Tear gas and rubber bullets, fireworks thrown into crowds of police, signs held aloft, and chants of “renuncia! renuncia! renuncia!” (“resign resign resign”). This was the scene NBC News filmed the night of July 17th in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In a continuation of protests that began on the 15th, citizens are calling on the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello to resign immediately.
So what prompted this amount of public outrage? It begins with Hurricane Maria. As you hopefully recall, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September of 2017, leaving major destruction in its wake, and thousands of people dead (See link 1). Yes thousands, and that death count is part of the problem. The official death toll after Hurricane Maria was only 64, and it wasn’t until nearly a year later, in August of 2018, that the governor officially raised the count to 2,975. This number is still contested, and the government of Puerto Rico has stated that over 1,000 “more deaths than normal” have occurred in the last year, potentially as a result of the hurricane (See link 2). The islands have been tense for a while now.
Then on July 10th the former Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, and five other officials were arrested by the FBI on 32 counts, including money laundering and fraud. The condemnation of these actions by the public was swift. Puerto Rico’s head prosecutor, Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, told reporters “It’s a pity that we see this kind of scheme. It’s a shame because there is a lot to do for Puerto Rico and the people accused here profited from this, they sought to benefit their own personal interests and did not think they could help or that they were in a position to help Puerto Rico … It’s embarrassing.” Keleher, a Philadelphia native, was accused of misusing about 13 million dollars of federal funding. During her tenure as Secretary of Education she closed schools across the islands and has been charged with bypassing the bid system for contractors and instead giving contracts to her personal acquaintances (See link 3). By the time all of this played out, tensions were rising in San Juan.
Then, on Saturday the 13th, a string of messages were released between Governor Rossello and male members of his cabinet that were honestly. . . Awful. They made crude jokes, referring to a female politician as a “puta” or a “whore” and making fun of another man’s weight. This was what the city had been waiting for. With a roar, the demands for a resignation were issued. Governor Rossello has maintained that he will not step down, as of the 18th, but the protests continue, demanding more transparency and decency from their government. Many Puerto Rican celebrities have returned to the capitol to join the protests, including Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny. Still more have discussed the events on social media, blasting the governor’s words (See link 4)
What struck me as I followed this story was the silence of the American media. I learned about the protests first through El Pais, an online Spanish newspaper, and then started to follow discussions about it on social media. As the protests have continued, the coverage has grown, but awareness of the situation is still very low. This is on trend, I suppose, with the national awareness of Puerto Rico in general. The forgotten “not-state”, The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, came under US control in 1898 as part of the Treaty of Paris, at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War (an oft-forgotten war, in my opinion). In 1900, once the colony-transfer was complete, Puerto Ricans had their Spanish citizenship removed and replaced with Puerto Rican citizenship under the Foraker Act (See link 5). Since then, the citizenship status of Puerto Rico has been on an absolute roller coaster ride.
First, in 1904 the Supreme Court case Gonzalez v Williams decided that Puerto Ricans were not US Citizens, but they were “non-citizen nationals” and therefore could not be considered “alien immigrants” (See link 6). Then in 1914 Puerto Rico officially denied the United States’ offer of US Citizenship in a letter to Congress and the President (See link 7). But despite their earlier objections, on March 2, 1917 the Jones-Shafroth act officially made Puerto Ricans US Citizens, without removing their Puerto Rican citizenship status. It was also clarified that you could rescind your US citizenship if you wanted, but you would not be able to vote in Puerto Rico’s elections if you did (See link 8).
While that may seem to be final, the wild ride of citizenship confusion was not over yet. In 1922 the court case Balzac v Porto Rico ruled that until a Puerto Rican citizen came to live in the US, the full protections of US citizenship did not apply to them (See link 9). And yet, in 1950 the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act was passed, which gave congress full jurisdiction over the islands (but still didn’t guarantee full citizenship benefits). They showcased this power in 1952, when they officially approved the Constitution of The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (See link 9).
As citizens of the Commonwealth, Puerto Ricans are citizens of both the United States and Puerto Rico automatically. Though in 1994 Juan Mari Bras renounced his US Citizenship in an act of protest, which prompted arguments about whether he would still be able to vote in Puerto Rican elections. The court case Miriam J Ramirez de Ferrer v. Juan Mari Bras in 1997 decided that he could, proving that US and Puerto Rican citizenships are two separate (though commonly simultaneous) things (See link 10). In 1997 Governor Pedro Rossello (not to be confused with his son, current governor Ricardo Rossello), signed Law 132, which (translated) reads “Every person who possesses the nationality and is a citizen of the United States and resides within the jurisdiction of the territory of Puerto Rico shall be a citizen of Puerto Rico” (See link 7). And that, for now, is final.
So where are we now? Puerto Rico is not a state, but an unincorporated territory of the United States. Because they are not a state they do not have a voting member in congress. Instead, they have a Resident Commissioner in the House of Representatives, who cannot vote on the floor but does sit and vote in committees. Despite being US Citizens, Puerto Ricans can not vote in federal elections, and have no electoral college representation. They can, however, vote in the primaries and send a delegate to both the Republican and Democratic conventions (See link 11).
If you’re confused by Puerto Rico’s connection to the United States, you are not alone. Our history with the islands has been messy and complicated. Puerto Rico is often called the World’s Oldest Colony, and that moniker is apt (See link 12). First seized by the Spanish in 1493, the islands have remained under colonial control all the way up to 2019. The native Taino population has been all but decimated and the remaining population is part of a colorful and ever changing blend of Indigenous, African, European and Caribbean peoples. Will Puerto Rico ever get the chance to decolonize? Many argue we should make Puerto Rico a fully fledged state. Others say we should let them be an independent nation. Regardless, until a decision is made, it is important to remember that our government is the federal government of Puerto Rico, and as such we have a responsibility towards the US Citizens living there and the Puerto Rican citizens living here (they’re the same, remember!)
So pay attention. Keep reading about what is happening on the islands, and tell your friends. The corruption, sexism and malice in the Puerto Rican government is the same corruption, sexism and malice in our government. Because our government is their government, too. Don’t turn a blind eye. The fight for transparency and decency in government affects us all. It’s time for us to support our fellow US citizens and demand the resignation of Ricardo Rossello. But let’s not stop there. As we approach this election season, let’s condemn all corrupt, sexist, racist, malicious leaders and demand transparency and decency in our government, for Puerto Rico and for all of us.