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OpinionEditorial

Puerto Rico's familiar lesson

Angry citizens push out island's leader.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello addresses the media

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello addresses the media at the Fortaleza Government headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 16, 2019. Credit: Thais Llorca/EPA-EFE/Shutterstoc/Thais Llorca/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The fall of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló is a warning that should be heard around the country and the world: wall yourself off from the needs and concerns of constituents and betray your voters at your peril.

Rosselló announced his resignation late Wednesday after days of massive protests demanding he step down. That included moments when on an island of about 3 million an estimated 500,000 took to the San Juan streets. Count among the frustrated the members of the Puerto Rican diaspora who live here in New York and watched from afar.

One immediate factor that angered such a large chunk of the population in the U.S. territory was the leak of private group chats in which Rosselló and advisers made sexist and homophobic comments as well as generally obscene jokes about political opponents and the state of the island. “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed to our crows?” one aide wrote — with the memory of Hurricane Maria and overflowing morgues still fresh.

But the chats were just the final insult for a long-suffering people, insults that went beyond Rosselló himself. In July, on an island long plagued by self-dealing politicians, high-level former officials were hit with federal corruption charges.

The consequence of years of corruption is a government neither trusted nor in some cases fit to deal with serious problems.

Hurricane Maria hit with devastating force in 2017, leading to the deaths of thousands and leaving swaths of Puerto Rico dark for months. Neither the federal nor Rosselló’s local government performed well in the crisis. Conditions have been slow to improve, with people still living under blue emergency tarps while dealing with closed schools and high unemployment. Puerto Ricans have suffered through years of recession and the painful austerity of a federal oversight board. Further political turmoil has the added downside of discouraging the tourism economy, a key sector.

Puerto Ricans need an honest and attentive administration across the board, a priority to gain the trust of those governed and to beat back the stench of corruption. Federal funds for health care, education and infrastructure must not be misappropriated, but also cannot afford to be delayed.

The massive protests, and the anger with political leadership, echoed other clear signs of unrest around the world. The people of Hong Kong have braved tear gas and rubber bullets while protesting the loss of rights and difficult living circumstances. Venezuelans are fleeing famine and poverty and the casual corruption of Nicolás Maduro. Europe is at a precipice as populism threatens the European Union while technocrats struggle to show they have the answers to pressing problems. Now the turmoil has reached the island closest to New York’s heart.

There is a common thread in these disparate places and cases. Governance that is crooked, or aloof, or heavy-handed, or unprincipled, or sometimes all of the above, will only be borne quietly so long.

— The editorial board

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