The Governor in His Labyrinth – Translation
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Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today we’re going to start with the story of a group of Puerto Rican journalists.
[Omaya Sosa Pascual]: My name is Omaya Sosa Pascual. I’m the co-founder of the Center for Investigative Journalism and a journalist for the Center.
[Daniel]: In Puerto Rico, the Center for Investigative Journalism is known for its high-impact reporting. Here at Radio Ambulante, we’ve collaborated closely with them several times. It’s the organization that helped us reveal the real death toll from Hurricane Maria, for example, proving that the official figure was false. They’ve investigated subjects like corruption, ecological harm, and the influence of multinational corporations on the island. In other words, their job is to uncover what politicians and business leaders are generally trying to hide.
In the summer of 2009, Omaya had already started investigating corruption within the administration of Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, when this happened:
[Journalist 1]: The FBI woke up early in the morning to carry out a charge issued by a federal grand jury, in which ex-Secretary of Education Julia Kelleher and ex-Director of ASES Ángela Ávila were indicted.
[Journalist 2]: The misuse of federal funds exceeds 15.5 million dollars.
[Daniel]: The ex-Secretary of Education, the ex-Director of Health Insurance for the government, and four other people who work with them, all with arrest warrants from the FBI.
The charges coincided with some of the Center’s investigation subjects and that’s why, when Omaya and her colleagues heard the news, the first thing they thought was that they needed to publish their own investigation as soon as possible.
The arrest warrants were issued on July 10th. And in just one week, a source that has never been identified publicly approached Omaya to tell her that they had access to some of the governor’s private messages. A chat between Rosselló and his closest advisors.
[Omaya]: This source is someone who has been my source for many years, who’s never failed me.
[Daniel]: And that source told her…
[Omaya]: “I’m going to send it to four journalists I trust in Puerto Rico. Only those four, who I consider to be journalists with integrity. You’re one of them.” And they tell me they’re going to leak it in pieces.
[Daniel]: In other words, they weren’t going to send out the entire chat. But the source let her know in advance that what would come out in those messages was explosive.
Omaya’s source also told her that they had more than 800 pages of messages. But at that time they had only shown her ten. Omaya and the Center chose not to publish.
[Omaya]: Because I don’t know what’s hidden in the rest of the chat that they’re not showing me. If this chat is 889 pages, and you’re sending me ten. Look, what do the other 879 pages say?
[Daniel]: But the other journalists did publish them. Three excerpts of the chat came out in three days. And just as the source had said, the impact was immediate.
[Journalist 1]: A chat in a messaging app is playing a leading role in the current Rosselló administration.
[Journalist 2]: A series of messages in which we see the governor insulting women, and worst of all in comments that we can’t air on television.
[Daniel]: The messages were full of insults and jokes directed at people who opposed Rosselló’s government’s agenda.
The story became more complicated when rumors began to surface: new sections of the chat were about to be leaked, and they were going to be even more graphic than the others. Omaya remembers she heard persistent rumors. One of the new sections…
[Omaya]: They talked about… that they had… that they wanted to see a very well-known TV journalist here in the bedroom. Meaning they got, let’s say, offensive, disrespectful, and disgusting.
[Daniel]: But those new messages were fake. Omaya found out when she spoke with her anonymous source.
[Omaya]: In one of our calls, they tell me: “That’s not part of the document.”
[Daniel]: It was a disinformation campaign. Nobody knows who was conducting it, but it’s clear that the fake portions of the chat had a specific purpose.
[Omaya]: To confuse the public and say, “This… None of this matters. This is all garbage.” You know?
[Daniel]: They wanted to sow doubt with fake messages and discredit the messages that were real to get people to lose interest in the scandal. And of course, all this would help the governor survive the crisis.
That’s why Omaya contacted her source again:
[Omaya]: And that’s when I say: “You have to send me all of it.”
[Daniel]: She needed every page of the chat before it was too late. She spent an entire day negotiating with her source and in the end…
[Omaya]: We manage to meet… at night, and I, uh, left there with a… a little pen drive, with everything supposedly loaded on it.
[Daniel]: She had 889 pages of messages on her flash drive. It was a lot of material, and it all had to be corroborated before they could publish it. A good portion of that work fell on Luis Valentín, a colleague of Omaya’s who was investigating cases of corruption with her.
