CounterSpin interview with Ed Morales on Puerto Rican protest

2 August 2019 — FAIR

Ed Morales

Janine Jackson interviewed Ed Morales about the Puerto Rican protest movement for the July 26, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States; that’s critical to understanding the island’s historical, political and economic situation. And we rightfully make fun of—especially—politicians who seem not to understand that. On another level, there are reasons to think about Puerto Rico as a different place—Puerto Ricans’ decisive, collective uprising in response to clear revelations of anti-humane governance not the least of them.

It’s hard not to find inspiration in the vibrant multi-sector protests in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, even recognizing the deep hardships and systemic failures that fuel them. We’re recording on July 25; Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced his resignation late last night. Joining us now to talk about the protests that made that happen, and what in turn spurred them, is writer Ed Morales. He teaches at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and his new book, Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico, is forthcoming from Bold Type Press. He joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Ed Morales.

Ed Morales: Hi! How are you doing, Janine?

JJ: I’m good, I’m good! Well, to begin and end with these private text conversations, recently exposed among Rosselló and these 11 advisors, would be to miss the point. But those chats were a flashpoint for a reason, because of what they revealed and also what they illustrated: the attitude of these men (they were all men) toward women, gay people, opponents, supporters…. It’s a cornucopia of toxicity. Can you place, though, the latest revelations in the context of what we, and what Puerto Ricans, already knew?

EM: Sure. The chats really have gotten a lot of attention because of the offensive content, and that’s really important to underline, and it is a really big part of the response against him.

It’s really important to also understand that in the chats were potential outlinings of a case against the governor and the other people in the chat, most of whom he dismissed or accepted their resignations, that had to do with the improper sharing of information with, particularly, one man named Elías Sánchez, who is this sort of superlobbyist and consultant in Puerto Rico, who was in on all these conversations about official government business, and a lot of the vulgar attacks that they directed at people had to do with these seedy contract deals that people like Elías Sánchez and Edwin Miranda, who was one of the major public relations people in Puerto Rico, profited from.

So the main reason that I really think a lot of people got upset was the Christian Sobrino comment—Christian Sobrino was the governor’s non-voting representative on the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, and also in charge of this financial institution that had replaced the Government Development Bank, which was dissolved during the debt crisis—so that’s the one that Christian Sobrino joked about the fact that bodies that were from Hurricane Maria, whether there were any crows or vultures available to eat them, to relieve the stress of the piling up of bodies. People who were really suffering emotionally from the aftereffects of Hurricane Maria, and probably even economically, were most upset about that. Then there are all the people who are upset about the anti-women and homophobic content.

But I think that people in Puerto Rico were really well aware of the corruption rumors. You know, two weeks before, the secretary of education was arrested, along with the secretary of health insurance, for improper granting of contracts without proper bidding procedures.

And also, Puerto Rico has suffered through several corruption scandals, from both of its major political parties, for 20 years at least.

JJ: So it’s not just being nasty, although there’s a long list of that, if folks want to look for that.

EM: It’s everything all together.

JJ: Yeah, exactly. And you know, Rosselló said he was letting off steam, but then, this real favor-trading…. Well, in your piece for The Nation, you note that the blame for the pervasive nature of corruption in the government can clearly be laid on these politicians themselves, their privileged boys’ club and their private-school elitism. But you say Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States must also be blamed. What are you getting at there?

EM: Yeah, I think there’s two things that we can talk about there.

One is, as I state in the piece, because Puerto Rico does not have a voting representative in Congress—that’s part of the deal of being an unincorporated territory, and then having citizenship—they have this thing called the “resident  commissioner.” It’s an office. And the resident commissioner really lives the life, basically, of a US representative, except they don’t have a vote.

So their main way to influence what goes on in Washington is to lobby, informally, their fellow legislators. And they’re really involved in the Puerto Rico government lobbying process, which is carried out by this agency called PRFAA, which has offices in Washington and New York.

So that sort of culture of “the only political power that you have is lobbying,” I think in a way sort of seeps back to the island, and particularly when you see that many of the recent governors were resident commissioners before they became governor, because it’s sort of a platform, it’s sort of like being a governor or senator is a platform for being elected president, being the resident commissioner is so. So it’s sort of a culture of lobbying and cultivating influence and influence-peddling that happens.

And because of the imposition of the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, it’s taken away so much of the agency of the government itself on the island, because all of its moves have to be approved by the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, in terms of apportionment—and that’s what most of the legislation has to do with. Democracy has become kind of a joke on the island, because there’s a delegitimization that happens with the Oversight Board.

