Puerto Ricans Stand Up : Code Switch It took less than two weeks for Puerto Ricans to topple their governor following the publication of unsavory private text messages. We tell the story of how small protests evolved into a political uprising unlike anything the island had ever seen.

Puerto Ricans Stand Up

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This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.


And I'm Adrian Florido in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

BATES: And we're sitting in for Shereen and Gene. Adrian, it feels like you've been away since, like, forever.

FLORIDO: It does.

BATES: But things keep happening. It's been a remarkable couple of weeks for the island. Protesters took over the streets, demanding the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello. You've been down there since shortly after the protests started. Can you give us a little recap of the past few weeks?

FLORIDO: Yeah, that's right. It's been an astonishing story to cover. These protests started about three weeks ago, after the publication of leaked, private text messages between the governor and his top advisers. These messages were really offensive for Puerto Ricans. They were misogynistic. They were homophobic. They showed how the governor schemed to manipulate public opinion. And that's just the beginning.

And during my time here, I watched what started as small protests explode into this massive movement, drawing in hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans demanding the governor resign.



FLORIDO: And then last Wednesday, things reached a climax. The governor had said that he would be delivering a message, and so a huge crowd gathered outside his mansion in Old San Juan. And they waited and they waited and they waited all day, and with each passing hour, the anticipation grew because people wanted to know what he was going to say.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: A little before midnight, the governor started to speak in a video streamed on Facebook, and the crowd went mostly silent. People huddled around their cell phones to listen to the address. And the governor spent, like, 10 minutes talking about his accomplishments.


RICARDO ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: But then he got to the words that everyone in that crowd and so many people across the island had been waiting for.


ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).


FLORIDO: He said he'd be stepping down on August 2.



FLORIDO: So when this happened, I was on Calle Fortaleza - that's the street that the governor's mansion is on. And I was standing just beyond a barrier that the police had put up to keep people away from the front gates of the mansion. And that's where these protests have been centered for the last few weeks. And all around me, people were shouting, and they were hugging, and they were kissing, and they were flinging beer and wine into the air.

DANILO CORTEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Danilo Cortez (ph) told me it was about time for the governor to resign.

ROSSANA SEPADA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Rossana Sepada (ph) said it was the first time she'd seen Puerto Ricans so united, that she hoped people realized the power they possessed when they unite to demand something.

JORGE RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Jorge Rivera (ph) said the government had awoken a monster in the protesters.

NICOLE CORDERO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And Nicole Cordero (ph) said this moment was so incredible for her because she and other Puerto Ricans were finally expressing what they'd been feeling for so long, a powerlessness - a powerlessness over corruption, over the direction their island has been taking amid its economic crisis, over the feeling that young people have no future to look forward to in Puerto Rico.


BATES: So Adrian, you've just talked about these text messages, these private text messages that were leaked and published that showed the governor and his closest advisers saying terrible things about a lot of their constituents, even cracking jokes about the dead bodies stacked up in the morgue after Hurricane Maria...


BATES: ...Which was a cause of intense pain. You did a lot of reporting on that for people who were looking for their families or couldn't get their families back. But hearing these protesters talking about how the government has awakened a monster, how people have felt powerless, it sounds like the reasons behind these protests are way deeper than just those text chats.

FLORIDO: They are way deeper, and that is what we're going to talk about this week.


FLORIDO: So to really understand the roots of these massive protests, you have to understand what Puerto Rico has been through over the last decade or so. I mean, we could go back decades, but a good place to start is 2006.

BATES: That's when the recession began, right?

FLORIDO: Yeah, that's right. That's when the island plunged into this recession that was triggered in part by a decision by the U.S. Congress to end a tax incentive that had made Puerto Rico an attractive place for manufacturers. So after this tax incentive went away, companies started moving their factories off the island, and we started to see this huge exodus of hundreds of thousands of people leaving for the United States to find work, and it's an exodus that continues to this day.

And so to make up for the lost revenue, the government started borrowing way more than it could afford to pay back, and in 2015, it defaulted on more than $70 billion in loans.

BATES: So what did that mean for the Puerto Rican government and for Puerto Rico's people?

FLORIDO: Well, the government started slashing public services. It started closing schools. You know, streetlights went dark. Puerto Rico was becoming a harder and harder place to survive every day. And the more people continued leaving the island, the more its economy just started sort of spiraling out of control.

