Puerto Rican Protests Continue Amid Political Uncertainty
HAVANA TIMES – Protests are continuing in Puerto Rico days after mass demonstrations forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to step down. It marked the first time in Puerto Rico’s history that protests have toppled a sitting governor. Rosselló’s last day in office is this Friday, but it remains unclear who will take his place.
Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez first said she had no interest in being governor; however, on Monday, Vázquez’s spokesperson did not rule out her becoming governor.
On Monday, protesters gathered outside Vázquez’s office calling for her to resign as justice secretary. The ongoing protests in Puerto Rico come as concern is growing that the political turmoil could lead to the Financial Oversight and Management Board seizing more power.
We speak with Manuel Natal, an independent member of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico and a member of the grassroots organization Victoria Ciudadana.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Protests are continuing in Puerto Rico, days after mass demonstrations forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to step down. It marks the first time in Puerto Rico’s history that protests have toppled a sitting governor. Rosselló’s last day in office is this Friday, but it remains unclear who will take his place. Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez is next in line for the office, but on Sunday she said in a tweet, quote, “I have no interest in occupying the [governor’s post]”; however, on Monday, Vázquez’s spokeswoman then did not rule out her becoming governor.
On Monday, protesters gathered outside of Vázquez’s office, calling for her to resign as justice secretary. This is Claudia Sofía Garriga-López, who teaches at Cal State University in Chico.
CLAUDIA SOFÍA GARRIGA-LÓPEZ: I think that really what we’re talking about here is beginning a process of decolonization for Puerto Rico. The system of the fiscal control board, the odious debt that has been imposed upon the Puerto Rican people to pay for years on end, these are all mechanisms of colonization over Puerto Rico. And so we need to address those directly and move on to creating a more just system all over Puerto Rico, and then in the United States, as well.
I think that part of what we see here is a great inspiration for the rest of the country, to see that if we mobilize in large numbers, we don’t have to wait for impeachment. We don’t have to wait for elections in 2020. We can move Trump out of the presidency, as well as all of these other corrupt politicians who are taking advantage of their political position to enrich themselves and push forward policies that benefit private corporations and definitely not the people of the United States or Puerto Rico.
AMY GOODMAN: Claudia Sofía Garriga-López of California State University in Chico. The ongoing protests in Puerto Rico come as concern is growing that the political turmoil could lead to the Financial Oversight and Management Board seizing more power. The board is commonly referred to as “la junta” in Puerto Rico. The unelected board runs much of Puerto Rico’s affairs, approving any major expenditures and budget decisions. It’s also overseen a devastating austerity program.
To talk more about the latest in Puerto Rico, we go to San Juan, where we’re joined by Manuel Natal. He’s an independent member of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico. He’s also a member of the growing grassroots organization Victoria Ciudadana. That is Citizens Victory.
Manuel Natal, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, last week, mass protests ousted the governor, Governor Rosselló. He says he will leave on Friday, but has yet to name a replacement, since the secretary of state had resigned in the same tech scandal a few weeks before. What is going to happen on Friday?
MANUEL NATAL: Well, we are currently at the brink of a constitutional crisis here in Puerto Rico. As you just mentioned, in just four days, Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation will become effective, and the people of Puerto Rico still don’t know who’s going to be his replacement. The Legislative Assembly in Puerto Rico has failed to step up to its leadership, particularly within the statehood party, who is the party that the governor currently belongs to. And unfortunately, they don’t seem to be hearing the message the people of Puerto Rico have been screaming loud and clear, that we’re not only asking for Rosselló’s resignation. We’re looking to end corruption here in Puerto Rico. And that means that whoever is going to be the substitute to Ricardo Rosselló has to be a candidate that comes out of the consensus with the people of Puerto Rico.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the justice minister, Wanda Vázquez, and why many of the protesters are unhappy even about the possibility that she will be the successor? Her record as the justice minister in terms of not even investigating or prosecuting potential corruption in relationship to the aid that was sent from the United States to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria?