JJ: Yeah, and the institutional roots and the connection to the mainland, structural roots of the problems–that is why I so much dislike a media line, or a kind of sub-narrative I’m seeing. The New York Times podcast returned to it repeatedly: “So weeks after President Trump calls the government of Puerto Rico corrupt, there are all these indictments that basically say he’s right,” you know. There’s this line that Trump was correct, as if his Gatling gun of insults actually hitting something were super meaningful, or, you know, the guy who threw paper towels at people, “Let’s give him another listen about what’s best for those people.” I find that very frustrating in terms of media coverage, this lack of awareness of what you’re just talking about, the fact that the political class in a colonized place is going to be part of the problem, and that’s not an argument for more colonization.

EM: Well, I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it, but all of the corruption and investigations that led up to this, save for the last move by Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice, has been handled by the US Department of Justice. It’s not fair to say that the US Department of Justice is carrying out, completely, Trump’s agenda, but you do have an increasingly assertive Bob Barr; there was a problem with the previous police monitor that Puerto Rico’s police are still under consent decree, and the previous monitor was harassed out of office; that’s part of the chats as well.

That may have been something that came from Barr’s leadership as the attorney general, even going back to Sessions, when Sessions was attorney general. He wanted to relax some of these cities that were under consent decree, saying that it was  inhibiting law enforcement by having these police departments under consent decree, which means they’re monitored by what’s called a police monitor.

So there are two other investigations, one in California, and one, I’m told, from the Southern District of New York, which, as you know, has been active in monitoring Trump, that have to do with deals with the electrical authority, and the health and insurance area, respectively, that I’m not sure if that is something that’s coming from Bob Barr or from the Trump agenda. But, definitely, the involvement of the FBI and the Department of Justice in this is really something I think that raises eyebrows.

And I will tell you one more story about that: The initial revelations about corruption in the Rosselló government started to happen around the Secretary of Finance Raúl Maldonado, who resigned and then gave an interview to the major newspaper in Puerto Rico, saying that there was institutional corruption in the government.

JJ: He called it a Mafia, right?

EM: “Institutional Mafia,” right. Then his son gave an interview to the same newspaper, and said he had some information about the Rosselló government that they would see, that this would come out. So two weeks later, this chat comes out. Now, of course, the Center for Investigative Journalism cannot reveal the source of the chat. I’m just speculating. We have no idea what the source of the chat leak is. But you have to be interested in the fact that Raúl Maldonado and his son both have access to the chat. And it suddenly appeared two weeks later, after his son said that something big was going to come. And so that was after they were cooperating with the FBI.

JJ: And didn’t something happened to his son after that? Did his son then come under investigation himself? I feel like something further happened with the son. Maybe I’m confused on that.

EM: Well, I don’t actually remember what happened to the son, but I know that Raúl Maldonado Sr. is still refusing to turn over his phone, after several government officials were ordered to do so by the Puerto Rico Department of Justice last week.

JJ: Let’s talk about the protests. The protests have been historic. More than half a million people in the street in San Juan for a national strike on July 22. More than half a million people on an island whose population is just over 3 million. A protest here in New York, in Union Square, was one of the most energetic seen in a long time. Even in US media, most accounts are acknowledging that these protests were always about more than the chats, and even more than getting rid of Rosselló, isn’t that so?

Ed Morales

Ed Morales: “The mainstream media still seems to be focused on the idea that this is all caused by a corrupt government in Puerto Rico, with no visible narrative of the colonial control behind it.”

EM: Yes, certainly there are a lot of pieces that are pointing to this sort of cultural nationalist revival in Puerto Rico. I do think that there’s a new kind of nationalism that has taken off, which I think successfully combines identity politics, as in “the personal is political,” with awareness of class conflict. I think most people are really clear that the Rosselló entitled governorship represents an elite class that has made ties with the business elite, and that they are on the other side of that struggle. I don’t know how much the mainstream media is seeing it that way. But they are noting, particularly the cultural expressions; there’s been a lot of attention being paid to the musicians that showed up. There’s even some mentions about the perreo combativo, which is this dance that is done to reggaeton music that is kind of overtly sexual, that people were performing last night as a political act.

So there’s a lot of that, but I’m still disappointed that the mainstream media still seems to be focused on the idea that this is all caused by a corrupt government in Puerto Rico, with no visible narrative of the colonial control behind it. The Wall Street Journal had, really, and the Washington Post, had these editorials that called for a strengthening of power for the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board.

JJ:  As the response.

EM: Yeah, right. The problem is Puerto Rico’s endemic corruption, and so even more US control and austerity is the remedy.

