After Protests, Will Real Change Come to Puerto Rico?

By Frances Robles and Patricia Mazzei

SAN JUAN, P.R. — Weeks of massive street protests brought down the governor of Puerto Rico and saw his successor at least tentatively installed. But the noisy public celebrations that broke out as Ricardo A. Rosselló left office on Friday left unanswered a more fundamental question about the island’s future.

Can the extraordinary moment that energized the public, challenged endemic corruption and rejected traditional power-brokering lead to real change for Puerto Rico?

Young Puerto Rican millennials who flocked to the movement to unseat Mr. Rosselló called themselves “la generación del ‘yo no me dejo,’” or “the generation of ‘I’m not going to let you do this to me.’” They expressed concerns that Puerto Rico was slipping away from them, that their only options in adulthood might be unemployment or migrating to the mainland.

“We are not going to go back,” Yadmila Matos Serrano, a 24-year-old counselor, said as she stood outside the Capitol in San Juan on Friday. Those who came together in the streets are not prepared to allow the existing power elites to rule as they have in the past. “We are going to be more active now in politics,” she added.

That sentiment appears to be shared by many protesters who had never before been involved in politics, said Marisol LeBrón, an assistant professor of Mexican-American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin who has focused her research on Puerto Rico.

“They’re seeing this as an opportunity to really have a fundamental shift in how politics in Puerto Rico have been structured,” she said. “There’s a refusal for politics as usual to continue.”

Already, many Puerto Ricans question the legitimacy of Mr. Rosselló’s tentative successor, Pedro R. Pierluisi, who was installed on Friday under disputed legal grounds. On social media, critics went as far as to call the transfer of power a soft coup, raising the prospect of new street protests.

The social media push for #RickyRenuncia — Ricky Resign — quickly moved on to target the line of politicians still seen as potential successors if Mr. Pierluisi’s confirmation is blocked: #WandaRenuncia against Wanda Vázquez, the secretary of justice; #ThomasRenuncia against Thomas Rivera Schatz, the Senate president; and #PierluisiRenuncia.

The Senate was scheduled on Monday to consider Mr. Pierluisi’s confirmation. Opposition to his ascent, and threats of lawsuits, left the island in a state of deep political and legal uncertainty. Mr. Pierluisi said he would step down if lawmakers voted or the courts ruled against him.

Puerto Ricans have made it clear they are not prepared to stand by and let the politicians decide.

In the weeks leading up to the protests, people of a variety of political stripes found themselves united by their frustration over a shared recent history of accumulating grievances brought on by mismanagement and malfeasance, hostility in Washington, the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and inaction by public officials.

“Between the population loss, the fact that there aren’t jobs and that the jobs that exist are serving internationals that are coming in to take advantage of tax breaks for six months of the year — there’s not a future for Puerto Ricans,” Ms. LeBrón said. “The situation was becoming intolerable.”

Mirna Adorno, 43, had voted for Mr. Rosselló in 2016 and did not believe in the idea of street protests as a means of removing an elected official — that was for the ballot box.

Yet she had been appalled by the governor’s poor management after the hurricane. And when a leaked private group chat on the messaging app Telegram exposed Mr. Rosselló as cruel and offensive toward everyday Puerto Ricans when he communicated with his inner circle, Ms. Adorno found herself sharing the protesters’ anger.

“The chat was unforgivable,” said Ms. Adorno, but she added that it was not the only reason for Mr. Rosselló’s fall. “It was all that happened behind it.”

Thirteen years of economic recession began in Puerto Rico after Washington did away with federal tax credits that eviscerated the island’s manufacturing sector. The situation worsened with a bankruptcy driven by irresponsible bank lending and government borrowing. And people’s anger swelled after the crippling hurricane that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2,975 people.

For years, many Puerto Ricans dealt with the economic crisis by moving away. The island’s population, now at about 3.2 million, fell about 4 percent last year — the single biggest annual drop since 1950, according to a Pew Research Center report released last month. The number of Puerto Ricans on the island has decreased by 15 percent since 2008, an exodus unparalleled in any of the 50 states.

Yet politicians even now seemed not to have fully absorbed the depths of the people’s discontent. Once Mr. Rosselló announced his imminent resignation on July 24, leaders of the ruling New Progressive Party appeared more concerned about intraparty rivalries than about proposing meaningful reforms.

The fact that Mr. Pierluisi’s ascent to the governor’s seat was not announced until after Mr. Rosselló’s resignation became effective, and that he was sworn in behind closed doors at his sister’s home, did little to promote the transparency that Mr. Pierluisi himself said the government sorely needed to display.

“We definitely have to be more transparent in our government,” he said in a Friday news conference. “We need to be more responsive to the people.”

But he rejected the idea that governors should be forced out of office for taking unpopular action. Mr. Rosselló, he argued, left because of misconduct, not because of policy failures.

“This is a democratic system of government which has elections every four years,” Mr. Pierluisi said. “I urge the people — including all those who went to the protests and the demonstrations — to exercise their right to vote, to activate themselves in the democratic process,” he said.

“We cannot forget that the policies that this administration was moving forward by and large were based on the plan or the platform that the governor ran under,” he added. “We have to respect our institutions.”

Jorge Duany, author of the book “Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said that the popular rebellion should serve as a warning to the main political parties, which have traditionally been divided over the issue of Puerto Rico’s status — statehood, independence or United States commonwealth. Focusing the island’s politics primarily on the relationship with the United States mainland may no longer be quite as defining, Mr. Duany argued.

“If you look at the massive demonstrations, it was not about status,” he said. “It was identity politics, sexual politics, gender politics, among other things.”

He pointed to emerging politicians like Alexandra Lúgaro, an independent unaffiliated with either of the island’s two main parties, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party or the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. Ms. Lúgaro ran for governor in 2016 and surprised experts by winning about 11 percent of the vote on an island where the New Progressives and Popular Democrats typically trade off power from one four-year term to the next.

“The traditional bipartisan alternating of the P.N.P. and Populares may no longer be the safest way to go,” Mr. Duany said.

Among the dissatisfied voters is Ms. Adorno, the retiree who had voted for Mr. Rosselló. She said the governor might have survived if he had taken better care of the island after the hurricane.

“The problem with the electricity, the problem with the water, the problems to get money — you couldn’t withdraw money every day from the bank,” she recalled. “The lines that didn’t end. The gasoline situation was primitive. You needed gas for the generators. There wasn’t ice. You had to drink hot water. It was really bad.”

Ms. Adorno used to be a loyal New Progressive voter. Not anymore.

“In this moment,” she said, “I have no party.”

Frances Robles reported from San Juan, and Patricia Mazzei from Miami. Edmy Ayala contributed reporting from San Juan.

PHOTOS: Protesters in San Juan, P.R., left, have called for the resignation of Pedro R. Pierluisi, who replaced Ricardo A. Rosselló, above, as governor last week. (PHOTOGRAPHS BY THAIS LLORCA/EPA, VIA SHUTTERSTOCK0 (A19)