[Luis Valentín]: And I get started with a main source of mine, who starts corroborating everything.
[Daniel]: Luis had a different source than Omaya’s.
[Luis Valentín]: And they’re completely unconnected sources, who share basically nothing in common, aside from being close to… to the governor’s group and having, uh, personal knowledge of the chat.
[Daniel]: They also had to verify the dates and facts mentioned in the messages. It was a lot. The editor for the Center and other members of the team were helping them. Corroborating every detail, down to the most minute, and the need to publish as soon as possible created a very difficult atmosphere in the writer’s room.
[Omaya]: Those days were very intense.
[Luis Valentín]: We argued a lot.
[Omaya]: We got into shouting matches (laughs) in the office. Here’s where the color of the story comes in (laughs) . Well, it was an intense debate, in which this individual is my best source of corroboration. In other words, up until the last day he was playing devil’s advocate the whole time, right?
[Daniel]: Omaya was anxious to publish before the chats got drowned out in a sea of disinformation. Luis was a little more cautious. What they published needed to be “shielded” to the point of being so bulletproof that the governor and his team couldn’t refute a single word of it. And in that sense, they had a secret weapon: the trustworthiness of their sources.
[Luis Valentín]: Because it’s not like we got an anonymous package at the office and we opened it and published it. I mean, we’re talking about having previous relationships with these people. We knew the people we’re talking about.
[Daniel]: On Saturday, July 13th, they published a short article, about 800 words long, that presented some of the most controversial exchanges in the messages. Most importantlyx they posted the entire chat on the Center’s website. Omaya and Luis told me that it was three in the morning when they finally uploaded the article.
And the news spread across the island like wildfire.
[Journalist 1]: Today the Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of the controversial Telegram chat…
[Journalist 2]: The communications contain homophobic language about opposition leaders. There are also disparaging remarks about members of the media.
[Journalist 3]: One of the issues discussed and which strikes a nerve in the country is the number of deaths as a result of Hurricane Maria. Christian Sobrino, a representative of the government writes: “Now that we’re on the topic, don’t we have a cadaver to feed our crows?”
[Daniel]: There were a lot of new revelations. The governor and his aides mocked the piles of bodies after Hurricane Maria.
[Omaya]: It was a thing… a bomb. It was as if we had lit a fuse, and all of a sudden, everything blew up at once.
[Daniel]: The federal arrests and the first leaks of the chats, all of that happened the week of July 8th. There were a few protests, but with the release of the entire chat five days later, everything changed.
After that point, July 13th, there were daily protests, and they were getting bigger and bigger.
Four days after publishing those messages, Omaya and Luis Valentín published another story: there were 12 participants in the chat, all men. Three of them were lobbyists and private consultants, people who were not part of the government and had conflicts of interest because they represented private companies and other clients, and who nonetheless benefiting from the confidential information being shared in the chat.
The Center’s investigation revealed that that group had a system for awarding government contracts in exchange for money. It was huge news, and it came out just as people’s dissatisfaction with Ricardo Rosselló was reaching its highest levels.
[Omaya]: We managed to wrap up and publish this investigation in the middle of one of the biggest protests that was taking place. Everyone at the protest stopped to read their phones.
[ARCHIVAL SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST]
[Voices]: Ricky, resign! Ricky, resign! Ricky, resign! Ricky, resign!
[Daniel]: And that same day, the biggest protest calling for the governor’s resignation took place. All of the protestors had the same slogan: “Ricky, resign!”
And it wasn’t just because of the insults. It was the corruption, the decades of bad governance, and the failures of the Rosselló administration after Hurricane Maria.
That was the start of a massive and spontaneous movement that continued to grow over the course of the summer. Our producer Luis Trelles saw it up close, and he brings us the story of a popular uprising that no one expected and once it came, it left many Puerto Ricans wondering why it took so long blow.
And we’re going to start with an anecdote, among many, that shows something important about these Puerto Rican protests. The creativity. The humor. The audacity.
From San Juan, Luis brings us this story.
[Luis Trelles, producer]: Three days after the Center for Investigative Journalism would publish the complete chat, three women entered a government office. The three of them were more than 60 years old and were average citizens.
The office they walked into was a CESCO, the place where you get your driver’s licenses or pay traffic tickets, that sort of thing.
[Lourdes Muriente]: There were a lot of people there, which was something I wanted, for there to be an audience.