JJ: Yeah, I saw a line. And you know, it’s in what they say and how they say it, the kind of passive voice, just lazy coverage, like the Guardian that talked about, “The island continued to reel from the effects of the devastating hurricane amid a faltering recovery effort led by the Trump administration,” and you think, “well, wait, what?”

EM: Right.

JJ: You know, who are the political actors here? And then the New York Times says, in this passive way, Puerto Ricans have “suffered through unemployment, hurricanes, economic restructuring and government-imposed austerity measures.” “Government-imposed,” I guess, is the closest we get to having an actual actor, but it’s not even clear what government they’re talking about that’s imposing the austerity. So you’re right, there’s no story being told. It’s as if it’s just kind of an endemic problem among Puerto Ricans.

EM: Right. So yeah, and the Washington Post had this comparison to the Washington Fiscal Oversight Board, which people still have a lot of problems with, but was more attentive to the concerns of DC residents than this board, which is completely composed of the business community, and in fact has three members that have questionable conflicts of interest, with their ties to banks that helped to create the debt crisis in the first place.

JJ: On the one hand, I’m seeing media sometimes just quoting people saying that Puerto Rico is in uncharted territory, on the level of the upheaval and the change that’s being sought. But then, at the same time, I see elite media trying, or at least looking ready, to circumscribe it. The New York Times said that many Puerto Ricans want out of the deal in which a fiscal control board designated by Congress has been calling many of the shots in recent years, forcing the island through strict austerity measures to manage a crippling debt crisis that caused it to declare a form of bankruptcy two years ago.

But, the Times then goes on to say, “The people and their placards are unlikely to change that.” They just state that, saying they could change the political leadership in Puerto Rico, but they’re not going to change this relationship with the fiscal control board. I don’t know how the New York Times knows that, when I doubt they knew two weeks ago that Rosselló was going to come down.

EM: Yeah, I think there was very little awareness of the burgeoning corruption scandal in the mainstream media until the chats came out.

Look, it’s a formidable task that activism has to confront the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, because it is controlled by Congress, and it has all that power, but certain things have happened. There are three things that I can point to that show that the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board is not an insurmountable foe. One is that there’s two Supreme Court cases are going to be heard in the fall, I think in October, that challenge the validity of the current members, because they may have violated the appointments clause of the Constitution.

The judge, Taylor Swain, of the Title III Bankruptcy Court that is part of PROMESA has suspended all restructuring for three months until the government thing gets straightened out. It may be something that might not have a strong effect unless there is even more of a Democratic majority or a Democratic president in 2020. But Raúl Grijalva, chairman of the National Resource Committee that’s really in charge of what’s going on in Puerto Rico, had been trying to put some reins on the Fiscal Oversight Management Board, sort of redefine what its role was. He’s been vocal about that. And he was the first to call for Rosselló’s resignation.

So there is a move among Democrats in Congress to try to limit some of the powers of the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board. This really puts a dent in it, though; that is really one of the bad things about this. And, again, that seems to really serve the interests of the Oversight Board, and probably the Trump Republicans, who are all involved in the disaster capitalism.

JJ: Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, which we keep referring to, they were the catalyst for this in releasing the chats. And we know that that was very meaningful, the tone of them was evidence in itself of a problem. And it was sufficient evidence to tip something into something bigger. So I guess, finally, I would just say, it is on one level a big win for journalism in the public interest, among the other things that it is, right?

EM: Yes, definitely. There’s a lot of awareness about Center for Investigative Journalism; the people involved are really accessible members of the community. They’re not on this elite level, like, say, the mainstream media is in the US; they almost have an activist‘s spirit about them. And I think most people realize, and thank them for divulging all of this, and not only doing that, but just doing their commentary on it, because it’s really a long read.

And the most important thing they did was vet a lot of it, make sure that it was not a false leak. And they really put a lot of things into context with some of the pieces they wrote; they actually wrote a follow-up piece, which in detail describes a lot of these potential violations. The committee that was set up to investigate the possible violations, which put out its report yesterday, concurs with a lot of the findings that are in the Center for Investigative Journalism report, in terms of the potential violations, three of the criminal code and two of the ethics code, that the Rosselló administration did. So they did a really strong follow-up, and did not just leave it at the vulgar language.

JJ: All right, then. We’ve been speaking with Ed Morales; the new book, Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico, is out soon from Bold Type Press. You can still find his article, “Why Half a Million Puerto Ricans Are Protesting in the Streets,” online at Ed Morales, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

EM: Thank you. Thanks, as always.

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