Deposed governor of Puerto Rico describes panicked flight of family from island

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Puerto Rico had just announced its first three cases of Covid-19 last March, a curfew was approaching and Ricardo A. Rosselló, the scientist-turned-governor who had resigned in disgrace months earlier, saw an opening.

The once popular former governor, who has long enjoyed a perch among the establishment elite, was kicked out after a series of mocking text messages were made public and hundreds of thousands descended on him. the street to demand that he resign. Mr Rosselló, 41, trained as a biomedical engineer, saw Covid-19 as an opportunity to get back into the game.

As the global crisis looms, he posted a series of Facebook Live videos highlighting the danger and offering advice to the government on how to handle the crisis. “The purpose of this video is not to be alarmist,” he said in a video. “Rather, it’s about providing information so that we can do whatever is in our hands to prevent this from developing in a way that is breaking down our healthcare system.”

Some of the videos were widely viewed, but after a month he abandoned the campaign, admitting Puerto Ricans probably didn’t want a “governor in the back.”

“The first three to four months were very difficult, as no one was too keen to give a resigning ex-governor a chance,” Rosselló said in a recent interview, his first with a newspaper since he took over. had been forced to resign this summer. from 2019.

“I have to put my credentials in there and get my chops back,” he said.

As signs emerge that the powerful old guard embodied by Mr Rosselló is loosening its decades-long grip on Puerto Rican politics, Mr Rosselló would like to put aside the summer that blew his political career. After nearly a year and a half in exile, the former governor wants, if not to be forgiven, at least to be understood. He would like to get his good name back. He hired publicists to help him do it.

“It was painful to lose your governorship,” he said on a video call in December from a Washington suburb. “It was painful, because I worked really hard for it, and I thought we were doing good things. But I think what was really painful was the kind of utter devastation of my reputation.

Mr Rosselló, a university professor who at the time had no governance experience other than the son of a former governor, took office in 2017, taking control of a troubled government already crippled by $ 73 billion in debt and a ten-year recession. Four months later, the island essentially declared bankruptcy.

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He had only been at work for nine months when Hurricane Maria flooded towns, buried homes in mud and killed thousands. Two years after the island’s recovery, the texting scandal arose, when local journalists posted hundreds of pages of a private conversation on the Telegram messaging app in which the governor and his closest advisers, all male, used foul and offensive language.

They ridiculed women, gays, fat people, political opponents – even some of their supporters, whom they dismissed as idiots. One of the texts joked about the people who died after Hurricane Maria. The governor called a former New York city councilor a “whore” and joked that he wanted the mayor of San Juan, a political opponent, dead.

The cat exploded pent-up frustration with the hurricane, which had led to months without electricity, as well as the years of recession and corruption the island had already endured. People said they were tired of the political elite. They had had enough of Mr. Rosselló.

As the product of an influential political family, with a handsome appearance as a game show host and a doctorate. from the University of Michigan, Rosselló initially thought he could get away with it. (“There was pride,” he admitted in the interview.)

He recounted the moment he knew he was going to have to quit his $ 70,000 a year job: With furious protests swirling through the streets, he and his family were in their car when it hit a pothole. Her 5 year old daughter was terrified and thought she had been hit by gunfire.

“Obviously, I couldn’t protect her,” Rosselló said. “That’s when it really crystallized.”

Mr. Rosselló, a Democrat, had failed to make allies among the old Republican bloc of his new progressive party, and they called on him to resign. He resigned with more than a year left in office, boarded a private jet and did not return.

After a year of renting small apartments at Airbnbs, he now lives in a $ 1.2 million home outside of Washington, which he bought last month. And he’s working again.

Mr Rosselló admits that it has been a slow recovery to normal. He acknowledged the failures of the “judgment” but expressed little regret and suggested the coronavirus had been mismanaged without it. In March, he said, he was alarmed that authorities had allowed a salsa festival despite the public health emergency.

