From #RickyLeaks to #RickyRenuncia: The Political Hurricane that Swept Puerto Rico
A month after major scandals and massive protests brought Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation, Puerto Rico grapples with a new reality.
For many Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and living elsewhere, Governor Ricardo Rosselló was on thin ice even before the chain of events that began on July 9. The island was on the very slow road (and still is) to economic recovery after a decade of financial difficulties.
What little progress was made washed away when Hurricane Maria swept across the island, taking at least 3,000 lives and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to a mainland U.S. whose government hoped Puerto Rico sank like Atlantis as an alternative to dealing with the growing crisis.
But on Tuesday, July 9, a different kind of storm took shape over Puerto Rico. That morning, as Rosselló vacationed in France, a first series of leaked private messages exchanged between him and members of his inner circle made their rounds on social media.
These first 11 messages were just the tip of the iceberg, but in them, Rosselló and his high-ranking friends, laid digital waste to some of their political opponents with a mix of memes and insults.
Social media had a field day. Within the first 24 hours, both #Telegramgate (a reference to the messaging app used by the Rosselló and friends) and #RickyLeaks were trending topics on Twitter.
And it would only get worse.
A day later, on July 10, the FBI slammed its domino onto the table that was becoming Puerto Rican politics and arrested two former Rosselló officials for corruption.
The arrests of former Secretary of the Department of Education Julia Keleher and former Director of the Health Insurance Administration Ángel Ávila Marrero, along with four other associates, came after an FBI investigation that was first reported on June 24 — when Ávila resigned from her post.
Ávila and Keleher were charged with 32 counts each of conspiracy, wire fraud,money laundering, and theft of government funds, while the other four were indicted for conspiracy, money laundering, or both.
The bombshell indictments ended Rosselló’s “first vacation in two and a half years” as he put it, but more importantly, confirmed the belief of many in Puerto Rico that his government operated outside the law.
The first cracks exposed by the chats were now more pronounced. Further scandal was sure to deepen the divide, and the island only had to wait another 24 hours.
On July 11, another set of private Telegram messages were released to the public from the same chat as before. This time, there were more targets and the attacks took a more discriminatory tone.
In one particular message, Rosselló threatened former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and called her a “puta,” or “whore” in English.
Viverito initially drew Rosselló’s ire for criticizing Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez for supporting the notion of U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico.
She responded to his threats with a statement released on Twitter denouncing Rosselló’s machismo and calling for his resignation as governor.
“When a male chauvinist wants to belittle a woman, he uses words like “whore” to belittle, dehumanize and degrade her. A person who uses that language against a woman, whether a public figure or not, should not govern Puerto Rico,” wrote Viverito.
Puerto Ricans took Viverito’s call for resignation to the streets of San Juan with the same message.
In a press conference held on the night of July 11, Rosselló — still caught up for canceling his vacation — justified his messages in the chat as a way “to blow off steam,” but asked for forgiveness for their content.
Rosselló also said he wouldn’t talk about the chats again. He had another thing coming.
By July 12, the protests in San Juan calling for Rosselló’s resignation were gaining steady momentum heading into the weekend as thousands of Puerto Ricans braved tear gas and occasional violence to gather outside the governor’s residence at La Fortaleza on Thursday and Friday nights.
On Saturday, July 13, protesters took the driver’s seat as Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo released the motherload of leaks when it published all 889 pages of private chat messages between Rosselló and his inner circle.
The leaks not only revealed how many of Rosselló’s inner circle were involved — adding three more high-ranking officials to the list — but also how this elite group felt about their work in Puerto Rico. And about Puerto Ricans in general.
Overall themes, which had been revealed in snippets during the week, were shown in full. The group disparaged and threatened their political enemies with offensive memes and violent messages, and discussed in detail public policy and how they were to manipulate public perception.
They also pulled no punches when discussing Hurricane Maria. Christian Sobrino Vega, Puerto Rico’s Chief Fiscal Officer joked about the amount of bodies in the morgue after Maria and suggested their use “to feed our crows,” — a reference to their critics.
On Sunday, July 21, Rosselló announced his departure as leader of his New Progressive Party and that he would not seek reelection come the next cycle in a Facebook Live stream. But he did not resign and doubled down on his intention to stay out his term, which only added fuel to the fire.
Protesters had already been planning their biggest showing yet for the following Monday and the new leaks along with Rosselló’s stubborness made the day go down in Puerto Rico’s history.
Heeding the call of Puerto Rican superstars like Ricky Martin — who was subject to insults about his sexual orientation in the chats — Bad Bunny and Residente of Calle 13, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans flooded the streets of San Juan in what was called “The March of the People” (Marcha del Pueblo).
The protest, which was the largest in Puerto Rico’s history, lasted all day and caused the shutdown of all of the island’s major roadways. Many businesses also closed in preparation.
What was unique about The March of the People was that it united all Puerto Ricans, no matter their politics or economics, under one banner that read #RickyRenuncia.
The movement’s leaders were the island’s young people, or as Residente of Calle 13 called them: La Generación de “Yo no me dejo” (The Generation of “I Will Not Allow It” is how The Washington Post translated the label).
As the protest carried on over the day and into the night to the music of resistance, the world took note, and so did Rosselló.
Two days after the march, Rosselló heeded the demands and announced his resignation from the governorship to become the first to do so in Puerto Rico’s history.
The demonstrations after that were of celebration, but the disgraced leader still had to pick his successor.
The man chosen to succeed Rosselló and lead Puerto Rico into the future was Pedro Pierluisi. Before taking the helm, he spent eight years as the island’s non-voting member of U.S. Congress and was appointed acting Secretary of State on July 31, replacing Luis Rivera Marín, who was a participant of Rosselló’s private chat.
Pierluisi came into power with a promise to stabilize country, but two days after being sworn in, his appointment was deemed unconstitutional by Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court.
The court’s unanimous decision was based on the fact that Pierluisi was never sworn in to be Secretary of State by both chambers of Puerto Rico’s congressional body. At the time of the political crisis, both chambers were on recess.
With that in mind, President of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz, who was also vying for the governorship, brought the issue to the Supreme Court.
Pierluisi’s fall meant the rise of Wanda Vázquez Garced, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Justice.
On Aug. 7, just four days after Pierluisi was sworn in as Governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez Garced went through the same process. Vázquez’s appointment comes with its fair share of speculation, considering when Rosselló resigned, she expressed on Twitter her desire not to be chosen as his successor.
Vázquez has also been embroiled in her own political scandals. In 2018, she intervened on behalf of her daughter regarding a burglary and faced violations of the government’s ethics laws, but the charges were later dropped.
While not facing backlash comparable to Rosselló, Vázquez also faced calls for her own resignation during the two weeks of protests.
However, she took the title of governor with the promise of eradicating corruption in the government.
It’s yet to be seen whether Vázquez can follow through on her promise, but one thing’s for sure, if she doesn’t the Puerto Rican people stand ready to hit the streets once more and inspire the whole world again.