“So this was the hurricane that was stuck in our chest,” tweeted the writer Ana Teresa Toro. The text messages and other revelations have energized a land that was devastated by two hurricanes and that has been stuck in a slow recovery process lasting almost two years. Citizens dazed by the government’s incompetence have been shaken out of their stupor. Just last month, the legislature came close to passing a bill that would have allowed government employees to withhold public services for religious reasons. But the momentum shifted, and suddenly citizens were cheering the pop star Ricky Martin, who is gay, as he presided over an anti-Rosselló march with a Pride flag in his hand.
While the nearly two weeks of mass protests have been unprecedented, a long history of corruption and neglect helps explain them. In late June, then–Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado was sacked after alleging, on a radio show, that an extortion ring—an “institutional mafia,” no less—was operating in his agency. Maldonado claimed to be one of the victims himself. Bringing this information to the press before Rosselló turned out to be a firing offense. Months prior, Maldonado had been questioned by journalists for a potential conflict of interest in doing business with a consulting firm that employed his son Raulie. At the time, Rosselló kept the senior Maldonado on as his chief financial officer—until Maldonado’s subsequent public betrayal. In the meantime, Raulie took to social media, angrily defending his father and hinting at the existence of embarrassing information involving the governor.
Read: Photos: Days of protest in Puerto Rico
Earlier this month, a first trove of messages involving Rosselló and 11 of his advisers was leaked to the press around the time that the FBI—whose agent in charge, Douglas Leff, had proclaimed days before that this was going to be a “busy” summer—was arresting two of Rosselló’s agency chiefs on charges of steering millions of dollars in contracts to companies with which they had ties. Finally, a few days later, the Center for Investigative Reporting published 900 pages of leaked chat conversations that revealed two things: how obsessed the participants were with manipulating public opinion online through troll farms, paid shills, and other techniques; and how much contempt they shared not only for political opponents but also for their own supporters, whom they portrayed as basically stupid.
This sequence of events painted a picture of a political elite that carefully tended to its own needs while treating most island residents as irritants or afterthoughts. Puerto Rico’s political culture evolved in the decades after World War II, under an economic-development strategy of “industrialization through invitation”—of bringing in outside investment by offering large tax breaks. For companies, coziness with the island’s government has paid ample dividends. And for Puerto Rico’s governing class, control over private investment, public funds, and—much later—relief money has been a major source of power and enrichment.