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Protesters In Puerto Rico Continue Calls For Gov. Rossello To Resign

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello hoped his decision not to seek another term would satisfy protesters, he was wrong...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

INSKEEP: ...Because the governor's announcement did not stop protesters from swarming an 11-lane highway in the capital San Juan yesterday. They want the governor out of office now. They're demanding his resignation after text messages sent among his inner circle showed the governor insulting women and gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria among others.

The protesters in recent days have included Yarimar Bonilla, a professor with the City University of New York, who's been researching the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Welcome to the program.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Hi. Hi...

INSKEEP: What...

BONILLA: ...Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Were you out on the streets yesterday? And what was your experience?

BONILLA: I was. I was marching along with everyone else and then also participated in events at the governor's mansion. And, I mean, you know, I'm a researcher here, but like everyone, I felt, you know, I couldn't help but feel just moved and overwhelmed by the power of these historic protests.

INSKEEP: Did yesterday's protest feel as strong as earlier ones even though the governor had made a big concession?

BONILLA: Oh, no, they felt even stronger. And he has not made a big concession. I mean, his announcement that he wouldn't run for reelection was really meaningless because it's clear that he would not be reelected. So it really - it was not seen as a concession, but really just a way to buy time.

INSKEEP: We should note - we have noted on the program that dissatisfaction with the governor runs more deeply than these text messages, although the text messages seem to have triggered something here. What more did you object to, if anything, than the way that he seemed to have spoken or written in private?

BONILLA: Well, there was - it was not just about insults or about calling names. It was really about the lack of care for his constituents. And I think something that really struck a chord with people here was that he mocked the dead, you know, the dead - those that had died after Hurricane Maria. And given the fact that the government has failed to account for those dead, has not done a proper study to see who, you know, how many exactly died. All that we have are abstract statistics, but we don't really have a proper accounting of those who died after the storm.

You know, that, I think, was something that really struck a lot of people. And consistently throughout the protest, you see signs referencing not only the numbers of that, but specific people who had died. A lot of people carried signs with pictures and stories of loved ones that they lost and that they feel haven't been accounted for.

INSKEEP: Do...

BONILLA: So I think...

INSKEEP: ...Do people blame the governor for that, for their missing relatives?

BONILLA: They do. Well, they absolutely blame him for the lack of accountability because this administration refused to be transparent and accurate about who exactly had died and kept, you know, representing with incorrect numbers. But they also blamed the administration for slowing down aid to, you know, do photo ops, which is something that also came out of the chat, and also mishandling donations and other funds that came in, in addition to just being absent during the time when people were struggling the most.

INSKEEP: So the governor took a couple of steps yesterday. First, he seems to have shaved off his beard, which I guess he had for a number of months and which he had in his video just the other day saying that he would leave office at the end of his term. He then went on Fox News, and he was pressed in an interview to name his remaining political supporters. Let's listen to a little bit of that, professor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD SMITH: Governor, you're not able to give me the name of one person in Puerto Rico who supports you...

RICARDO ROSSELLO: Yes.

SMITH: ...Continuing as governor. Is that correct?

ROSSELLO: I can. So the mayor of San Sebastian, for example, supported this effort. Mayors...

SMITH: Whose name is?

ROSSELLO: ...From different municipalities - Javier Jimenez, for example.

INSKEEP: We should mention that mayor later disputed the governor's statement, saying he doesn't support Rossello either. I guess this would be a moment not to associate yourself with the governor even if you were. But I do have to ask this question. In a way, is it actually true that Rossello is just one member of a political system, and that political system is what broadly dissatisfies people?

BONILLA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, he - Rossello comes from a historic political family and is part of a, you know, entrenched political party. And folks here are battling that political party and just the political party system in general here in Puerto Rico that has long been organized not around forms of governance, but about ideologies, about the kind of relationship that Puerto Rico should have to the United States.

And I think for a lot of people, it's time to build parties around new ideas, to have independent candidates. You know, talking to a lot of people on the streets, that's what I'm hearing, that they want this to become a broader democratic movement that inspires constitutional reform and that really brings greater democracy to Puerto Rico beyond just getting rid of one particular politician.

INSKEEP: Can I raise one other thing? President Trump, as I'm sure you know very well, spoke about the Puerto Rican hurricane, spoke about a hurricane in Texas, and many people felt that he spoke about them differently. He was very supportive of Texas and much more scornful of Puerto Rico and suggesting that the money that the federal government sent that way would be misspent and so forth. Is there actually some justice in that view, that Puerto Rico is just not a very well governed place at the moment?

BONILLA: Well, you know, it's tricky to say that because really, you know, if you look statistically per capita, there is way more cases of corruption in the United States than there are in Puerto Rico. And a lot of the scandals that have emerged involve U.S., you know, mainland U.S. players like Whitefish, Cobra, the secretary of education that had come from Philadelphia with this idea that she was going to clean up, you know, cronyism here. And even the federal oversight board that has been put into place here, some people are calling for it to have more power and control in the wake of these protests. But it has been sued several times.

So I think it's really dangerous for people to use this, you know, popular movement for democracy as an excuse to give the federal government, you know, greater imperial control here.

INSKEEP: And I guess I'll just note because the way you phrased something, just to avoid people tweeting at you, you, of course, know that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. You mean more corruption in the mainland United States than in Puerto Rico itself.

BONILLA: Yes, the continental U.S.

INSKEEP: Professor, thanks so much really appreciate it.

BONILLA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's professor Yarimar Bonilla. She is the author of the upcoming book "Aftershocks Of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before And After The Storm."

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "WOLF DRAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.