“The People Can Do It When They Unite”: A New Chapter in Puerto Rico’s History Calls for Greater Democracy

Protesters celebrate Ricardo Rossello resignation July 25 2019 Photo: Daryana Rivera

By Yael Mora, age 11 and Indykids Staff

It’s been two years since Hurricane Maria devastated the Carribean island and U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, making history as one of the worst and deadliest natural disasters ever recorded in the region. Amid rebuilding efforts after the hurricane and a crippling financial crisis, the Puerto Rican people were the ones to make history this summer with the largest mass protests the island has seen. They were demanding democracy, and greater transparency and accountability from their government.

More than 500,000 Puerto Ricans protested for 12 days straight over leaked chat messages involving government officials, prompting Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign on July 25, 2019. “The people can do it when they unite,” said one jubilant demonstrator after Rosselló announced his plans to step down in a video message on Facebook.

Young people were behind this growing movement, uniting generations across the island as well as on the U.S. mainland. Protesters first flooded the streets of the capital city of San Juan after Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of offensive and sexist messages between the governor and other high-ranking officials. The messages included jokes about the victims of Hurricane Maria — which killed nearly 3,000 people in September 2017 — and shooting San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, as well as a slur about former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

While the leaked text messages prompted the protests, this new social movement has deeper roots. Puerto Ricans expressed their frustration with government corruption, an ongoing financial crisis and slow recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria. For example, it’s been two years since the hurricane hit, and electricity is yet to be fully restored on the island. The protesters marched in heavy rain as police tried to stop them by firing tear gas and pepper spray into the crowds.

Gabriela Colón, a student protester, told NBC News, “I go to a public school, and I’m here sitting on broken desks because our secretary of education stole $15 million  … and I’m over here with no books, no teachers and no school supplies.”

The former education secretary, Julia Keleher, and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, who led Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration, were both indicted in July for directing $15.5 million in federal contracts to politically connected consultants despite allegations that they weren’t qualified.

Since then, multiple Puerto Rican officials, from current and previous administrations, have been accused of corruption, bribes and misuse of funds, including top officials from the emergency relief agency FEMA, that is supposed to be helping the people of Puerto Rico rebuild after Hurricane Maria.

Although the protests made Governor Rosselló officially step down and be replaced by former Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, experts feel these protests represent a bigger change on the island. “We need to remember that people have been under pressure for a long time,” Mike Soto-Class, the founder and president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank, told NBC News. “It’s not what caused it. It’s what detonated it. A lot of this had been building.”

As protester José Rolón, 26, told NBC, “It sends a message to any other politician: If you mess with the people, there will be consequences.”


Devastated: Destroyed or ruined.

Transparency: That you don’t hide information that the public has a right to know as citizens.

Accountability: That you are responsible for your actions, especially if you do something wrong.

Allegations: Claims or assertions that someone has done something illegal or wrong, before it’s proven in court.

Offensive: Causing someone to feel deeply hurt, upset or angry.

Sexist: Characterized by or showing prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of gender.

Slur: An insinuation or allegation about someone that is likely to insult them or damage their reputation.

Corruption: Dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery.

Tear gas: Gas that causes severe irritation to the eyes, chiefly used in riot control to force crowds to disperse.

Indicted: Formally accused of or charged with a serious crime.

Detonate: Explode or cause to explode.

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