[Luis]: This is Lourdes Muriente, the leader of the group. I say leader because these three women didn’t go to that office to renew their licenses or anything like that. Lourdes had recruited two friends to carry out an operation that would reflect the indignation they felt toward the government. They had a mission. A mission having to do with Ricardo Rosselló’s official photo, the photos you find at all government offices.
The mission was off to a good start because as soon as they walked in…
[Lourdes]: We saw that Rosselló’s portrait was easy to get to.
[Luis]: There was no guard at the door to the office. But, once they were inside, they realized that there was a security guard in the waiting room.
[Lourdes]: When I walk in, the first thing the guard asks me is: “What do you need?” And I said, “No, I’m here to get a license.”
Despite the guard’s being there, Lourdes and her accomplices decided to push themselves, and they crossed the room to make it to Rosselló’s portrait.
Two other people went with them to record the scene on their phones. One of the videos starts right after Lourdes took the portrait off the wall.
You can see that Lourdes’s two friends are on either side of her, trying to give her a little space but they aren’t able to keep the security guard from coming up and trying to take the portrait from her.
[Lourdes]: He tried to pull it away from me, but not very hard. He… he didn’t really stop me from taking the picture down.
[Luis]: That was the plan. Take down the picture of the governor and throw it in the trash.
And what you see in the videos is three older women, clinging to the picture and a guarding making a half-hearted effort to get it out of their hands. It really seems like a struggle in slow motion. And in the middle of that, Lourdes addresses the crowd.
[Lourdes]: Who feels represented by this scoundrel? Who is outraged?
And then what I did was ask the people there: “Do you feel represented by this bandit?”
[Luis]: And the people in the waiting room respond…
[Voices]: Throw it out! Throw it out!
[Luis]: In the videos, you can tell that almost everyone agrees with Lourdes and her friends, and that they’re sick of Rosselló. That’s why there was such a commotion.
But there were also some who were opposed. In the first row of the waiting room…
[Lourdes]: A priest was sitting there. A priest in his cassock. And to my surprise and displeasure, the priest begins to reprimand me, saying that it was disrespectful.
[Luis]: In the video, you can see the priest from behind, with his long black cassock. Lourdes told me that he was sitting next to a man who had gone with him. And when Lourdes took the picture down, that man started arguing with her. Even though the audio isn’t very good, here you can hear Lourdes arguing with the man, while her friend struggles with the guard. This time for real.
[Lourdes]: Really when I saw the recording afterward, I realized that… that I was really yelling a lot, and I was telling him: “This is a charlatan! Because…” (laughs). “This charlatan doesn’t represent us! This is a charlatan!”
[Luis]: More people were getting up from their seats to support Lourdes. In the video, it looks like some kind of tug-of-war. And the priest and guards’ team had everything to lose.
[Lourdes]: Then a man came from inside the offices.
[Luis]: One of the few government employees waiting on the public that day.
[Lourdes]: And he grabbed the picture and took it away.
[Luis]: And as soon as the governor’s picture was taken away, the crowd…
[Voices]: “Take him away! Take him away!” (clapping).
[Lourdes]: “Take him away!” They shouted. “Take him away! Take him away!”
[Luis]: And that was when the priest’s group started threatening to call the police on Lourdes and her friends.
[Lourdes]: And I said, “Call whoever you want.” We had parked the car very close, so we got in the car and left.
Then, the truth is that… that my adrenaline went from one to a million, because I… You know, that first time, well, I was really excited. I was very happy with what we had done.
[Luis]: Lourdes is a 64-year-old lawyer, a very elegant woman, who at first glance seems to project a very serious air. Of course, you only have to spend five minutes with her to understand that she’s very committed to all kinds of social causes, but she approaches this activism with a sense of mischief that makes it so that even protests can be fun.
The same is true of her two fellow activists. One of them is named Doris Acevedo, and she is a retired colonel in the US National Guard. The other is Abigaíl Ramos, a retired teacher. Those were the co-conspirators.
They all felt obligated to act because of the number of insults and offensive jokes they saw in the chat.
[Lourdes]: And I think that… that was the straw that broke the camel’s back to make people feel personally offended and outraged and feel the need to make their courage, their outrage known.
[Luis]: In Lourdes’s case, the chat affected her more personally than others. Carlos Gallisá, her ex-husband had been the object of a very hurtful joke in the message, right on the day he died.
