The writer is a professor of law and conflict studies and director of the negotiation and conflict resolution program in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Creighton University Graduate School.
One of the oldest colonies in the world has given a lesson on political resistance. I have never felt prouder of being Puerto Rican. Seeing my nation rise against corruption, racism, oppression, misogyny and homophobia brings me tears of joy. On July 13 the Puerto Rico Center of Investigative Journalism published 889 pages from a Telegram messages app administered by Ricardo Rosselló, the current governor of Puerto Rico. The chat included his closest advisers, a lobbyist and cabinet members; all 12 members were men.
The chat contained expletive attacks on the LGBTQ community, women, obese individuals, the 4,645 people who died as a result of Hurricane María, political opponents, members of the governor’s own political party, journalists and the poor. The messages were permeated with contempt towards the people of Puerto Rico, the very same people Rosselló was elected to represent.
The chat messages triggered unprecedented protests on the island and among the Puerto Rican diaspora demanding Rosselló’s resignation. The hashtag #RickyRenuncia (Ricky Resign) has gone viral. A task force from the Puerto Rico Bar Association concluded, based on the chat messages, that there was enough evidence of crimes of depravity to proceed with impeachment.
The protests have turned into a self-organizing resistance movement throughout the island and the Puerto Rican diaspora that has been nonstop since July 11, when the governor returned to the island from a vacation trip in Europe after a partial leak of the chat messages and federal arrests of former and current government officials. The largest protest so far was on July 22, with over 500,000 participants estimated, just in San Juan. Puerto Ricans were resolute, and for the first time in the history of Puerto Rico, a governor was forced to resign. As the governor announced his resignation on July 24 at 11:45 p.m., thousands of people celebrated in the streets.
What is the true nature of this resistance movement?
This movement transcends Rosselló and his resignation. Though the chat messages ignited Puerto Ricans’ indignation, the governor has become a symbol of the corruption, inequity and oppression that Puerto Ricans have been suffering for decades.
President Donald Trump has seized the moment to claim that the movement in Puerto Rico is proof that Puerto Rican government officials are corrupt and that Puerto Ricans are incapable of self-government. I see this imperialistic message that Puerto Ricans are incompetent, untrustworthy, incapable of self-government and uncivilized echoed in some editorial opinions and social media sites. This centuries-old colonial narrative can be stopped only by Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rican protesters know this.
This is precisely why Puerto Ricans are not demanding to be rescued or saved by the United States. Puerto Ricans are demanding to live in a just society. Puerto Ricans are demanding a corruption-free government that attends to the needs of all Puerto Ricans, not just a few. Further entrenching colonialism by strengthening the anti-democratic Financial Oversight Board established by Congress and supporting imperialistic narratives is the epitome of what the movement aims to challenge.
If the government and people of the United States want to support Puerto Ricans, they should advocate for supporting an audit of the multibillion-dollar debt that has thrown Puerto Rico into a financial crisis. They should support the suspension of the maritime law restricting shipping in and out of Puerto Rico to U.S.-owned and U.S.-flagged ships. They should stand in solidarity with Puerto Rico in demanding a decolonization process and a recognition that the time to let go of this U.S. colony is long overdue.
Supporting these actions would require the U.S. government to cease being an empire — a transformation that is long overdue. The U.S. needs to step aside and let Puerto Ricans hold their politicians accountable.