Originally published in The Nation August 2, 2019
On July 26, still giddy after the massive mobilization of Puerto Ricans that played a major role in forcing Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign, plena musician Tito Matos and street-theater activist/music video director Israel Lugo were in the Hato Rey business district of San Juan, walking together in a new protest march, trying to figure out what the protests should focus on next. They would have to express it through a plena, a traditional storytelling genre that has found new life in Puerto Rico in the past 10 years in funky bars and on the front lines of years of protests.
“Oye Wanda Vázquez /No te vistas que no vas / Llévate a la Junta y a Thomas Rivera Schatz,” they sang repeatedly to the insistent beat of panderetas, the small hand drums that propel the plena. The lyrics were straightforward: They advised current Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, first in the line of succession to be named governor when Rosselló leaves office, not to get dressed because she won’t be assuming power, and that she should also take the congressionally imposed Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB, also commonly known as the Junta) and the president of the Senate (Rivera Schatz) with her as she leaves.
Over the weekend, Vázquez declared she had no interest in taking over as governor, probably because of various revelations about her failure to investigate possible cases of corruptionin Rosselló’s government. On Thursday, after it became unclear whether Rosselló’s choice as a successor, former resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, would be confirmed by the Puerto Rico legislature, Vázquez reversed herselfand insisted she would take on the reins as governor if necessary. Rivera Schatz, who had been planning to run for governor on Rosselló’s pro-statehood (PNP) line in 2020, has also been under a cloud since late May, when his subordinate, Ángel Figueroa-Cruz, was indicted by a federal grand juryfor wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering. Rivera Schatz has deniedthat he directly supervises Figueroa.
The chaos surrounding who will replace Rosselló has become the central story line of the moment, and a number of activists, some of whom have been fighting for a better Puerto Rico for almost 10 years, are hoping to take advantage of the growing alienation of a large swath of average citizens. Whether this was a “revolution” or a stunning display of a mobilized, diverse new political constituency depends on the next crucial days and weeks.
“Rosselló won the election in 2016 with only 42 percent of the vote, which is a weak mandate,” said Rafael Bernabe, the 2016 candidate for the Working People’s Party (PPT) and a co-founder of Victoria Ciudadana, a new political movement pushing for significant change. “The majority of the electorate now feel no loyalty to the traditional political parties. We need something new, but at the same time it hasn’t emerged yet. It’s a dangerous situation. If we get rid of Rosselló without creating something new, the old parties will remain in power.”
Victoria Ciudadana has been working toward reform since it was launched in March of this year, focusing on protesting the austerity measures of the FOMB, such as jobs and pension cuts, privatization of public institutions and utilities, and cuts to the University of Puerto Rico and various cultural centers. The group is calling for a constitutional assembly that would allow citizens to discuss new proposals for decolonization that could be directly presented to the US Congress. “We want to take away the monopoly of the status issue from the traditional parties [the pro-statehood PNP and the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, or PPD] and return it to the people,” said Manuel Natal Albelo, a member of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives who resigned from the PPD in 2018and was the subject of threats in the infamous leaked chats that led to Rossello´s resignation.
At the moment, Victoria Ciudadana is a big-tent affair, openly encouraging pro-statehood and pro-independence supporters to join in the discussion, as well as those who favor a new form of free association with the United States that would remove the plenary powers of the US Congress. Natal advocates the latter, while Bernabe and independent 2016 gubernatorial candidate Alexandra Lúgaro favor independence.
“The chance to defeat the old order is even bigger now,” said Lúgaro, whose candidacy got 11 percent of the vote in 2016, the largest ever for a third-party candidate. “I expect more arrests, and we’re going to see the PPD suffering as well because all these corruption schemes involve someone from both parties.” In 2016, a major PPD fundraiser said to have direct access to former governor Alejandro García Padilla and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Jaime Perelló, pleaded guilty to 14 charges of bribery, extortion, and influence peddling.
While Lúgaro asserts that the PPD will be running a primary candidate campaign with six “recycled” candidates, one of them will be San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who became a major symbol of Puerto Rico’s disaffection with the Trump administration and FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane María. But it remains to be seen if Cruz can transcend the perception that her party is part of a political system in deep crisis.
A New Intersectional Nationalism
Lúgaro, who began her career as an attorney and ran an educational consulting firm, is emblematic of a growing fusion in Puerto Rico between feminist political concerns and issues of social class and inequality. “The fight against misogynist violence has converged with the fact that Puerto Rico is one of the most unequal jurisdictions in the world,” said Lúgaro. “We’ve found a way to cross over both narratives, and you could see it in the mobilization.”
