ITHACA, N.Y.— “¡Ricky, renuncia! ¡Somos más y no tenemos miedo!” — Ricky, resign! There are more of us and we are not afraid! — a small crowd chanted on Monday, July 22 on the Ithaca Commons. About 40 Ithacans, including several high school students, joined hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans calling for the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló last week and an end to corruption on the island.
Local protesters joined in chants, songs and dance, with some banging pots, pans and drums, to protest Rosselló and corruption in Puerto Rico’s government. Monday’s protest was one of three local rallies that took place last week, and was meant to show support for the people protesting in Puerto Rico and to encourage more people locally to support the cause.
Two-week-long protests in Puerto Rico were sparked when the island’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of private messages from the messaging app Telegram last month. This “chatgate” scandal revealed messages between Rosselló and other island officials containing misogynistic and homophobic comments, along with jokes about victims of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in tandem with Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Dariana Perez Cruz, who co-organized protests in Ithaca on Tuesday and Thursday of last week with Maya Soto, said the anger many Puerto Ricans feel toward Rosselló and his administration is not new.
“People trusted him and people really wanted to believe he wanted better for Puerto Rico. … The fact is that we feel like we were wronged by people who were supposed to watch out for our well-being, who were supposed to care about us and only cared about their pockets and making themselves richer,” she said.
Before the chat message scandal erupted, six people, including the island’s former education secretary and former director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration, were arrested on charges of allegedly steering $15.5 million in federal contracts to unqualified, politically-connected contractors, money laundering, fraud and other related charges. Rosselló’s administration was also accused of downplaying the impact of Hurricane Maria, which killed about 3,000 people, and was accused of mismanaging recovery funds after the Category 5 storm devastated the island. While Congress approved about $42 billion for Puerto Rico’s recovery, only a fraction of that total has been disbursed according to Puerto Rico’s Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resilience.
Cruz said Rosselló’s response to Maria in 2017 was when people started to question government actions and she described the leaked chat messages as “the last straw.” “We’ve been hostage for far too long from the corrupt government. We can’t learn, we can’t better ourselves, we can’t make money, we can’t get jobs, we can’t fix our roads, and we can’t feed our people. With none of that, everything falls apart,” she said.
Cruz was born and raised in Puerto Rico but moved to Ithaca in 2014 after being unemployed for two years. She said living conditions in Puerto Rico have been declining as more schools have closed and around 40 percent of the island’s population of over 3 million live in poverty.
Despite massive protests in the capital city of San Juan, Rosselló initially said he would not resign before his term ended but would not seek re-election in 2020. However, Rosselló announced last Wednesday that he would resign as governor at 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2.
“Now it is also a celebration, as well as a protest in solidarity, because we really believe that the fight is not over for Puerto Rico yet,” said Soto, a Lehman Alternative Community School student whose grandparents were born in Puerto Rico.
“Just because Rosselló resigned doesn’t mean corruption went with him. There’s so many people in his cabinet who are corrupt, and the woman who’s going to be taking his place after August 2 is also very corrupt, and people on the island and we Puerto Ricans don’t want her either. So the fight is not over,” Soto said, referring to the person who appeared most likely to become governor as of last week.
Ordinarily, the secretary of state would take the lead in the event of a gubernatorial resignation, but Luis G. Rivera Marín offered his resignation before Rosselló amidst the scandal. Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez was next in the line of succession, but faced backlash from protesters who said she was also corrupt. On Sunday she announced she did not want the governor’s job.
On Wednesday, Rosselló appointed Pedro Pierluisi, who has represented Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress as a nonvoting resident commissioner, to secretary of state. While Pierluisi is slated to be Rosselló’s successor, as of Friday morning it was unclear if the island’s legislature would confirm his appointment.
Cruz said it’s important that people in Puerto Rico continue protesting so Puerto Ricans everywhere are motivated to “step up to the plate” to protest government corruption. “People in Puerto Rico are keeping us outside Puerto Rico motivated and inspired. If they stop, everything else falls apart. They are the head of everything and we are just parts of the body that is Puerto Rico, so if they stop everybody stops,” she said.
Soto said she hopes these local protests highlight Ithaca’s Puerto Rican community, which she said is sometimes overlooked. “In my experience Puerto Ricans are everywhere. There’s a huge diaspora and there is a Puerto Rican community in Ithaca that people don’t know about or don’t want to recognize, and so this is an opportunity for us to make our presence known and to support our people back home.”
Cruz said she is proud of her people for leading peaceful protests that encourage unity and hope. Along with music, people in San Juan have called for the governor to resign with peaceful demonstrations featuring scuba diving, dancing to the Electric Slide, horseback riding, driving motorcycles and practicing yoga outside the governor’s mansion.
Cruz said she is working with Planned Parenthood and the Advocacy Center in Ithaca to organize a larger community protest, and has reached out to local lawmakers including Mayor Svante Myrick to spread awareness and support for the cause. She added that more protests could be planned in the upcoming weeks and that she will not rest until there is real change in Puerto Rico’s government.
“It’s so important that we keep this movement going because look at all we’ve accomplished in 12 days,” she said. “Everybody got screwed over. Nobody cares anymore about who you are, where you’re from, how much money you’re making. We don’t judge each other anymore. We have been united and connected with each other and now we’re fighting towards this cause and we’re going to keep it going from here.”
Featured image: Local demonstrators held signs in solidarity with protests in Puerto Rico. (Courtesy of event Facebook page.)