But then came this important moment - President Obama and the U.S. Congress in 2016 created a fiscal oversight board to take control of the island's finances. We've talked about this on the podcast before. And since 2016, this oversight board has been trying to negotiate down the island's debt, but it's also slashed even more public services. It imposed all kinds of austerity. It's tripled tuition at the University of Puerto Rico. It's gone after pensions. It's gone after government health care.

BATES: And then in 2017, Hurricane Maria roars in.

FLORIDO: Yep. And the local and federal governments bungled the response to Hurricane Maria, and people went without power, as you well recall, and without water in some cases for up to a year. An estimated 3,000 people died. But for a long time, the governor even refused to acknowledge that those people had died, and so you can imagine the trauma that living through all of this, this decade of crises, or trying to survive it at least, has inflicted on people here in Puerto Rico.

BATES: So Adrian, I can't imagine that these text messages helped the cause of a governor overseeing this mess.

FLORIDO: Right, because then come these text messages a few weeks ago, and in them you see the governor and his inner circle of advisers seeming way more concerned about his public image than about all of these problems that Puerto Ricans are facing. Like, we've already said they mock women. They call them whores...


FLORIDO: ...Or use other derogatory terms for them. They mock fat people. They mock poor people, and there are so many people living in poverty in Puerto Rico.

BATES: So when Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism published these chats and people actually got to see them, they didn't land in a vacuum.


BATES: They landed in a society with all of this underlying fear and anxiety about the future, with people who were angry about everything they've gone through. So after the break, we'll take you on the ground for one of the most remarkable stories that the island has ever seen.

FLORIDO: Stay with us.


BATES: And we're back with Adrian Florido, who's been reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the past two weeks. Adrian tells us how in just a few days these protests grew from a few dozen people to hundreds of thousands.

FLORIDO: The protests may have started small, but from the beginning, they were intense and furious. It was Thursday, July 11. The governor had cut short a European vacation and was racing home to deal with the political fallout after the FBI arrested two ex-officials in his administration on corruption charges. It was while he was on his way back that a local blogger published some of the first few pages of those leaked private text messages. In them, the governor called the former speaker of the New York City Council a whore.



FLORIDO: That language infuriated members of the Colectiva Feminista en Construccion, a feminist activist group. They organized the first protest against the governor at the airport, the furious women and men shouting for him to resign. Zoan Davila is a spokeswoman for that group, and she said the reason they were so angry was because they'd been trying for close to a year to get the governor to do something about a spike in domestic violence on the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria. They'd even had a meeting with him.

ZOAN DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: But he didn't agree that the situation was an emergency, Davila said. And so when these texts came out, Davila said it confirmed what she and her fellow activists had always suspected - that the governor didn't care about their concerns.

DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And not only that, he was actively sexist, actively misogynist, Davila said. And so they went to meet him at the airport with bullhorns and signs, not expecting that within a few days, those small protests would explode into the largest protest movement Puerto Rico has ever seen.


LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now a new bombshell - the release of hundreds of pages of chat messages...

FLORIDO: A few days after that protest at the airport, Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism got ahold of nearly 900 pages of the governor's texts and published them all. That's where we saw the governor scheming about manipulating the public. That's where the jokes about Hurricane Maria's dead came to light, the mocking of poor people. So within hours, people started showing up outside the governor's stately mansion, La Fortaleza in Old San Juan. And they kept coming all weekend.



LORES TIDELLA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: We are indignant, said Lores Tidella (ph). He disrespected us.

TIDELLA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: It's about the chat, she said, but it's also because of the way he's mocked all of Puerto Rico, and I think this is the final straw. Governor Rossello's tenure has been marked by controversial policies. Amid the island's debt crisis, he's moved to privatize the energy grid. He's closed public schools and privatized other services like schools, like ferries. He's talked about seeing Puerto Rico as a blank slate, as a place that needs to attract overseas investors and cater to tourists if it's going to emerge from its economic crisis.

But for a lot of Puerto Ricans, these policies sound like they're aimed at making Puerto Rico an island for outsiders and that the governor doesn't care about its residents. So for a lot of them, these 900 pages of texts seems to confirm suspicions that the governor cared more about his political career than about the fate of the island. The governor's text messages got the attention of Puerto Ricans on the island and off of it.


RESIDENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: The day after they were published, Puerto Rican rapper Residente, a big celebrity, posted a video saying he was coming to Puerto Rico to join the protests.


RESIDENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: By the way, he's got more followers on Instagram than the entire population of Puerto Rico. He asked them to join him for a massive demonstration in front of the island's Capitol building.


RESIDENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Within hours of his announcement, the trap superstar Bad Bunny posted on Twitter saying he was postponing his European tour to come home, too. Their announcements gave the street protests a shot of energy.


FLORIDO: In recent years, there have been lots of protests in Puerto Rico against the government, but they've fizzled out. Now the fact that the island's superstars were flying home made everyone feel like this was different. On the afternoon that Bad Bunny said he'd be at the protests, the energy outside the governor's mansion was electric.



FLORIDO: Ricky, the people are to be respected, the crowd shouted. That night, things turned chaotic in Old San Juan.


FLORIDO: The police fired tear gas to disperse the protesters. Furious demonstrators, their faces covered in bandanas, broke windows and painted graffiti on some of San Juan's most historic buildings - its old cathedral, its Department of State. Ricky resign, the graffiti read, corrupt pig, and the most common, a number - 4,645, one of the estimates for the number of people who died after Hurricane Maria. Looking around after the dust settled that night, Sofia Vasquez (ph) said she had no problem with the spray paint and shattered glass.

SOFIA VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "There are people here who had to bury their own dead after the hurricane because no one showed up to take the bodies away," she said, "or they still haven't seen the bodies of their dead loved ones because budget cuts have decimated the Forensics Institute." "This graffiti can be fixed with paint," Vasquez said. "Our dead relatives are worth more than any building, as historic as it might be."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Four days after the governor's text messages went public, Bad Bunny and Residente arrived.


ILE: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: They and the singer iLe dropped a track, a song called "Afilando Los Cuchillos," written and produced in one day, lambasting the governor. It became the soundtrack for the developing political revolt.


RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: That afternoon, tens of thousands of people followed Bad Bunny and Residente and Ricky Martin and other artists through the streets, from the Capitol to the governor's mansion. It was a sea of red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags, but also a version in black, a flag symbolizing mourning and resistance.


FLORIDO: Yelitsa Melendez Ortiz (ph) said it was one of the biggest protests Puerto Rico had ever seen. It lasted through the night and also ended with tear gas and rubber bullets.



FLORIDO: The next day, five days after the governor's text messages were published, all of Puerto Rico was alive with a nervous, anxious, exciting energy. People were pulling over on the side of the road. They were leaning out of car windows waving huge Puerto Rican flags. They were hoisting signs demanding that the governor resign. Part of what made this feeling so special were all the new faces. People who'd never protested before, teenagers dancing to reggaeton, people from the comfortable upper-middle class and car enthusiasts.

A little before nightfall, I drove to the outskirts of San Juan to a big grassy lot where hundreds of people were showing up in cars with souped-up engines.


FLORIDO: Fiebre PR (ph), a car club, had organized a caravan to travel across the city and circle Puerto Rico's Capitol building in a show of protest. One of the group's leaders, Adrian Clemente (ph), said it was the first time they'd ever done anything political.

ADRIAN CLEMENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "All of Puerto Rico's mobilizing," he said, "and we can't be left out. We have to mobilize, too." Clemente said that in Puerto Rico, people hold a lot of prejudices against people like him, like the members of his car club, as being unsophisticated, working-class or from housing projects, rowdy with their loud cars and their illegal street racing.

CLEMENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "But today, we want to change people's perceptions," he said. "We want to show that we have a message, too, that the governor has to resign, and that we can deliver that message peacefully." Before the caravan set off, he and one of his partners gathered up a couple hundred drivers.

CLEMENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Easy on the acceleration," he warned them. "If you want people to stop complaining about us, to call us good Puerto Ricans, then, Papi, take it easy. We want to do this right." Everyone got behind their wheels. Many of the cars were blasting "Afilando Los Cuchillos."


RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

ILE: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: As the caravan made its way across the city, people pulled over on the highway to cheer it on. The horns and the engines were deafening.


FLORIDO: But people weren't just showing up in cars and on motorcycles. They were showing up to protest on any kind of vessel you could imagine - on Jet Skis, on kayaks, on bicycles. One afternoon, hundreds of people from across the island brought their horses to the capital.

