Puerto Rico is in crisis again. It’s not a massive hurricane this time, but the enormously bad judgment of its young governor, Ricardo Rosselló.
Days after a federal corruption indictment and the arrests on Wednesday of six government officials charged with conspiracy in the theft of millions in federal Medicaid and education funds, a second scandal exploded, this one engulfing the governor for not criminal, but stupid, insensitive behavior.
Someone leaked to the media more than 889 messages from a secret chat group in which Rosselló and his closest allies exchanged sexist and homophobic messages. These have led to widespread calls, from protests in downtown Miami to right outside his San Juan mansion, for Rosselló to step down. “Chatgate” has already taken down two government officials, who resigned Saturday over their comments in the group. Many of those taking part appeared to have reverted to middle-school immaturity using derogatory terms to refer to women and gays, including even famous native son, singer Ricky Martin.
Immediately, Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin and Christian Sobrino, the island’s chief financial officer working on Puerto Rico’s federally created fiscal oversight board — left the government following the release of the text messages by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. One of the targets in the chat room was the oversight board created after Puerto Rico filed a form of bankruptcy in 2017 to restructure $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.
Since Chatgate broke, there have been four nights of demonstrations and clashes with police in Old San Juan. More rioting was expected Tuesday night. Yes, some opportunistic opponents are taking advantage of the scandal, but if the demonstrations spread across the island in large numbers, Rosselló has some serious decisions to make.
On Tuesday, he held a news conference to say that he will not step down. “I have not committed an illegal act, I have not committed an act of corruption. I have only acted inappropriately and I have apologized,” he said. He also promised a series of changes to his cabinet and ways to combat corruption.
Not good enough. His corruption might not be of the hand-in-the-cookie-jar variety. However, he must address, seriously, thoughtfully, his moral corruption.
With President Trump as this nation’s racist-, sexist- and immigrant-hater-in-chief, far be it from us to insist that Rosselló resign — yet. But he must do what Trump has failed to do — proudly — time and again. Puerto Rico’s governor must not cavalierly dismiss the pain his words have inflicted.
None of this is good for Puerto Rico, whose fragile infrastructure has not and may never fully bounce back from the flattening Hurricane Maria gave it almost two years ago. Tourism is already being hit. On Tuesday, Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Sea skipped the island because of the unrest.
The political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the U.S. commonwealth’s historic bankruptcy and as its officials seek billions of dollars in funding from the federal government for healthcare and its hurricane recovery efforts. The question of statehood for the island is also in play, as it has been for years.
Word from the White House is that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will arrive in San Juan on Thursday.
In 2017, Rosselló earned the governorship when he was elected to the office. Now, he must earn the right to keep it.