When Ricardo Rossello took to Facebook at the 11th hour on 24 July to become the first Puerto Rican Governor to resign from office, he had been hit with 12 straight days of public protest. It was some 48 hours after a 500,000 strong crowd marched in the capital of a country with population of about 3.2 million. But the seeds of his political undoing had been planted years before, some say from birth.
The 40-year-old biomedical engineering PhD and married father of two had served two and a half years of his four-year term as the 12th governor elected by the people of Puerto Rico. His election made history, since he was the first son of a former governor, Pedro Rossello Gonzalez, to also be elected to the island’s highest public office. Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States since 1898 and, in 1952, it was granted a self-governing political system modelled after its owner, featuring a republican, three-branch power structure centred around a strong executive branch.
Rossello started his term on 2 January 2017 after an election where his lack of experience was an important issue on the campaign trail. His role as the governor was in fact his first official job in a career littered with short-lived academic and entrepreneurial endeavours. He came in with a group of like-minded and inexperienced ministers who embraced a governing strategy based on public image and the use of social media to sidestep media outlets and to ingratiate themselves with a younger constituency, utilising the culture of reggaeton and trap singers.
His former mentor and business partner, Yosem E Companys, said that growing up a governor’s son, Rossello “never had to take responsibility for any of his actions over the course of his life because his parents – and everyone else for that matter – always rescued him at the first sign of trouble”. Companys concluded that public power had only worsened his former pupil’s “evil” tendencies.
This was bared for all to see when NotiCel started publishing the first leaked pages of a Telegram chat that Rossello kept with 11 of his advisors and social media consultants. In it they maintained a running commentary on all kinds of issues, including sensitive public policy and confidential information, even though one of the participants is a lobbyist with a pool of private clients that actively engage with government.
The interactions in the all-male group were often misogynistic and homophobic, and included scheming about taking revenge on political opponents, discrediting NGOs, removing non-party loyalists from public service and mockery of the some 3,000 people that died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The source of the documents chose to leak them to digital outlets and the trickle became a flood when the Centre for Investigative Journalism released some 889 pages of the conversations. A political category 5 hurricane then took hold of the governor’s mansion with daily protests surrounding his home and calling for his resignation.
Rossello tried clumsily to turn the tide with a poorly received appearance at a Sunday-morning church service accepting his mistakes and asking for forgiveness, with press conferences where he gave even more confusing and incriminating statements, and with a televised interview where he was eviscerated by Fox News anchor Shepard Smith.
After the 22 July march, most members of his New Progressive Party that had tried to hold the fort began to rapidly turn their backs, aligning themselves with protesters and with important private sector leaders (most prominently the owners of the Caribbean’s largest shopping centre, Plaza Las Americas) who began to demand he step down to bring back political stability to the island’s fragile economy.
In one of the story’s many dramatic and ironic twists, the march had been put together by protesters within three days using the same social media platforms that the governor had favoured during his election. At the head of the march were some of the same singers, athletes and celebrities that Rossello had strived to associate himself with to polish that young, hip image.
The episode becomes the latest in a dizzying succession of events that have hit Puerto Ricans in the last four years. In May 2016, the Commonwealth declared its first non-payment of public debt bonds; the November 2016 general elections were the first to include independent candidates for governor in an otherwise two-party rule tradition; in May 2017 the government was declared insolvent and legally bankrupt under the newly created Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (Promesa) federal law; in September 2017 Hurricane Maria, the most powerful in almost 100 years, ravaged the island; and now Rossello becomes the first governor to resign from office.
Today, the country faces another challenge of historical proportions: how to turn these weeks’ outpouring of social activism into a permanent force to install much-needed accountability, transparency and public participation in its government.
Oscar J Serrano is a journalist, attorney and co-founder of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (periodismoinvestigativo.com) and of NotiCel (noticel.com), where he also serves as editor in chief
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