Hurricane Corruption joined forces with Hurricane María in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. All the advance preparation that a category hurricane 5 requires was lacking in direct proportion to the extreme danger it ultimately unleashed.
It was as if an earthquake had struck the island by surprise, ripping walls from houses, tearing mountains at the seams, downing electricity in all 50+ hospitals hospitals, killing dozens of people by all types of horrific deaths — dragged into currents, drowned in one’s own home.
The government’s inept response was on the same level as the natural disaster.
But María wasn’t the only force to destroy Puerto Rico.
A man-made storm of corruption began in the 1990s, when US Attorney for Puerto Rico Guillermo Gil summarized the jaw-dropping theft of untold millions of public dollars by the Gov. Rosselló Administration this way: “Corruption has a name and it’s called the New Progressive Party.”
The debt was compounded because of illegal multi-billion loans and spending on poorly conceived and developed projects that resulted in the complete abandonment of the island’s infrastructure in order to pay back the loans with interest rates of 75 cents on the dollar. Gil sent many from the administration to prison, but the island’s health, education, public works and electrical grid was already in shambles.
There’s always irony in Greek tragedies. In Puerto Rico’s case, Rosselló was himself a doctor, a beloved pediatric surgeon whose charisma translated into attaining the governorship. But his hubris and magical thinking led him to create a new health care system – to be paid by the then President Clinton’s plan for universal health care. Instead, Clinton’s dream of providing health care to all was shut down by Republicans, but Puerto Rico was already spending the money it was counting on to receive from the U.S.
And so began what years later became a $74 billion debt and a U.S.-appointed seven-member control board.
At the beginning of the man-made disaster, Rosselló had to keep issuing bonds to borrow billions to cover the losses of his bankrupt health care system. The loans also financed the big public works projects, which delight the eyes of voters.
An urban train in metro San Juan cost almost a billion dollars, most of it from the U.S. taxpayers. Even before the hurricane it was losing $50 million a year and only one/third of its seat were occupied by commuters.
Compounding the fiscal troubles was the greed of his friends and colleagues: dozens were convicted of stealing millions of dollars from the education, health, public works, housing and just about every government department. The education secretary alone was convicted for stealing $13 million, although there was suspicion he stole more.
Since those happy days when illegal money flowed from taxpayers into the pockets of Rosselló’s friends, successive governors have been forced to continue borrowing to cover immoral but legal interest rates of 75 cents on the dollar.
Puerto Rico was borrowing more and more billions to pay loans, not to maintain the grid, not to improve the health care system or return public education to its glory days with the added bonus of technological advances.
It was borrowing to keep afloat a sinking ship.
As Hurricane Irma barreled from the eastern Atlantic toward Puerto Rico, the island braced for total destruction. Instead, it survived almost intact.
There was collective relief in Puerto Rico, but a few days later, the frustration began to grow. Despite Irma barely blowing a kiss to the islands of Puerto Rico, its electrical grid failed.
Almost half the people of Puerto Rico still didn’t have power when Hurricane María rolled into Puerto Rico just two weeks later.
Now the son, Ricardo Rosselló, holds the reins of power, but lacks authority to lead. He won with the least number of votes in the island’s history. A few months later, even less people showed to the polls for yet another and ultimately disqualifying referendum asking what do Puerto Ricans want: statehood, current free associated state status or independence. Only 22 percent showed up at the polls.
Junior Rosselló appears to have the claws of his father but not the agility. Not everything the elder Rosselló did was terrible. But most of it was. Junior doesn’t appear to be a thief nor have thieves in his cabinet as his father did. But he craves attention even when there is nothing to say. He holds press conferences in an air conditioned hall in San Juan’s Convention Center, named for his father. In Puerto Rico, it’s known as the Corruption Center, for his father.
Throughout the island, people can’t hear him, but that doesn’t matter. Because whatever he is promising, it is not arriving; he’s a tree that fell in a forest and no one knows if it made a sound because no one was there.
People are hungry, sick, tired, scared, frustrated, angry, thirsty. The heat reaches 108 degrees on some days.
Hurricane María was always going to destroy much of Puerto Rico.
But bring it to its knees?
That’s the Rosselló family’s inaction.