[Lourdes]: It was like… my heart tied in knots, you know? Because, I mean, I know that something happened, that these bandits had made jokes about Carlos’s death.
[Luis]: Carlos Gallisá was a representative for the Puerto Rican Independence Party, and later he was part of the Socialist Party. He was a very well-respected leader on the left who worked closely with people across the political spectrum. That’s why Lourdes was so outraged when she saw the joke in the chat.
[Lourdes]: What’s most upsetting is that they started being so irreverent the minute it became public that he had died.
[Luis]: The irreverence started when a communications consultant for the government sent a message in which he shared the news of Gallisá’s death.
Then came the intense exchange between the advisors commenting and joking about putting the flag at half-mast. One of them insinuated that they would shoot himself if the flag was lowered for Gallisá. Another mentions that they should fly the flag at half-mast, but for only 15 minutes.
The government’s legal affairs advisor has the last word:
[Voice]: “Quarter mast for six hours.”
[Luis]: The next message is a communication advisor, who responds:
[Luis]: Perhaps another person would have held a more traditional protest, but Lourdes thought of other options.
[Lourdes]: That same day, Saturday, I… I started thinking about how I could do something. And… and I come from the FUPI, the Pro-Independence University Federation and we were very creative.
[Luis]: That’s because Lourdes belongs to a generation of Puerto Rican “baby boomers” who burned flags and bras and demanded Puerto Rican independence.
[Lourdes]: That was when, at least for me, the push began, that big push to… to live the way we lived in the ’70s when I was in college. We did so much!
[Luis]: Lourdes was inspired by an incident that took place a few months earlier, in which a woman had thrown a picture of Rosselló on the floor in a government office.
After completing her first mission, with her adrenaline pumping, Lourdes and her two accomplices headed for their next stop, an office for the Department of the Family.
[Lourdes]: But there was no crowd. And I said: “Gosh, is it even worth it to do it without an audience?” There was a security woman sitting at a desk eating lunch. Because, I mean, this happened around noon.
[Luis]: Lourdes and her accomplices decided to go in anyway.
[Lourdes]: The security guard didn’t even get up.
[Luis]: There’s a video of this other mission as well. You see the three co-conspirators in the lobby of the building, and they go straight to the wall where the governor’s portrait is hanging.
Even though there’s almost no one there, Lourdes decided to deliver a brief message.
[Lourdes]: We believe that this must be taken down here. At all government agencies, this must be taken and thrown out.
[Luis]: And she said that she believes that this picture should be taken down at all government agencies.
[Lourdes]: Either he quits, or he leaves.
[Luis]: Either he quits, or he leaves.
[Lourdes]: I grabbed the picture and put it on the ground, and no one was upset.
[Luis]: And as she left, the other two women started yelling the chorus of a trap song, a remix of a song that had been a hit the previous summer.
[SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO “TE BOTÉ” BY OZUNA]
[Women]: De mi vida lo saqué ¡te boté! ¡te boté! [“Te boté” means “I threw you out”]
[Luis]: All of this happened three days after the full chat went public. The videos of what happened in those two offices made it to social media and dozens of people were inspired and went to their nearest government office to do the same thing.
[Lourdes]: And the number of people who did that afterward was incredible. And they started posting it on Facebook in different parts of the island.
[Luis]: That week, an official photo of Ricky Rosselló on the ground became a pretty common sight. But not all the portraits ended up that way. Lourdes told me that some people brought those photos to protests, to use them as protest signs.
[Lourdes]: I regret not taking one. Because I’d love to have a war trophy.
[Luis]: The day after she threw the photos in the trash, Lourdes went to the first large protest in el Viejo San Juan to demand the governor’s resignation. It was during that protest that the second article from the Center for Investigative Journalism came out, the one that Omaya mentioned at the start of the episode.
Hundreds of protestors were expected to come. In the end, hundreds of thousands came.
[Lourdes]: And I went with a group of friends from San Juan, and the young people recognized us.
[Luis]: Lourdes and her friends had become the first viral celebrities of the protests. People wanted to take selfies with her.
[Lourdes]: At one protest, when we were already leaving, we went to the parking lot where we had left the car, and we had to take an elevator. And a lot of people were trying to get in the elevator. Until someone recognized us and said: “Look, make room, these are the doñitas.” And they let us in the elevator.