Even healthcare workers lined up long lines for vaccines, and early on, a virus screening program was marred by a contract scandal. Still, the island has managed to escape, for the most part, the overwhelming infection rates that have plagued many states. About 1,600 people have died.

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A criminal investigation into the cat recently ended without charge, and Mr Rosselló felt justified.

He now prefers to reflect not on the mistakes, but rather on what he calls neglected achievements, such as energy reforms, anti-corruption measures and a minimum wage increase for construction workers that took place during his time. mandate. His biggest mistakes, he said: trying to change too too soon, working too hard, and never getting enough sleep.

I have to show the other side of this story, ”said Rosselló. “From my point of view, everything I have done I have done for the people of Puerto Rico.”

Mr Rosselló believes he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the hectic days following Hurricane Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that ravaged the island in the fall of 2017 and killed nearly 3000 people. Officials were blamed for inadequate preparation, delays in restoring power and failing to admit, at least initially, that so many people had died.

In the aftermath, Mr Rosselló said, he went sleepless for a week and went out personally to help save people on the rooftops. Even after leaving office, he said, he would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep.

“The deaths in Maria are a terrible and terrible pain that I still carry,” he said.

His political party also suffered consequences, retaining the governorship in the November election but losing its majority in the Puerto Rican House and Senate. After decades of bipartisan rule, third-party candidates have dramatically increased their share of the vote in the governor’s race, signaling that a political realignment is underway.

Yarimar Bonilla, a political anthropologist at Hunter College specializing in Puerto Rico, said the changes reflected in the last election were monumental, and they confirmed that the activism born after the texting scandal endures in a big way. Mr Rosselló, she said, was right that things got worse after he left – but she blames him for it.

“Every agency is a complete failure because of all the lackeys he appointed,” she said, noting that the health secretary appointed by Mr Rosselló was forced to resign when doctors went public the lack of testing for coronavirus. The former governor will be remembered for members of his administration who have been accused of corruption, closing schools to save money and his quest to privatize even beaches, she said.

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The fact that it was a pothole that prompted Mr Rosselló to resign struck her as an ironic result of neglected public services that he failed to manage, she said.

“There was no bomb threat, no one shot him,” Ms. Bonilla said. “What put her daughter’s life in danger was a pothole – the infrastructure, the neglected streets of Puerto Rico.”

Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi, a longtime politician whom Rosselló had originally chosen to replace him, won the governor’s race in November, but with less than 35% of the vote.

“I’m afraid to say that nowhere is as much soul-searching as there should be” within the party about these results, said Kenneth McClintock, a former party secretary of state. by M. Rosselló.

But he and Mr Rosselló both referred to a plebiscite in November in which nearly 53% of voters favored a Puerto Rican state – a sign, they said, that the New Progressive Party still represents the interests of ‘a large part of the electorate.

“Since his departure, they have worked to recreate his image,” said Sandra Rodríguez-Cotto, the journalist who published the first article on the chat – and was criticized there. “He thinks he’s coming back in 2023, but he’s left many questions unanswered.”

Mr Rosselló said he “loves Puerto Rico” but declined to say if he is considering a return. Things are finally starting to change for him, he says. He works as a consultant for My Business Matches, a cloud-based networking company in San Antonio, Texas owned by someone he worked with on one of his father’s campaigns. Puerto Rico’s comptroller records show the company had a contract for $ 25,000 with the government to provide networking services at a trade show.

And even though the public service videos did not take off, he found a potential business opportunity with the arrival of the coronavirus: he invested, he said, in a company with two Beijing-based scientists with whom he was working and looking to develop drug treatment for Covid-19.

Mr. Rosselló said he was in charge of mathematical modeling.

Speaking publicly now, he says, he just wants people to see that no matter what, he had Puerto Rico’s well-being at heart.

“I’m not trying to get people to think that I am, you know, God’s gift to the world, but I hope they don’t see the opposite either,” Mr. Rosselló said. “I just want to work. I just want to help.