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The protest movement in Puerto Rico scored its first victory when Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned Wednesday night. But that’s not demonstrators’ only demand: They want “la junta” gone too.
Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in the streets of San Juan this week to chants of “Ricky renuncia y llévate a la junta”: Ricky, resign and take the “junta” with you. Referred to colloquially as “la junta,” the eight-member Fiscal Oversight Management Board was appointed by President Obama in 2016 to restructure Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion in debt and lift the island out of bankruptcy.
With the help of high-paid consultants, the board has cut costs on the island — but largely through budgets cuts. That’s led to rampant public school closures and a broken healthcare system, which will run out of money five months before the end of its fiscal year in 2020.
Now, protesters want the board’s members to resign, although none of them seem to want to do that. “We will steadfastly continue our efforts to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt and to ensure fiscal balance,” its members said in a statement.
Even if they did resign, President Donald Trump would pick their replacements. That’s likely exactly what will happen in September, when the board’s current term ends. Only Congress could dissolve the body before then.
“I’m scared about who he will nominate,” said Joshua Manuel Bonet, a 21-year-old protester from Río Grande, Puerto Rico. “La junta, Donald Trump, and Ricardo Rosselló have been a scary chapter for us.”
“Don’t be surprised if we continue protesting in the streets,” he added.
Here to stay
Puerto Rico has been neck-deep in debt for more than a decade, since the island’s financial crisis in 2006. But as a commonwealth of the U.S., the island couldn’t declare bankruptcy on its own.
In 2016, Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act — or PROMESA, for short — which allowed the island to declare a form of bankruptcy and created the finance board. But the board has refused to do an audit of the island’s debt, which some lawmakers believe is made up of illegally issued bonds.
“Then PROMESA comes along — and the acronym is Orwellian, because what’s it promising? All it does is guarantee the further subjugation of the Puerto Rican economy to U.S. interests,” said Nelson Denis, a native Puerto Rican and author of “War Against All Puerto Ricans,” which details the history of U.S. intervention on the island.
“It [the finance board] revokes the Puerto Rican people's basic, fundamental right to democratic self-governance,” Bonet said.
The protests began July 13, after Centro de Periodismo Investigativo published a trove of homophobic and sexist messages among Rosselló and his associates. But much of the anger stems from years of allegations of corruption and botched recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria. Even Trump took aim this week at the “grossly incompetent leadership at the top of Puerto Rico.”
But the president restocking the finance board with picks of his own could kick off more unreast on the island.
“La junta, Donald Trump, and Ricardo Rosselló have been a scary chapter for us.”
“If Trump puts into place a new board, they’re going to have to deal with a new panorama here. We’re going to demand more from the board,” said Yarimar Bonilla, a native Puerto Rican and political anthropology professor at Hunter College who’s participated in the protests in Puerto Rico. “Trump can’t think that this is the time to impose more control and more austerity, because the people have awoken.”
“This will be a highly contested decision, since it will likely reflect the interests of the bondholders rather than of the residents of Puerto Rico,” said Jorge Duany, a native Puerto Rican and professor of anthropology at Florida International University.
Regardless of who the president picks, replacing the board will be a contentious process. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a lawsuit brought by Puerto Rico’s creditors, which will decide whether the current board was lawfully appointed. (The creditors are arguing the board members aren’t legitimate because they weren’t confirmed by the Senate.) Depending on how the case goes, it’s unclear whether members of a new board require Senate confirmation.
There’s also concern in Puerto Rico that the board could be angling to use the island’s recent unrest as an excuse to expand its authority. The board has pressed to oversee day-to-day governance in Puerto Rico, but the courts haven’t given that authority.
“We are fighting to rebuke PROMESA,” Puerto Rican state Rep. Manuel Natal Albelo said. “But the needle has moved in the opposite direction. Instead of where we were heading — to limit the powers of the board — people are talking about expanding those powers.”
Some people in Puerto Rico do support having oversight of the Puerto Rican government, according to Bonilla. “But a lot of people are calling for that to be a citizen-led board, not an outside-imposed board whose members were involved in the creation of the debt to begin with,” she said.
Allies in the U.S.
Since Democrats took the House in November of 2018, some have vowed to use their power to push for reforming the board. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the chair the Natural Resources Committee that oversees Puerto Rico’s finance board, wants change.
“I hope the control board, the overseer in terms of fiscal stability, doesn’t see this as an opportunity to amass more unelected power of the lives of the people of Puerto Rico,” Grijalva said in a statement Thursday morning.
Protesters who want “la junta” out also have allies in the 2020 field. Beto O’Rourke favors reforming the board, and Marianne Williamson’s campaign told VICE News that she thinks the board “needs more diversity and balance.” Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Bernie Sanders also voted against PROMESA in 2016.
Sanders took his distrust of the board a step further and called for its dissolution entirely.
“Bernie will restore self-rule in Puerto Rico by ending the reign of greedy Wall Street vulture funds that have a stranglehold on Puerto Rico’s future and the undemocratic fiscal control board that has imposed austerity on the people of Puerto Rico,” Sanders’ campaign told VICE News.
But protesters won’t stop there. Demands have also emerged for Wanda Vázquez, Rossello’s successor to step down as well. They see her as part of the same corrupt political camp as Rosselló.
“Immediately people reacted to [Rosselló’s] announcement by saying, ‘Well, now we’re going for more,’” Bonilla said. “More cleaning up of local politics, more moving forward toward an agenda, and more of creating a new political scenario here.”
“The political class, if they’re not scared they should be, cause we’re coming for all of them,” she added.
Ani Ucar and Kelly Vinett contributed to this report.
Cover image: A demonstrator with a Puerto Rican flag protests against Gov. Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (AP Photo /Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo)