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What Are the Protests in Puerto Rico Really About?

Though leaked messages and a corruption scandal have brought thousands to the streets, frustrations on the island run much deeper.
People take part in a demonstration demanding Governor Ricardo Rossello's resignation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 17th, 2019.

People take part in a demonstration demanding Governor Ricardo Rossello's resignation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 17th, 2019.

Chanting "Ricky, renuncia" and holding signs in remembrance of victims of Hurricane Maria, thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets on Wednesday, calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. The demonstrations on the island have been ongoing for five days, following the leaking of hundreds of pages of private chats between the governor and members of his inner circle and an investigation on the unlawful steering of federal funds to politically connected contractors.

The messages made public by the investigative journalism organization Centro de Periodismo Investigativo revealed dismissive jokes about the hurricane death toll and sexist and homophobic comments, which included Rosselló calling former speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito a "whore" and attacks on Puerto Rican singer and actor Ricky Martin's sexuality. Martin and other public figures, such as playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and the singer Bad Bunny, as well as Major League Baseball players and managers, have joined the protests calling for the governor's resignation, which have also taken place in cities like New York and Arizona.

In a statement released on Thursday, Rosselló gave no indication that he plans to step down. "In the past few says I have apologized to the Puerto Rican people and that request remains alive," he writes. "I have the commitment, stronger than ever, to carry out the public policy for which we have worked so hard in all areas of government. I recognize the challenge before me for recent controversies, but I firmly believe that it is possible to restore confidence and that we can, after this painful process, achieve reconciliation."

So far, the narrative around the protests has been mostly focused on the leaked private messages—dubbed the "Chatgate" scandal—and the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrests of top officials on corruption charges—both of which President Donald Trump is using to criticize Congress for allocating funds toward a disaster relief plan for Puerto Rico. "The unfortunate events of the past week in Puerto Rico prove the president's concerns about mismanagement, politicization, and corruption have been valid," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement, according to the New York Times. "We remain committed to Puerto Rico's recovery and steadfast in protecting taxpayers and the Puerto Rico survivors from political corruption and financial abuse."

But for many Puerto Ricans, frustrations run much deeper—they're the result of a pervasive culture of neglect, violence, and impunity. As Marisol LeBrón, an assistant professor of Mexican-American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas–Austin writes: "This is something that protesters have been clear about since the beginning of the protests, although the mainstream media, and particularly U.S. based outlets, have narrowly framed the story around the governor and his associates' inappropriate language and conduct."

The content and tone of the leaked conversations, however, are being interpreted as a true reflection of what's wrong with Puerto Rico. Among the jokes about Hurricane Maria, there was also evidence that Rosselló's administration tried to hide the real scope of casualties and its own failure to address the disaster, while manipulating news coverage and co-opting the recovery narrative in its favor.

And for those most impacted by gender-based violence on the island, the misogynistic comments came as a reminder of an uncooperative leadership. "Governor Ricardo Rosselló has done violence not only to women—whom he insults directly—but to the country. His attack was not that he called us 'whores,' 'kittens,' or any other macho epithet; the governor's attack is that he still has not declared a state of emergency against gender violence," Vanesa Contreras Capó, a spokesperson for the organization Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, said in a statement.

While it remains unclear whether Rosselló will succumb to public pressure, protesters have said they won't back down until the governor resigns. At the same time, as Fernando Tormos-Aponte wrote for Jacobin this week, Puerto Ricans are aiming at higher targets: electoral and health-care reform, anti-corruption measures, and transparency.

As LeBrón puts it, "These protests are quite literally about life and death."