[Luis]: Doñita, as you can imagine, is a way of referring to an older woman in Puerto Rico. And of course, that’s not how Lourdes sees herself.
[Lourdes]: I’m 64 years old, I should clarify. Uh, I… I personally don’t feel like a doñita. But the young people who’ve been so active in… in this whole struggle see us as doñitas.
[Luis]: And his was a very clear sign that these protests were different. It wasn’t about just one group or just one generation. All kinds of Puerto Ricans were taking to the streets, and all of them had the same goal.
[Daniel]: But Ricardo Rosselló refused to resign.
After the break, we’re going to the streets of Viejo San Juan. Where the political future of the island is at stake.
We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: The first week after the complete chat was published, the protests demanding Rosselló’s resignation were getting bigger and bigger. On July 22nd, there was a national work stoppage, the largest in the history of Puerto Rico.
And Rosselló’s strategy was to disappear from public view. In the very few official appearances he had in those days, he always repeated the same message. A version of this:
[Ricardo Roselló]: I’m not going to resign. I’m working for Puerto Rico. I will continue working.
[Daniel]: Our producer Luis Trelles spent twelve straight days documenting the protests, and he brings us this story from the barricade that became a symbol of resistance in Puerto Rico.
[Luis]: On Thursday, July 24th, two days after the national strike, the entire island erupted into a frenzy of demonstrations. The protest had paralyzed the country. Ricky was a governor under siege on his own island, and rumors that he was about to resign were everywhere.
[Journalist 1]: The protests in Puerto Rico continue amid rumors that Governor Ricardo Rosselló will resign imminently.
[Journalist 2]: And local media outlets and Puerto Rican journalists are saying that he is already planning his succession.
[Journalist 3]: And it’s being said, more or less, that the information will come out around noon. Of course, we’re keeping a very close eye on what happens in Puerto Rico…
[Luis]: The governor of Puerto Rico lives and works in La Forteleza, a Spanish-era palace in a corner of Old San Juan. It’s a mansion that was made to defend the colonial city, with intimidating walls that soar over the bay, painted a pale blue that blends with the sky and the blue-green sea.
The intersection of the two streets that lead to the main gate became the epicenter of the protests. That was where people gathered to tell Ricky to leave and to leave now. And that day, the protesters started arriving early.
The Rosselló administration had scheduled a highly anticipated press conference for 5 p.m. When the time came, several local and US media outlets, even international outlets, started broadcasting live.
And the scene that appeared on TV and social media streams was chaotic. Dozens of reporters and camera operators were setting up in a room that was evidently too small to fit so many people. And as they broadcasted live, you could hear the exhaustion in their voices.
[Journalist 1]: As you know, the country is eagerly awaiting the possible resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares.
[Journalist 2]: The resignation is expected to take place today. Up to this point, it has not occurred.
[Journalist 3]: However, we still have no details about what will happen here.
[Luis]: I was watching the broadcast from my phone too. I arrived at the protest in front of La Fortaleza. Night still hadn’t fallen, and there were already thousands of people there.
It was the same scene that had been repeated over the past 11 days. A sea of families, young people, flags, drums. All concentrated on this tiny intersection of two streets that had been built in the sixteenth century.
Separating the protestors from La Fortaleza were 400 meters and a barricade of about 15 cement blocks that came up to about the protestors’ waists. Just that and a lot of police.
From inside La Fortaleza, some journalists were reporting that…
[Journalist 1]: From here you can observe greater movement from La Fuerza de Choque [lit. ‘crash forces’] headed for La Calle Fortaleza where the protestors are.
[Luis]: La Fuerza de Choque is the name for the anti-riot police in Puerto Rico. There were more officers than in previous days. And in front of the police, with blocks of cement between them, there was the first row of protestors who had been hit and received several volleys of tear gas in the recent protests.
I decided to watch the protest from where they were. All indications were that it was going to be a historic day, and the barricade with its ravenous, rebellious energy, seemed like the best place to document it.
I started making my way through the crowd that evening. It wasn’t easy. The streets of Old San Juan are irregular, full of slippery cobblestones. It’s hard to walk on them on a normal day. To move through thousands of protestors, shoulder to shoulder —in the Caribbean heat and the deafening sound of slogans and drums— was almost impossible.
