Puerto Rico: climate change to regime change

Puerto Rico on Aug. 7 swore in its third governor in less than a week, Wanda Vázquez Garced, after the removal of Pedro Pierluisi by order of the commonwealth's Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that his appointment was unconstitutional. Pierluisi had been the chosen successor of Ricardo Rosselló of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), who stepped down Aug. 2 following two weeks of mass protests. The protest wave began after group chats between Rosselló and his staff were made public, disclosing ugly homophobic and misogynistic comments aimed at political rivals, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PPD). The comments also included cruel "humor" aimed at victims of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017.

Pierluisi, who had been the island's resident commissioner (non-voting member of the US Congress) with the PNP, was appointed secretary of state by Roselló just before his resignation—making him next in line in the succession. He was then immediately sworn in as governor because the legislature was not in session to confirm his appointment, leading to a lawsuit by Puerto Rico's Senate to remove him. But Vázquez, who had been Rosselló's secretary of justice, is also viewed with suspicion by the protest movement. (Jurist)

The protests to demand Rosselló's resignation brought unprecedented numbers to the streets. Protesters mobilized on motorcycles, horseback, jet skis, and even took over a cruise ship to call on the embattled governor to step down. His capitulation to the pressure, announced July 24, makes him the first governor to resign in the island's history. The 889 pages of text messages, uncovered by Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism, were released shortly after two members of Roselló's administration were arrested by the FBI in connection with a corruption scandal.

A popular chant at the prottests has been "Ricky renuncia y llevate la junta" (Ricky resign and take the board with you)—a reference to the Financial Oversight and Management Board, established by Congress in 2016 to impose fiscal austeirty in response to the island's ongoing economic crisis.

At a solidarity rally in New York City on July 22, hundreds of members of the Puerto Rican diaspora and allies gathered at Columbus Circle in the rain. They waved Puerto Rican flags, chanted, banged on pots and pans, played panderos and guiros (tambourines and gourds) and danced, to express support for the protests on the island. "The blanket of fear has been removed and people are coming together," Power Malu of NY Boricua Resistance, one of the groups that organized solidarity protest, told The Villager.

Subsequent solidarity mobilizations in New York grew larger. On the same day Rosselló resigned, a rally was held in Union Square by Frente Independentista Boricua, openly calling for Puerto Rico's independence from the United States.

The Puerto Rican Independentista Party (PIP), although the smallest of the island's three major parties, has been taking initiative in the current crisis. As demands mounted for Rosselló's resignation, the PIP issued a call for changes to the island's constitution, allowing special elections to elect a new governor when a vacancy occurs in the office, as well as recall referenda so that the people can dismiss a governor and arrange for a second election. (El Nuevo Herald, July 16)

The political crisis is direct fallout from Hurricane Maria, which researchers are linking to climate change—with grim implications for the future of the island and Caribbean region as a whole. A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters analyzing Puerto Rico's hurricane history finds that Maria had the highest average rainfall of the 129 storms to have struck the island in the past 60 years. A storm of Maria's magnitude is nearly five times more likely to occur now than during the 1950s—an increase due largely to the effects of human-induced warming. (PhysOrg, April 16)

Puerto Rico votes in favor of US statehood

Puerto Rico went to the polls and voted for statehood Nov. 3. Puerto Ricans were asked, "Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the union as a state?" With over 97% of the results in, over 52.27 percent of voters voted affirmatively.

This is the sixth time that Puerto Rico has voted on the question of statehood. The last time was in 2017, when they voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood (97%), but with the voter turnout at a mere 23%. This time, only 51% of the Puerto Rican people came out to vote, but it is enough to say that a majority approves of statehood.

Puerto Rican Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced now has five days to deliver a copy of the results to every member of Congress, as prescribed by law. Recently re-elected Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González and the Comisión de Igualdad have 30 days to present a transition plan to Gov. Vázquez Garced.

The 2017 vote, which was boycotted by pro-independence forces, included three options: Statehood, Independence/Free Association, or Current Territorial Status. Congressional Republicans have frequently dismissed the statehood movement as a scheme to add Democratic senators and representatives. (Jurist, The Hill)

Power outages spark protests in Puerto Rico

Thousands of frustrated Puerto Ricans took to the streets Oct. 15 to protest ongoing power outages across the island. Some 4,000 marched down a main highway in San Juan as the sun set, blocking traffic. The highway was last shut down during large protests in 2019 that led to the resignation of the governor. Protesters are now calling for the ouster of LUMA Energy, the private company that took over the island's electric grid in June. Since LUMA signed a 15-year contract to run the island’s grid, hundreds of thousands have had power outages. At one point, there were 800,000 Puerto Ricans without power after a fire broke out at a Luma substation. Protesters wore t-shirts readig "Go to hell, LUMA."

House Democrats are demanding the president of the company turn over information to the Natural Resources Committee as it investigates Luma's acquisition of the power grid from the commonwealth's Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Luma president Wayne Stensby testified in front of the committee, with members saying his answers to questions about the power outages and the rising cost of electricity rates were inadequate. (NBC, The Hill, Miami Herald, NYTThe Conversation)

SCOTUS upholds 'sovereign immunity' of Puerto Rico finance board

The US Supreme Court on May 11 ruled against a group of Puerto Rico journalists who were seeking documents from the island's financial oversight board, saying that the board is protected from such information requests by sovereign immunity.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said that the board is part of the government of Puerto Rico. To limit that sovereign immunity, Congress would need to use "unmistakable language," which is not present in the act that created the board, known as PROMESA

Lourdes M. Rosado, president of the civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, condemned the ruling, saying in a statement that the decision "allows this anti-democratic body to continue to withhold vital information on their decisions and actions affecting Puerto Rico’s economy and the lives of millions of people."

Congress created the board in 2016 after the island territory declared a fiscal crisis. The ruling restricting journalists' rights to request information from the territory's governing bodies follows a 2022 Supreme Court decision that said Puerto Ricans could be excluded from certain federal benefits. (Jurist)