Mass demonstrations that should inspire every American have had a profound impact on Puerto Rico, where Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced Wednesday that he will resign on August 2. He was brought down by a popular uprising over what NBC News describes as “a scandal involving leaked private chats, as well as corruption investigations and arrests.”
The demonstrations are about more than just replacing a scandal-plagued governor. They represent a cry for what every American should want: government that reflects and represents the will of the people. The answer to that cry must extend beyond the resignation of Rosselló.
As veteran journalist and author Juan González said on Democracy Now! this week:
[History] is replete with examples of popular uprisings that got rid of a corrupt or dictatorial government, but the people ended up with worse situations. Can we forget Tahrir Square in 2011 and the overthrow of Mubarak after several weeks of protest by the people? Or go back a little further to the Philippines in 1986 and the overthrow of Marcos by popular protest or even further back to 1979 in Iran and the overthrow of the shah. In each of those cases, people thought their country was going to change dramatically and ended up, in some cases, in worse situations than before. So there’s going to be a real test now among the leaders and the activists of Puerto Rico. Can they unite? Can they come up with a political force, a leadership that is really accountable to the Puerto Rican people? And that’s going to be the big test in the future.
That test will face the people of Puerto Rico. Activist Christine Nieves responded to the news that Rosselló was resigning with a tweet that declared, “And so the dismantling begins. Ricky has resigned effective Aug 2. Tomorrow we celebrate. Tomorrow we’ll demand out w/fiscal board, auditing & canceling of debt. Today WE have changed history. Now, we want more. WE. WON’T. STOP.” That’s a commitment to democratic renewal that should be celebrated and supported by small-d democrats nationwide.
How so? By rejecting the vestiges of colonialism that thwart political and economic democracy and by working to ensure that Puerto Ricans have a real say in their future.
Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth, where US citizens live, pay taxes, and serve in the military, but residents do not have a vote in presidential elections or have voting representation in the US Congress. Decisions about Puerto Rico’s future are far too frequently made in Washington without democratic input from people who live on the island. For instance, the unelected and unaccountable federal oversight board that was established under the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) continues to have far too much say with regard to questions about the island’s future. PROMESA, which is often referred to as “la junta,” is exceptionally unpopular, as is the 1920 Jones Act, which imposes harsh regulation on maritime commerce involving the island.
“If you really listen to Puerto Rico now, you’ll hear that we’re demanding much more than Roselló’s resignation,” said University of Notre Dame associate professor Marisel Moreno, the author of Family Matters: Puerto Rican Women Authors on the Island and the Mainland and a cocreator of the engaged digital project Listening to Puerto Rico. “We also want PROMESA to be revoked, the junta to be dissolved and the 1920 Jones Act to be repealed. Additionally, we want the debt to be audited, the public schools to be reopened, the corrupt politicians to be held accountable and justice to be restored in Puerto Rico.”
But Washington has a long history of refusing to listen to Puerto Rico. For instance, the prime proponent of PROMESA, Representative Sean Duffy, is now calling on President Trump to appoint a new “federal coordinator” for the commonwealth. Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican who serves as the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development & Insurance of the House Financial Services Committee, argued that the coordinator could ensure that “disaster aid must not be slowed further because of the recent political turmoil on the Island.” There is clearly a need to speed up aid and to do so in smart and coordinated ways. The question is whether this additional federal oversight will come with more fiscal strings attached and more of the austerity agenda that then–House speaker Paul Ryan, Duffy, and their allies imposed (with grudging cooperation from top Democrats) on a storm-scarred Puerto Rico several years ago.
Financial Services Committee chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) has complained about delays in providing disaster aid to the island. And the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, is expressing his concern that Republicans in the White House and the Congress may seek to exploit a rapidly changing circumstance on the ground in Puerto Rico. He said that the oversight board “shouldn’t grab unelected power.”
“I don’t want the governance crisis that’s going on in Puerto Rico with the governor to be a reason that Congress, in particular Republicans, and the Trump administration use as an excuse to limit, restrict, and otherwise affect the aid and support and resources that Puerto Rico deserves in its reconstruction and in its ability to stabilize the fiscal crisis,” said Grijalva. “I hope the control board, the overseer in terms of fiscal stability, doesn’t see this as an opportunity to amass more unelected power of the lives of the people of Puerto Rico. That they prioritize the necessities: Health, education, and the welfare of the Puerto Rican people.”
After so many unelected power grabs, what is needed is a clear commitment by Congress to extend democracy in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, and US territories in the Pacific have never been accorded full congressional representation and—with the exception of DC—lack a meaningful say in choosing the president. This democracy deficit weighs heavily on the Americans who live in these places and on the understanding of the United States as an experiment in representative democracy.
If the people of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico want statehood, they should have it. If other models are chosen, so be it. But if the people of these places choose in referendums to be US citizens, then they must also have the right to choose the US leaders who determine their fate. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell does not like this notion. He complains about the prospect that House members might seek to “make Puerto Rico a state” in a move that “would give them two more Democratic senators.” McConnell claims that “this is full bore socialism on the march in the House, and, yeah, as long as I am majority leader in the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.”
The basic premise that US citizens should be represented in the House and Senate by voting members of those chambers is not radical. It is necessary to making real the unmet promise of American democracy.