I went at a snail’s pace, but in the end, I made it. On top of the barricade, there were about 20 protestors towering over the crowd. I approached a woman who had a black and white Puerto Rican flag. On the island, it’s known as the Mourning Flag.
The woman’s name was Yomari, and when I spoke with her, I could see that the little patience the protestors had left was running out.
[Yomari]: We’re waiting, even if he doesn’t resign, for him to show his face and not to hide. For him to speak clearly.
[Luis]: And how long do you plan on being here?
[Yomari]: Me? Until that bastard comes out of there. I voted for him and put him there. I feel responsible for taking that son of a bitch down from there.
[Luis]: Meanwhile, the press conference inside La Fortaleza was running late. Very late. The journalists spent two hours locked inside waiting for it to start, and they were getting desperate.
In a last-second move, they sent them to a patio outside of the main building. And the journalists were not happy.
[Journalist 1]: The way they’re working with members of the press is very hurried.
[Journalist 2]: We’re waiting, maybe for the governor, maybe not.
[Journalist 3]: As you can hear the members of the press are rather upset with the situation taking place here.
[Luis]: At around 7 p.m. one of Ricardo Rosselló’s main advisors came out, and as soon as they saw him, the journalists burst into a commotion.
[Journalist 1]: It’s not even Governor Ricardo Rosselló. Instead, it’s his secretary of public affairs.
[Journalist 2]: Louder, you have to speak louder because they are mistreating us here.
[Journalist 3]: We can’t hear! We can’t hear!
[Journalist 4]: This is a show of disrespect to the press.
[Journalist 5]: We can’t hear!
[Luis]: And the official said…
[Anthony Maceira]: Today Governor Ricardo Rosselló will address the people of Puerto Rico directly.
[Journalist 1]: When?
[Anthony Maceira]: In a message that… that he is working on now. As for what time… I don’t know at the moment. I ask…
[Luis]: It left us with more questions than answers. But instead of answering the media’s questions, the official went back into La Fortaleza as fast as he could.
[Anthony Maceira]: Thank you very much and good evening.
[Journalist 1]: What is he saying? Say it in English!
[Journalist 2]: Are you serious?
[Journalist 3]: This is irresponsible!
[Luis]: Outside they were also following the chaos inside La Fortaleza.
[Ivette]: It’s 7:40 in the evening, and the governor is supposed to be writing something to say to the people.
[Luis]: This is Ivette, a college student I met at the barricade who was following the live broadcast on her cellphone.
[Ivette]: And my question is: Is it so hard to speak to the people genuinely from the heart? And you can’t resign and be done with it? You know what, you have millions of people in the street protesting to get you to leave and you don’t want to leave.
[Luis]: The resignation didn’t seem like a sure thing anymore. And protestors like Ivette were anticipating the worst.
[Ivette]: If he announces here that he’s not going to resign, people are going to be very upset. And everything that happens here after he gives that announcement is his fault, not the people’s.
[Luis]: Over the course of hours, the protestors’ energy became more intense. The rhythm of the drums was more insistent, and the chanting was much more charged. They weren’t asking him to resign anymore, they were giving him an ultimatum.
[Voices]: ¡Arriba! ¡Abajo! ¡Ricky p’al carajo! ¡Arriba! ¡Abajo! ¡Ricky p’al carajo! ¡Arriba! ¡Abajo! ¡Ricky p’al carajo!
[Luis]: At 8 p.m., reports coming out of La Fortaleza started to change and now the news was very different.
[Journalist 1]: The atmosphere in recent hours has changed drastically. Here at La Fortaleza tensions are still high in the face of what appears to be a stalling tactic or an attempt on the part of the governor to not actually present his resignation.
[Luis]: After promising an important announcement, the governor and his officials disappeared again. And faced with a total information vacuum, rumors and speculation started to reign again —this time about the governor’s state of mind.
[Journalist 1]: The information we’ve received tonight is that there are many people here inside the executive mansion who are worried about his mental health and his stability. And once it was understood that they were about to put an end to this whole controversy, the governor has —apparently— decided that won’t be the case.
[Luis]: And if inside the mansion there was uncertainty and paralysis, just outside at the barricade everything was motion. On one side, more agents from La Fuerza de Choque were coming, armed with tear gas and reinforced plastic batons which in Puerto Rico are known as macanas.