MANUEL NATAL: They’re both cut from the same cloth. When it comes to Wanda Vázquez, she has failed to fulfill her constitutional duties as secretary of the Department of Justice. In my case particularly, a lot of the corruption that has been signaled out and called out in the now famous Telegram chat, I had been pointing out for the last two-and-a-half years. I had referred all of that corruption to Wanda Vázquez and the Department of Justice since at least November of 2017—$40 million or $50 million in government contracts to the governor’s publicist, the relationship and the conflict of interest with Elías Sánchez, the governor’s best man at his wedding, his campaign manager and his representative of the fiscal control board. I mean, so many examples of things that had been pointed out. The evidence had been provided to Wanda Vázquez and the Department of Justice, and she just continued to become silent, and she was complicit to all of this corruption.
So, she’s obviously inhabilitated to become the next governor of Puerto Rico, and that creates a void and a constitutional crisis here in Puerto Rico, that unfortunately the statehood party has not been willing to show its leadership and hear the people of Puerto Rico.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why has it been—why it’s been so difficult for the governor to name a successor or even for the statehood party leaders to sort of agree on an interim caretaker governor? Isn’t it part of the problem that a lot of them are jockeying to actually run for governor next November?
MANUEL NATAL: That’s correct, Juan. We have two situations unfolding here. One is that a lot of the possible substitutes to the governor are also involved in the same corruption scandals that led to the governor having to resign. The other situation is that there are a couple of individuals that are looking to put themselves in the best situation towards 2020 and towards running for governor themselves, particularly Thomas Rivera Schatz, who’s the president of the Senate, and he’s a member of the statehood party, and Jenniffer González, who’s currently the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico in Washington, D.C.
During that battle, the people of Puerto Rico have become hostage to the statehood party, because since they’re not able to come together with a solution for a short term so Puerto Rico can finish this term in peace until the next general elections, the people of Puerto Rico have become hostage of these backroom negotiations that are taking place within the statehood party, and we have been put in a level of uncertainty that, like I mentioned before, we’re four days away from the governor’s resignation becoming effective, and we literally don’t know who’s going to be the next in line to take in place.
And not only that, there are so many negotiations, bills that are being signed into law, people that are being put in strategic positions during this transition process that we don’t know about. And the governor is not showing face to the people of Puerto Rico. He is doing all of this governing of his last days in office behind closed doors, not engaging with any sort of conversations with the press. So we’re right now in a very, very dark position.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the control board? Because throughout all of this, the reality is, the control board is constantly putting deadlines for budgetary decisions, for spending decisions by the government, and there’s no one there to make those decisions at this point. And what do you see as the role of the control board? The federal judge, Swain, has temporarily suspended action on any of the legal proceedings, but, meanwhile, the PROMESA board continues to function.
MANUEL NATAL: Well, that’s one of the most concerning points out of all of this situation. While we are concentrated on removing Ricardo Rosselló, while we’re concentrated and we have come together in a historic cause to, I guess, take out corruption out of Puerto Rico, the fiscal control board has gained more and more power. Before this situation took place, the conversations in Washington were headed in the direction of limiting the powers of the fiscal control board. Since this situation unfolded, the conversations in Washington, D.C., have gone in the different direction: They’re talking about giving more power to the fiscal control board, a fiscal control board that does not represent the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico but rather represents the interests of corporate America, and particularly Wall Street. We’re talking about vulture funds that are making sure, through the fiscal control board, that they get paid, regardless of what that means in sacrifices, in blood, in tears, to the people of Puerto Rico.
So, I would be very, very careful with the period that Judge Swain has established, in which she has basically paralyzed all the process in terms of the bankruptcy that’s going on at the federal level, because what they’re actually doing is buying time to push forward the adjustment plan that they want for the people of Puerto Rico. And that adjustment plan means more sacrifice for our pensions, more sacrifice for our workers, more sacrifices for the University of Puerto Rico. And the people of Puerto Rico have already given enough. The austerity policies that have been implemented, not only by the fiscal control board but by the current Rosselló administration, the previous García Padilla administration, have put the people of Puerto Rico at a position of vulnerability. Social inequality has increased to levels that we have never seen here in Puerto Rico. So we have to be very, very careful that while we fight the good fight in terms of removing Ricardo Rosselló from office and making sure that his successor represents the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico, we cannot leave the fiscal control board out of our sight, because they’re gaining power as we speak. And we need more democracy, not less democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have José Carrión, the chairman of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, recently became a leader of Latinos for Trump. But I want to go to the popular movement, the people that ultimately ousted the governor, the half a million people who marched in the streets. And it wasn’t only in San Juan, all over the island, the mass protests after this tech scandal exposed by independent media, the Center for Independent Journalism in Puerto Rico, and the power of the people. So, people from across the political spectrum, ultimately, outraged by the text attacks, the violent, sexist, homophobic attacks, rose up. But how are they organizing now? Is there a kind of umbrella party that will also not just leave things to the governor deciding what’s going to happen next before he leaves?
