La Fortaleza. Photo: EL VOCERO
La Fortaleza. Photo: EL VOCERO

La Fortaleza, a symbol of resistance


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Michelle Lavergne is the former Chief-of-Protocol of Puerto Rico. 

La Fortaleza, the oldest executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere, has been the epicenter of a war lately. No, this is not a reference to the 1785 British attack or the besieging of "The Fortress" by the Dutch in 1625 and certainly not the U.S. invasion in 1898. This is a different phenomenon altogether.

It’s the current siege of one of Puerto Rico's most powerful symbols of democratic governance; this time not by the cruel and nefarious invader, but by its own people against a democratically elected governor who has proven over and over that he cannot tell the truth, and least of all, govern. 

Tired, angry, frustrated and fed up, at least one million Puerto Ricans have laid siege to the executive mansion for twelve consecutive days. Their message: there will be no finale until Governor Ricardo Rossello steps down.  

For almost 500 hundred years, La Fortaleza, also known as the Palacio de Santa Catalina, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, has not been alien to tyranny and corruption. It has housed most of the 186 governors who’ve governed the lives of Puerto Ricans since 1508. 

This palace with its weathered walls has witnessed the removal of despotic and ineffective governors such as Romualdo Palacios (1887) and General Guy Henry.  It also has been the seat of the celebrated government under  Rexford G. Tugwell and Luis Muñoz Marín.  

Yet, history, with its cyclical implacability, has dealt us a terrible hand once again - his name: Governor Ricardo Rossello and his acolytes. This ill-fated reality is personal to me and so many of my fellow puertorriqueños. 

It was January 2001, and the newly elected Governor Sila Calderón, the first woman in the island’s history to lead the top table, was taking office. The two-term Governor Pedro Rossello, Ricardo Rossello’s father, was in the midst of abandoning his palace, and Puerto Rico, to settle in Virginia. 

His administration had been riddled with accusations of embezzlement, questionable sales of the commonwealth’s assets, and the elevation of corruption to new heights--leading to the prosecution and charges against 40  of Pedro Rossello’s closest aides and the conviction of 25 government officials, including the secretary of education.  

After Calderón’s inauguration, and I, as part of her team of advisers, was ready and anxious, alongside my cohorts to take over the government. We were filled with the hopefulness of youth and the conviction that we would eventually reverse all that had gone wrong.

We were certainly not prepared for what came next.

There was no transition process. Governor Pedro Rosselló made sure of that. No one received the newcomers to La Fortaleza, not even a caretaker  provided the keys to the mansion. We found it dilapidated, with a lingering stench of humidity--clearly unkempt for eight years. Rugs and curtains were torn, dirty and “adorned” with half-filled beer bottles left sitting in the main reception rooms, aside from excrement covered areas. 

The culprit - a young and unruly Ricardo Rossello - who chose to say goodbye in 2001 by vandalizing what had been his home for eight years, as a parting gift. 

As the days went by, while trying to bring some order to the chaos we had been left with, we heard many stories about Ricky Rossello’s exploits, perplexing accounts of the destruction of property and even his involvement in a fatal car accident in 1994, where a mother and child were killed. We will never truly know the real story, but his flawed character has been a known and haunting whisper since.  

Ricardo Rossello was a bad choice for governor from the start. His background and lack of experience foretold the inevitable. Over two years of ineffectiveness in handling the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico’s modern history, Hurricane Maria, and the almost 4,000 people who died as a result, rampant corruption and lack of a comprehensive “plan” to deal with our economic crisis kept Puerto Ricans in a state of constant and acute anxiety. 

Discontent had been palpable since 2017, but Ricky’s detractors were unable to induce the need for dramatic change. 

The arrest of former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and five other government officials on July 10th was not enough to awaken the weary still shocked masses who had not fully recovered from the aftermath of Maria. 

 As their arrests became front-page news, the leak of a chat on an app called Telegram, that included Governor Rossello and his closest aides, began to surface. All 899 pages of it’s profane, misogynistic, homophobic language and governments dealings bordering on illegal became available to the public a few days later. This created an uproar among the public and within important political and civil groups on the island and in the U.S.

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A veil was lifted and revealed the true nature of those that claimed to govern us. This ignited the indignation, the catalytic that drove hundreds of thousands to the streets to denounce Rossello, to demand his resignation and that of all other members of his already infamous chat.

“Puerto Ricans, yes those who live in a little island surrounded by water in the middle of the Ocean as Trump said, have been labeled by the uninformed as traditionally docile and subservient,” said protester Ana Maria Collazo, before performing a protest dance in front of La Fortaleza. 

“We won’t stand for this indignity to our people, we are not caving until he’s out. I just wish the American people would have the same strength and determination to do it in the US. Hopefully, we can set the example that is never too late to make things right,” she said. 

The opposition Popular Democratic Party candidate (PPD) and former President of the Senate - Eduardo Bahtia - said it best:

“Let’s be clear: the issue in Puerto Rico is NOT the 2020 elections. We Puerto Ricans feel that we are on an airplane manned by an erratic, incompetent pilot who is Rossello, an imminent threat to all. It is a matter of self-preservation. The only possible response: replace him right now before it’s too late!”

As of now, Pedro Rossello’s son is still at La Fortaleza, the very building he trashed in a previous departure.  Our beloved Fortaleza will continue to be under siege until Rossello resigns until the same filth that covered its beauty back in 2001 can once again be removed.

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