On the protesters’ side, more young people were coming to climb over the barricade. Some of them were covering their faces with bandanas. They’re known as “los encapuchados” [“the hooded”]. They tend to be the most intense protestors, the ones who are on the front lines getting hit with rubber bullets and pepper spray.
The ones who climbed over the barricade by me came prepared. It was two guys and a girl no older than 22 or 23. One of them took a gas mask out of their backpack and passed it to the other.
[Encapuchado]: Leo, here’s the mask you wanted.
[Luis]: Unlike her two companions, the girl’s face wasn’t covered. I heard her talking about the escape routes they were going to use when the police started firing gas. She told me that they had had to do it before.
[Girl]: Last time, I ran toward el Parque de las Palomas. I can keep running upright, because the air is coming from the… the sea, and once they fire gas, they’ll take me down.
[Luis]: She knew exactly what streets to take to avoid the direction of the wind and avoid tear gas.
But protestors like her weren’t running in order to escape.
[Girl]: And we’re going to meet again at the front lines of this… of this again.
[Luis]: Because there… The plan is to go back.
[Girl]: Go back, go back! Because this is about resistance and we’re not going to stop until he leaves.
[Luis]: She was speaking as if the confrontation were inevitable, as if she were sure that Ricky wasn’t going to resign and that the police were going to push out the protestors by force.
That possibility scared me. It was impossible to tell how many people there were at that intersection. Three thousand? Five thousand? More? It was a lot of people, and they didn’t look ready to stand up to La Fuerza de Choque.
The girl at the barricade could see it too. It was Thursday, and the crowd was different than it had been a few days earlier when they confronted the anti-riot police.
[Girl]: Now I see more older people and kids than on Monday. So, I think that it would be so irresponsible of them to start firing gases because right now… Actually, it’s much calmer than it was on Monday.
[Luis]: The worst thing that could happen was for someone to finally lose patience. It could be a protestor who threw a bottle at La Fuerza de Choque or maybe a nervous police officer who throws tear gas grenade unprovoked. Any wrong move could lead to a violent stampede and that could leave people wounded or much worse.
At ten at night, the crowd made way for a group that was trying to get to the barricade. The people next to me recognized them right away.
[Man]: Nicky Jam, PJ Sin Suela, Calle 13. Everyone.
[Luis]: They were rap stars who are very well-known and beloved in Puerto Rico. And at the head of the group was René Pérez, better known as Residente. They were trying to get up to the first row to address the crowd.
And here I should mention that artists like them had played a very important role in the protests. Along with Bad Bunny, the singer iLe, Ricky Martin, and several others, Resident had been essential to spreading the word about the protests and helping them become so big. All of them had made calls through social media, and then they joined the protests.
Now that it looked like the governor wasn’t going to resign, Residente reappeared. The intervention evidently wasn’t planned. He didn’t have a microphone, not even a megaphone. Still, he talked to the protesters as best he could. I recorded it from my corner of the barricade.
[Residente]: We don’t want war. We want peace. But if they start to fuck with us… (the crowd screams.)
[Luis]: It was a message to ask the crowd to keep the protests peaceful.
[Residente]: We’re going to protest peacefully, peacefully. The people have spoken and the governor has to resign. He made us wait like ten hours, the bastard. He’s fucking with us.
[Luis]: And he was also asking for protestors not to let their guard down.
[Protestors]: There’s more of us and we aren’t afraid! There’s more of us and we aren’t afraid! There’s more of us and we aren’t afraid! There’s more of us and we aren’t afraid!
[Luis]: While protestors resumed chanting, Residente turned around to talk to the police who were on the other side.
[Residente]: Think, there are children here. I just took pictures with like 400 kids. Even though Ricardo Rosselló —who doesn’t care— tells you to fire, you don’t have to.
[Luis]: And he asked them to think about the children who were in the crowd before firing tear gas.
A few minutes before 11 at night, Residente left. His participation had been strategic, a way of attracting TV cameras with his fame, and that way put the focus on what was happening in front of la Fortaleza. And at that moment, the entire island was glued to the live news, following every event in a night that seemed to have no end. By approaching the barricade, Residente put the actions of the police under the magnifying glass of public opinion.
Eleven at night had become a bad time for the protests. In previous days, around that time La Fuerza de Choque started making moves against protestors. The organizers who were at the barricade knew it, and they tried to put a new strategy into effect.
