After Rosselló, Puerto Rico needs democracy — not a ‘recovery czar’
By Ariadna M. Godreau-Aubert
The people of Puerto Rico are dancing in the streets, celebrating the ouster of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. After leaked communications exposed Rosselló’s corruption and callousness, Puerto Ricans mounted the largest demonstrations in recent history, forcing the governor’s resignation.
But, even as we celebrate, another threat looms like a storm cloud on the horizon. The Trump administration, with support of Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, a non-voting member of Congress, has proposed the appointment of a federal coordinator (a “recovery czar”) to spearhead the island’s disaster recovery. It’s a move that would once again deprive the people of Puerto Rico of the power to shape their destiny.
As a colony, the people of Puerto Rico have been ruled by outside interests for centuries. And a decade ago, we endured a debt crisis that enriched Wall Street financiers and corrupt government officials as it bankrupted the island. In 2016, Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which put our economy in the hands of an unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board — “la junta” — that imposed punishing austerity measures.
Then, the hurricanes of 2017 dealt a devastating blow to an island weakened by neglect and austerity.Nearly two years later, we are still struggling to recover. Some 20,000 families still live under blue tarps, awaiting basic housing repairs.
The slow recovery represents a failure of government at all levels. The Rosselló scandal revealed patterns of corruption and negligent use of funds. Shockingly, the administration prevented people in need from obtaining essential resources — such as water and medicine — donated in the aftermath of the storms. And the Trump administration has used disaster aid to Puerto Rico as a political football.
At every level, the recovery has suffered from a lack of transparency and accountability. But the solution to that problem is not to appoint an outside “czar” that is even less transparent and accountable.
Transparency and accountability cannot be imposed from abroad. Federal structures that promote oversight and control do not guarantee effective management of resources or public participation. PROMESA has failed to deliver on its promise to secure financial stability. Instead, the junta has overtaken public policy decisions and weakened democracy.
Imposing a recovery czar, as a condition to receive the assistance that rightfully belongs to the people of Puerto Rico, would hinder — not help — the recovery process. It would diminish our human rights to self-determination and development. Lack of political power is not a symptom — it is a root cause of the obstacles faced by thousands of families on the island. Two years after the hurricanes, Puerto Ricans still await adequate housing. An entity that does not answer to the population of Puerto Rico would be even less accountable to poor communities that are in danger of losing their homes and land.
Instead of doubling down on a top-down approach by appointing a recovery czar, Congress should do what the Puerto Rican people have been asking for all along: democratize the recovery by empowering a committee composed of Puerto Rican civic, community and nonprofit leaders to oversee disaster recovery dollars. Recently, a coalition of more than 800 local, state, and national organizations came out in support of that approach.
The people of Puerto Rico have shown extraordinary strength in the face of hardship — both natural and human-made. We have said “enough” to a government that was corrupt and cruel. We have shown that Puerto Rico is at its strongest when power is in the hands of the people. Now, the people are ready to steer Puerto Rico toward a just and fair recovery.
Ariadna M. Godreau-Aubert is a human rights lawyer, coordinator of the Access to Justice Working Group and the executive director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Inc. Godreau-Aubert is also an adjunct professor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, where she teaches courses on human rights, political theory and international relations. Her 2018 book, “Las propias: Apuntes para una pedagogía de las endeudadas,” offers a feminist approach to the Island’s debt crisis.
This op-ed was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published July 30, 2019 in The Hill.