The ubiquitous presence of Puerto Rican flags, cultural essentials like salsa dancing, the poetic improvisations in the chanted slogans, and the singing of nationalistic hymns like “La Borinqueña” suggest a resurgence of nationalism, but with a twist. “I’m an internationalist, but this is a positive nationalism,” said Bernabe. “This is not Albizu Campos [the island’s legendary mid-20th-century Nationalist Party leader]; this is something new.” Lúgaro felt the outpouring was a direct response to the Rosselló government’s acquiescence in the FOMB’s austerity program, which required cuts to cultural and educational institutions.
But undoubtedly the leading edge of Puerto Rico’s people-power mobilization is Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, which led some of the early actions, such as the confrontation with Rosselló at the airport when he returned from vacation in Europe to face the exploding chat scandal, and initiated the cacerolazos, or nightly pot-banging—used previously in various Latin American countries—that allowed people a simple way to protest in their own neighborhoods.
“We got together back in 2015, coming from socialist activism, a little tired that our organizations weren’t taking the positions we thought were necessary,” said Vanesa Contreras, founder of “La Cole,” as it is popularly known. “The Combahee River Collective text was very important to us because we wanted to combine class analysis with discourse about race. We were concerned with poor, racialized women, who had been the biggest victims of [former governor] Luis Fortuño’s austerity, whose jobs were cut, whose mortgages were underwater, who led single-family households.”
While working with social justice lawyer Ariadna Godreau-Aubert’s Ayuda Legalorganization to help displaced families, La Cole also began loudly advocating for a declaration of emergency because of misogynist violence. Last November, citing the statistics showing a woman is murdered on the island every 14 days, and that 24 women—twice as much as in each of the previous three years—were murdered by intimate partners or exes in 2018, they began to demand an audience with Governor Rosselló by camping out at the now-famous barricade in front of La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion.
“We were there for three days and began to lose patience, so we began removing the barricades,” said Contreras. “Then they hit us with pepper spray, started beating us with batons, and we had to leave. Days later [pop music stars] Bad Bunny and Residente showed up at La Fortaleza very early in the morningto discuss political issues and they let them in without a problem. This was a clear example of the machismo of the government—Ricardo Rosselló refused to see us”
“El Perreo Intenso” and the “Cuir” Body Politics of Puerto Rico
“The LGBT queer community has been organizing itself for many years,” said Contreras. “One of the biggest victories they achieved with the new administration was in 2013, when they got them to pass laws that prevented discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace.” It was this law that the conservative PNP legislature tried to reverse with its Law of Religious Liberty earlier this year. Rosselló wavered on the issue, saying he was willing to sign the law into effect if there was a provision prohibiting the use of gay-conversion therapies, but eventually he refused to signit.
The Puerto Rico people’s mobilization was filled with queer [cuiron the island] symbols and activities. One of the most iconic images from the massive July 22 protest was out pop idol Ricky Martin waving a huge rainbow flag while riding a flatbed truck in the march. There were drag queens present during speeches by Martin, Residente, and his sister Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar (better known as iLe) at an earlier protest at the Capitolio, and last week there was a full-on drag-queen event called La Renuncia Ball that featured voguing performers.
But the most spectacular and transgressive of the cuir interventions in Puerto Rico’s fortnight of protest was El Perreo Intenso, a kind of competitive dance-off that featured twerking contestants unashamedly flaunting their assets on the steps of Old San Juan’s most cherished Catholic cathedral. They left no doubt that Puerto Rico’s new political freedom could not happen without free sexual expression.
“For me, the queer movement embodies the liberated body, freed from social impositions and conventions,” said Bernat Tort, professor of philosophy at the University of Puerto Rico and a victim of tear-gassing during a 2017 protest. “The body queer, the body of woman, the ‘fat’ body, the racialized body, the trans body, become the standard-bearer of the new society we want; they demand that government procure the common good.”
For what it’s worth, El Perro Combativo has become one of the movement’s most popular memes because of an unironic announcement about the event by veteran local news anchor Jorge Rivera Nieves, which was turned into a reggaetón dance remixby an enterprising DJ.
A Focus on Sovereignty and the Road Ahead
The Puerto Rico People’s mobilization has been celebrated for its incredible political diversity, and its goals are many, but they all seem to have a chance to work together in a new, radical experiment in decolonization. Juan Carlos Rivera Ramos is one of the leaders of a group called JunteGente, which seeks to bring together a number of groups, such as Vamos, Amnesty International, Alianza de Salud Para El Pueblo (Health Alliance for the People), PAReS (an activist group of university professors), Se Acabaron Las Promesas (Promises Are Over), and even a local coffee joint called Latte por Latte. Rivera Ramos helped arrange talks by Naomi Klein and David Harvey, who came to Puerto Rico in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Rivera Ramos’s focus is on participatory and direct democracy, and a new notion of sovereignty. “We’re working against disaster capitalism, colonialism, and for social justice, radical democracy, and transformation. Most importantly, we want to radicalize the terms of sovereignty by talking about food sovereignty, the sovereignty of women’s bodies, energy sovereignty, people sovereignty,” he said.