A young woman, another protester in the front row, asked the others to sit down, to turn the protests into an act of civil disobedience.
[Organizer]: Those of you who are with me, sit on the ground to show that we come in peace, not in war.
[Luis]: And then the thing that many people feared happened.
[Organizer]: To sit on the floor with me… (sound of a firecracker.)
[Luis]: Someone —we don’t know if it was a protestor or the police— lit a firecracker, exactly the kind of incident that had provoked a violent advance from the police in previous days. This time the public reacted immediately.
[Protestors]: To the ground! To the ground! To the ground! To the ground!
[Luis]: And they started asking in unison for people to sit down. In moments, thousands of protestors caught on. It was one wave after another of people sitting down.
[Protestors]: Sit-down! Sit-down!
[Organizer]: We want to hold a moment of silence…
[Luis]: But it was impossible to hear her. In a spontaneous movement like this, the organizers weren’t professionals. They were young people trying to prevent the worst. They didn’t even have a sound system.
[Organizer]: Pass the message…
[Luis]: A few minutes later a megaphone finally appeared.
[Organizer]: Good evening. Can you hear me?
[Luis]: And the organizer continued…
[Organizer]: We’re trying to have a minute of silence for the victims of Maria. The minute starts now.
[Luis]: Up to this point the protests had been defined by the sounds of chants, rhythm, music. The volume was always rising. It felt like a way of making their fury and outrage heard.
This silence was different. It was fed by the sadness and the pain of thinking of the thousands of Puerto Ricans who died after Hurricane Maria and thinking that a better government could have been able to help.
A little later, word started spreading that the broadcast of the governor’s message would start at any moment.
And of course, the handling of official communications had been so disastrous that I doubted there would really be a message.
When I saw protestors set up huge loudspeakers in the crowd, I thought this time there would finally be some kind of announcement. And then I another doubt came to kind: What if he didn’t resign? What was going to happen with so much rage concentrated in front of La Fortaleza?
At 11:30 p.m., Ricky Rosselló finally showed his face. The protestors saw him appear on their phone screens and on the monitors that some TV channels had put in the streets.
He looked thin and pale, shrunken in a chair that was too big for him.
[Ricardo Roselló]: In recent days, many of you have been exercising your right to freedom of expression. The message has been compelling, and I have accepted it with a great degree of humility.
[Luis]: It was a strange message because it started with a summary of the work he had done in more than two years as governor.
[Ricardo Roselló]: Thus, against all expectations, we managed to approve the first fiscal plan and the public policy of the plan for Puerto Rico.
[Luis]: And he kept going on that way for several minutes.
I thought the worst. At the time it occurred to me that he was presenting a list of accomplishments so he could then announce that he would continue to be the governor.
Until in the end…
[Ricardo Roselló]: After hearing the demand, speaking with my family, thinking of my children, and praying, I have made the following decision. With a heavy heart, today I’m announcing that I will be resigning to the governorship, effective Friday, August the 2nd… (screaming)
[Luis]: He resigned. It was all anyone wanted to hear.
I had never seen a celebration like that in Puerto Rico. The barricade was about to fall, not because of the police, but because of the weight of dozens and dozens of protestors who were climbing onto to dance and jump.
Next to me, the girl who hours earlier was talking about escape routes and strategies to keep protesting, was celebrating non-stop.
Hey, how is it?
[Luis]: How do you feel?
[Girl]: I’m so happy that is not even normal!
[Luis]: What she’s saying is: “I’m so happy that is not even normal.”
She’s right. Puerto Ricans had been worn down by corruption and negligence by our governing bodies for so long that demanding a change seemed like a lost cause. But at least that summer night something great had been accomplished. And finally, there was something to celebrate in Puerto Rico.
[Daniel]: Ricardo Rosselló left La Fortaleza on August 2nd. There was a constitutional crisis after his exit, and Puerto Rico had three governors in less than a week.
Since the resignation, a public assembly movement has cropped up, with people getting together all over the island to discuss amendments to the constitution.
This story was produced by Luis Trelles. He lives in San Juan. Thanks to Carla Minet, Executive Director of the Center for Investigative Journalism de Puerto Rico, and Laura Moscoso, Rígel Lugo, Sofía Gallisá, and Yarimar Bonilla.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas, and Joseph Zárate. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.