MANUEL NATAL: Yes. We’re talking about the Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation. It’s a first step, a necessary first step, but this is not the end of the road. The people of Puerto Rico know that getting Ricardo Rosselló out of office doesn’t mean that we’re going to get our country back on track. We need to make sure that not only we replace all of the people in government that have failed us, but we need to make sure that we have a political movement that represents the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.
A lot of us are betting on a collective process. We’re not looking for individuals that come to save us. We’re talking about how we can organize from the ground up. And that’s what we’re trying to do here in Victoria Ciudadana, which was a political movement that was recently announced as close as in March. We’re a coalition of people that have been fighting for justice for Puerto Rico, for equality for Puerto Rico. We’re being a progressive movement. We’re talking about people that come from the workers’ party, from unions, from community organizing, from environmental groups, from student leaders at the university, some of us that have come from some of the main parties here in Puerto Rico, others that ran as independent. But we have come together under this movement, under the idea that we can only face this situation as a collective. And if we’re united, we’re able to beat the corruption of the two-party system here in Puerto Rico.
And that’s part of the evolution of this protest. We have seen a diversity, a plurality of the individuals that have shown up to this protest. We had close to a million people walk the streets of San Juan, protesting for Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation. That’s unheard of. That’s never happened in the history of Puerto Rico. The closest thing to that was when the people of Puerto Rico came together to call for the marina, the U.S. military, to get out of Vieques, the Puerto Rican island municipality.
So, we are at the verge or at the brink of a political revolution here in Puerto Rico. And we have to make sure that all this excitement, all of this action that’s taking place, it’s geared towards corrective change and to make sure that towards the next election we have the right people in place to take over government and give it back to the people of Puerto Rico.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Manuel Natal, I wanted to ask you, in terms of Victoria Ciudadana, you, yourself, had split away from the commonwealth party, the PPD, which has always been associated with commonwealth and—since its founding by Luis Muñoz Marín back in 1952. I’m wondering—my sense is that the PROMESA, the installation of PROMESA, signaled the virtual death of the commonwealth model. And I’m wondering how you see this crisis relating to the longer-term situation of what happens in terms of the status of Puerto Rico.
MANUEL NATAL: Well, I think, in 2016, in the general election, politics in Puerto Rico changed completely. Close to 20% of the people that voted for the governor’s position voted outside of the two-party system. That number is unheard of. An independent candidate, Alexandra Lúgaro, got close to 12% of the votes. Another independent candidate, Manuel Cidre, got close to 6% of the votes. So we’re already seeing the people of Puerto Rico looking for options outside of the two-party system.
Obviously, that accelerated after the PROMESA came into effect, and particularly given the situation that has happened after Hurricane Maria. The people of Puerto Rico, regardless of their party affiliation, understand that the United States government has failed the people of Puerto Rico. The response that we got after Hurricane Maria was not necessarily the response that we deserved. It was not the response that the people of Puerto Rico were expecting. And to this day, there are still people in Puerto Rico living under tarps. There are still people in Puerto Rico living under very, very precarious conditions. And that has created an environment in which people are looking for different options.
I think the two-party system, not only the commonwealth party here in Puerto Rico, but the statehood party, has lost a lot of traction within the last couple of years. And people that usually [inaudible] these parties, and even people recently, or in the last couple of elections, have stopped voting, they’re looking for different options. And that’s when Victoria Ciudadana comes in, not as another political party, but as a movement that is born out of the need for a political revolution in Puerto Rico, out of a movement that’s born out of the need of a vehicle that really represents the interests of the people of Puerto Rico, and not corporate interests, not financial interests, not the interests of the buitres and the corruptos that have been ruling this island for so many years.
AMY GOODMAN: Manuel Natal, we want to thank you so much for being with us, independent member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, also a member of the growing grassroots organization Victoria Ciudadana.