Puerto Rico’s Deposed Governor Describes His Family’s Panicked Flight From the Island
Puerto Rico had just announced its first three cases of Covid-19 last March, a curfew was coming, and Ricardo A. Rosselló, the scientist-turned-governor who had resigned in disgrace months earlier, saw an opening.
The once-popular former governor, who had long enjoyed a perch among the establishment elite, had been forced out after a series of mocking text messages went public and hundreds of thousands of people hit the street demanding that he quit. Mr. Rosselló, 41, trained as a biomedical engineer, saw in Covid-19 an opportunity to get back in the game.
As the global crisis loomed, he posted a series of Facebook Live videos highlighting the danger and offering advice to the government on how to manage the crisis. “The purpose of this video is not to be alarmist,” he said in one video. “On the contrary, it’s to provide information so we can do everything in our hands so we can avoid this growing in a way that collapses our health system.”
Some of the videos were widely viewed, but after a month he abandoned the campaign, conceding that Puerto Ricans probably did not want a “back seat governor.”
“The first three to four months were very rough, because nobody was too eager to to give a resigning ex-governor an opportunity,” Mr. Rosselló said in a recent interview, his first with a newspaper since being forced to resign in the summer of 2019.
“I have to put my credentials out there and re-earn my chops,” he said.
As signs emerge that the powerful old guard that Mr. Rosselló so embodied is loosening its decades-long grip on Puerto Rican politics, Mr. Rosselló would like to put aside the summer that blew up 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 his good name back. He has hired publicists to help him do it.
“It was painful to lose the job as governor,” he said over a video call in December from suburban Washington. “It was painful, because I worked so hard for it, and I thought we were doing good things. But I think what was really painful was the sort of complete devastation of my reputation.”
Mr. Rosselló, a university professor who at the time had no governing experience beyond being the son of a former governor, took office in 2017, taking over a troubled government that already was crippled with $73 billion in debt and a decade-long recession. Four months later, the island essentially declared bankruptcy.
He had been on the job for just nine months when Hurricane Maria flooded towns, buried homes in mud and killed thousands of people. Two years into the island’s recovery came the texting scandal, when local journalists published hundreds of pages of a private chat on the messaging app Telegram in which the governor and his closest advisers, all men, used crude and offensive language.
They ridiculed women, gay people, fat people, political opponents — even some of their supporters, whom they dismissed as chumps. One of the texts joked about the people who died after Hurricane Maria. The governor called a former New York City councilwoman a “whore” and joked about wishing the mayor of San Juan, a political opponent, dead.
The chat exploded pent-up frustration over 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’d had enough of the elite political establishment. They’d had enough of Mr. Rosselló.
As the product of an influential political family, with game show-host good looks and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Mr. Rosselló thought at first that he could ride it out. (“There was hubris,” he admitted in the interview.)
He recounted the moment he knew that he would have to leave his $70,000-a-year post: With furious demonstrations swirling in the streets, he and his family were out in their car when it hit a pothole. His 5-year-old daughter was terrified, and thought they had been hit by gunfire.
“Evidently, I couldn’t protect her,” Mr. Rosselló said. “That was the moment where it really crystallized.”
Mr. Rosselló, a Democrat, had failed to make allies among the older Republican bloc of his New Progressive Party, and they were calling for him to resign. He stepped down with more than a year left on his term, boarded a private jet and has not been back.
After a year of hopping from small apartment rentals to Airbnbs, he is now living in a $1.2 million home outside Washington, which he purchased last month. And he is working again.
Mr. Rosselló admits it has been a slow climb back to normalcy. He acknowledged failures in “judgment” but expressed few regrets, and suggested that the coronavirus had been mismanaged without him. In March, he said, he was alarmed to see that the authorities had allowed a salsa festival to take place despite the public health emergency.
Even health care workers stood in long lines for vaccines, and, early on, a testing program for the virus was marred by a contracting scandal. Yet the island has managed to escape, for the most part, the crushing rates of infection that hit many states. About 1,600 people have died.
A criminal investigation into the chat recently ended without charges, and Mr. Rosselló felt vindicated.
He prefers now to reflect not on mistakes but rather on what he calls overlooked accomplishments, such as the energy reforms, anti-corruption measures and a minimum wage hike for construction workers that came during his tenure. His biggest errors, he said: trying to change too much too soon, working too hard and never getting enough sleep.
“I need to show the other side of that story,” Mr. Rosselló said. “From my vantage point, everything I did, I did it for the people of Puerto Rico.”
Mr. Rosselló believes that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the hectic days after Hurricane Maria, the near-Category 5 hurricane that wrecked the island in the fall of 2017 and killed nearly 3,000 people. Officials were blamed for inadequate preparation, delays in restoring electricity and failing to admit, at least at first, that so many people had died.
In the aftermath, Mr. Rosselló said, he went a week without sleep and went out personally to help rescue people from rooftops. Even after he left office, he said, he would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep.
“The deaths in Maria are a terrible, terrible pain that I always carry,” he said.
His political party has also suffered consequences, holding on to the governorship in the November election but losing its majorities in the Puerto Rico House and Senate. After decades of two-party dominance, third-party candidates significantly expanded their share of the vote in the governor’s race, signaling that a political realignment is underway.
Yarimar Bonilla, a Hunter College political anthropologist who specializes in Puerto Rico, said the changes reflected in the last election were monumental, and they confirmed that the activism born after the texting scandal lives on in important ways. Mr. Rosselló, she said, was correct in saying that things got worse after he left — but she places the blame on him.
“Every agency is a complete failure because of all the lackeys he appointed,” she said, noting that the health secretary Mr. Rosselló named was forced to quit when doctors went public over the lack of testing for the coronavirus. The former governor will be remembered for the members of his administration who were charged with corruption, the closure of schools to save money and his quest to privatize even the beaches, she said.
The fact that it was a pothole that moved Mr. Rosselló to quit struck her as an ironic result of the neglected public services he failed to manage, she said.
“There was no bomb threat, no one shot at him,” Ms. Bonilla said. “What put his daughter’s life at risk was a pothole — infrastructure, the neglected streets of Puerto Rico.”
Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi, a longtime politician whom Mr. Rosselló had initially chosen as his replacement, won the governor’s race in November, but with less than 35 percent of the vote.
“I’m afraid to say there’s nowhere near as much soul-searching as there should be” within the party about those results, said Kenneth McClintock, a former secretary of state from Mr. Rosselló’s party.
But he and Mr. Rosselló both pointed to a plebiscite in November in which nearly 53 percent of voters favored Puerto Rican statehood — a sign, they said, that the New Progressive Party still represents the interests of a broad swath of the electorate.
“Since he left, they have been working on recreating his image,” said Sandra Rodríguez-Cotto, the journalist who first broke the story about the chat — and was criticized in it. “He thinks he’s coming back in 2023, but he left a lot of unanswered questions.”
Mr. Rosselló said he “loves Puerto Rico,” but declined to say whether he envisions a return. Things are finally beginning to turn around for him, he said. He is working as a consultant with 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 comptroller records show the company had a $25,000 contract with the government to provide networking services at a trade expo fair.
And even if the public service videos did not take off, he has found a potential business opportunity with the arrival of the coronavirus: He has invested, he said, in a company with two Beijing-based scientists he used to work with that seeks to develop a drug therapy for Covid-19.
Mr. Rosselló said he is handling the mathematical modeling.
In speaking publicly now, he said, he just wants people to see that, whatever happened, he had Puerto Rico’s welfare at heart.
“I don’t aim for people to think I’m, 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.”
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