, but the people ended up with worse situations.

"There's going to be a real test now among the leaders and the activists of Puerto Rico. Can they unite? Can they come up with a political force, a leadership that is really accountable to the Puerto Rican people? And that's going to be the big test in the future."

Given that Puerto Rico's secretary of state recently resigned, the next in line to replace Governor Rosselló is Wanda Vazquez, the island's secretary of justice. As one of Rosselló's appointees, calls for her immediate resignation are already flooding social media.

Music has infused the protests. Among the musicians in the streets were Ricky Martin, and members of the globally renowned, Grammy-winning Puerto Rican band Calle 13. Bandmembers Ileana Cabra Joglar, or Ile, her brother René, known as Residente, and reggaeton musician Bad Bunny released a song last week, called "Afilando Los Cuchillos," or "Sharpening the Knives." It quickly became the anthem of the movement. Speaking on Democracy Now! on Tuesday, one day after more than half a million people marched in San Juan, Ile described what the protests meant to her: "I've been waiting all my life for a moment like this."

Pa'lante.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image: Jose Hernandez/Wikimedia Commons

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