NELSON MELDRAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Nelson Meldran (ph) brought his horse named Booboo (ph) from more than an hour away, from the western city of Arecibo. He said he didn't really know how to protest, but when he'd heard that someone was organizing one on horseback, he decided, I can do that. The horsemen and women led a procession through the streets. Traffic parted to let them through. This is Yarimar Bonilla.

YARIMAR BONILLA: When you think about how many people are participating in this movement in all these different ways - with their bodies, with their jeeps, with their Jet Skis, watching it on TV, tweeting about it, involved in social media - this has become a mass movement that - Puerto Rico has not seen anything like this.

FLORIDO: She's an anthropologist, and she's Puerto Rican.

BONILLA: I was particularly struck by the motorcycle groups, the kind of performativity that they showed. They had, like, 8,000 motorcycles lighting up the freeway as they came in a caravan, with someone riding horseback, too. It's just - that is necessary in a political movement, too. You need spectacle. You need performance. You need something that moves you and sways you.

FLORIDO: Bonilla said part of why this was such a big spectacle was because people were finally releasing their frustrations - over the recession, over the closure of schools, over privatization, over the loved ones they lost to the U.S. and, importantly, over the suffering they endured after Hurricane Maria.

BONILLA: They expected their government to do the best it could because everyone was doing the best they could. And so to see that in the face of all that tragedy, in the face of all those casualties, that the government was laughing over - about the dead and not really invested in helping Puerto Rico, I think that that is what - that it's a big part of what has led to this movement.

FLORIDO: Now, there's something else at play here, too. For a long time, the central question in Puerto Rican politics has been whether or not Puerto Rico should become a U.S. state. It's the question that divides the island's two main political parties. Governor Rossello is in the pro-statehood party, by the way. But Bonilla said that people are realizing that their politicians' obsession with that question has often led them to neglect the island's more basic needs.

BONILLA: For a long time in Puerto Rico, even before Maria, there was a thirst for a different political project that wasn't just statehood, independence or a commonwealth, which is what we've always been presented with. And part of why so many people are in the streets that are not the ones that are usually - that usually come out for political protest is because the protests are not being organized by the traditional political parties, because they represent something new and the possibility of a new political project that represents everyone.

FLORIDO: Nine days after the governor's text messages dropped, hundreds of thousands of people took over San Juan's biggest highway. And later that night, they filled the streets outside the governor's mansion.



FLORIDO: Chants of Puerto Rican pride filled the streets. It was clear that if these protests had started over the governor's offensive chats, they'd since evolved. People were expressing anger over bad leaders and corruption but also pride for the island they call home.

XIOMARA CARO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The issue of our identity has always been a challenge for Puerto Ricans," said Xiomara Caro, "because it's like, wait - you're not a country, but you're not from the United States, so our identity has always been in question." Caro don't told me this outside the governor's mansion as we were surrounded by Puerto Rican flags. She runs a grassroots group called the Maria Fund that started after the hurricane.

CARO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "If there are no schools in our neighborhood, I can't live in Puerto Rico. If I can't rebuild my house after Hurricane Maria because FEMA has declared much of the island a flood zone, I can't live in Puerto Rico. If I don't feel safe as a woman here, I can't live here." And so that's what the chat did, she said. It's allowed people to say they are Puerto Rican. They want a government that cares about that, too, that's going to make it easier for them to leave here, not harder.

CARO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And that's the challenge that comes next, Caro said. Is it just about the governor or is it about the whole system? How do we work toward a better public policy, toward better democracy?

CARO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "It's a more complex question," she said, "but it's also beautiful."


FLORIDO: Two days later, almost 12 days after the governor's texts were published in full, the governor caved into the pressure and announced he'd be stepping down. He leaves on August 2.


BATES: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. You can follow me at @karenbates.

FLORIDO: You can follow me at @adrianflorido.

BATES: And we want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. I know, it's a mouthful, but it's worth it. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

FLORIDO: This episode was produced by Sami Yenigun and Maria Paz Gutierrez, and it was edited by Sami Yenigun.

BATES: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Steve Drummond, Leah Donnella, LA Johnson, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan, Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby. Our interns are Jess Kung and Michael Paulino.


BATES: And Adrian, you are still in Puerto Rico. And we miss you, but we know you have more reporting to do, so we hope to talk to you soon.

FLORIDO: I miss you too, KGB, but I'll be home soon. Bye.

BATES: See you.


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