Puerto Rico: What is the ‘Chatgate’ scandal and why are people protesting?
Anger is boiling over in Puerto Rico as thousands of people have flooded San Juan’s streets to protest an embattled governor, his unreliable administration and an obscenity-laced online chat.
The demonstrations are considered the biggest the U.S. territory has ever seen.
The island has been mired in political crisis and controversy for years, but a major push for change from citizens has grown in recent weeks.
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The leak of a private chat between Puerto Rico’s governor and his close political circle is at the crux of the July demonstrations, but Puerto Ricans say the marches are about much more than profane texts.
Here’s what’s going on:
On July 11, two Puerto Rican news outlets were sent dozens of pages of a Telegram app conversation between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and several members of his administration.
Two days later, Puerto Rico’s Centre for Investigative Journalism published all 889 pages.
The chat group included Rosselló’s secretary of state, his public affairs secretary and a former representative to a board overseeing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy crisis.
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The messages were a barrage of sexist, homophobic and vulgar language directed at a number of people, including political opponents and Puerto Ricans themselves.
In one part of the chat, Rosselló called then-New York City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is from Puerto Rico, the Spanish word for “whore” and suggesting she should be “beat up.” Another female New York politician was described as a “daughter of a bitch.”
Ricky Martin was also caught up in the online exchanges. The Puerto Rican singer was the target of homophobic slurs by Christian Sobrino Vega, Puerto Rico’s then-chief fiscal officer, who mocked Martin’s sexuality, calling him a “male chauvinist” and claiming he has sex with men “because women don’t measure up.”
The group chat also included jokes about the deaths caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
But “Chatgate” or “Rickyleaks,” as it’s been coined, is just one part of the uproar.
Corruption against ‘backdrop’ of hurricane relief
The leak came mere days after a second scandal where two former top officials in Rosselló’s government were arrested on corruption charges.
Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary, and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, who led Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration until June, were arrested by the FBI along with four others. It’s alleged the former top officials directed $15.5 million in federal contract money to politically connected businesses, even if the contractor was unqualified for the job.
Officials said $13 million was spent by Puerto Rico’s Department of Education while Keleher was secretary, while $2.5 million was spent by Ávila-Marrero while she led the health insurance department. They said that while there was no evidence either benefited personally from the scheme, it was done at the “expense of Puerto Rican citizens and students.”
As the Natural Resources Committee pointed out, the arrests took place “against the backdrop of the Puerto Rican people’s ongoing struggle to receive federal relief money” after Hurricane Maria.
Weeks earlier, Congress passed a $19 billion disaster aid bill to the island after numerous delays.
How have they responded?
The set of scandals has effectively crippled public trust in Rosselló and further scorned a controversial government.
The first-term governor did apologize after the leaks. He suggested the texts were a way to release tensions after long, 18-hour workdays, but said it doesn’t justify what he wrote.
“I’m the governor of Puerto Rico, but I’m a human being who has his faults,” he said during a news conference. “I ask for forgiveness.”
Mark-Viverito posted a lengthy statement on Twitter regarding the comments about her.
“A person who uses that language against a woman, whether a public figure out not, should not govern Puerto Rico,” she wrote.
“This type of behaviour is completely unacceptable.”
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The people of Puerto Rico feel the same.
Calls for Rosssello to resign have poured in since the leaks, including from members of the administration’s own political party, activist groups, and celebrities.
Ahead of the protest on Monday, the island’s largest newspaper published an editorial calling on the first-term governor to leave office.
“Puerto Rico has spoken up, not only as a strong, broad and united voice but as the right voice,” the editorial said. “With a gesture of nobility and humility, governor, it is time to listen to the people. You have to resign.”
Rosselló has announced that he will not seek re-election in 2020 and is stepping down as head of the New Progressive Party.
However, he’s resisted calls from protesters to step down immediately, saying he committed “inappropriate acts” not illegal ones.
An independent committee has been formed to investigate and determine whether the scandal warrants impeachment. Two of the officials involved in “Chatgate” have already resigned.
“I was elected by the people and I will continue the mission that was granted to me, now more than ever,” Rosselló said in a statement.
Rosselló’s attempt to “pacify the population” is only fueling the anger, says Margaret Power, an expert in Puerto Rican history at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
“I calculated, one-sixth of the population of Puerto Rico has been in the streets. If you can imagine one-sixth of the population of any country demonstrating… that tells you there is a problem,” she told Global News.
“And they’re only continuing.”
Who is protesting?
On Monday, thousands of people jammed a major San Juan highway to protest Rosselló and the offensive messages. Many of the protesters dressed in black and waved the Puerto Rican flag.
Ricky Martin and Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny also joined the crowds.
It is the latest in a series of demonstrations that have stretched over ten days, likely to be considered the largest so far.
Power says the jokes about the bodies resulting from Hurricane Maria likely hurt Puerto Ricans the most.
“I think that just crystalized for some many people the problem of what it has meant to be in Puerto Rico with a government that doesn’t care about the people at all,” she said.
“They cannot rely on the government, they cannot rely on the United States… So people have been saying, ‘We have to depend upon ourselves. This level of self-reliance is also turned into a level of organization.“
The protests have come in a variety of forms.
WATCH: San Juan protests against Puerto Rico governor turn violent in clash with police
Last week, unionized Puerto Rican workers on horseback swarmed the governor’s home, a Spanish colonial fortress called La Fortaleza. Thousands of motorcyclists have protested by weaving through San Juan streets.
Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, led a rally in New York at Union Square.
Demonstrators have also taken to the ocean — gathering in kayaks to protest from the water outside the front of the fort.
On social media, Puerto Ricans around the world have shown support through posts and hashtags. There is even a movement among protesters to use makeup as political statements.
The protesters have revived the slogan “Puerto Rico se levanta” (“Puerto Rico is waking up”) which was once the rally cry after Hurricane Maria.
Most of the protests have been peaceful, but some violence has occurred. During a clash with police, tear gas was reportedly used on protesters who set fires and threw rocks.
Why does it matter?
The latest scandal is seen as just the tipping point of political turmoil on the island.
Puerto Rico has a long history of corruption in politics and the island is still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria. The September 2017 storm wreaked havoc on the island, claimed thousands of lives, caused $100 billion in damage and collapsed its infrastructure.
Puerto Rico is also trying to recoup part of $70 billion in debt as it continues to grapple with a 13-year recession.
The upset brewing on the island has prompted four cruise ships to cancel trips there, The Associated Press reported, which is stirring concern about what the political unrest will do on the already delicate economy.
“This is the proverbial drop that made the glass overflow,” Power said.
“I think it’s the idea that the governor and his cronies could get together and basically insult so many levels of Puerto Rico.”
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Protesters are effectively saying, “this is the last straw.”
As one Puerto Rican resident told CNN, the government has “run wild with our economy, with our money, with all the federal funds the government are sending here.”
Power believes a rise in the independence movement could be on the horizon and that national sentiment is growing.
“The New Progressive Party, they realize him remaining in power is very bad optics for the party,” she said.
“I think there’s going to be a scramble over who will fill the void. Who will be able to do that, is not yet clear.”
— With files from The Associated Press and Reuters
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