In Puerto Rico, People Say ‘Off With Their Heads’


Protestors, fed up with crisis after crisis in Puerto Rico, set up a guillotine near the governor’s mansion in San Juan. /David Begnaud, CBS News, on Twitter

Protestors in Puerto Rico recently set up a guillotine near the governor’s mansion, a potent symbol of a people fed up with the ineptitude of its political class, a group that appears incapable of ameliorating the mass suffering caused, first, by Hurricane María and now the thousands of quakes quivering through the island.

Many people are calling for the ouster of Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced, who came to power less than a year ago after former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, in office for two years, was deposed, and after former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi was governor for about a day after being sworn in unconstitutionally.

For Puerto Rico’s elected class, the guillotine ought to be a terrifying symbol, as indeed it was during the French Revolution. But I doubt it, for the political class is a self-serving, self-dealing “firm” that has become unmoored from the people on the ground and oblivious to its needs.

Would that the earthquakes rattling Puerto Rico would shake the island free of its politicos. But I doubt it. Puerto Rico’s bureaucracy is too big to unsettle. And its politicos never die, never fade away.

Puerto Rico’s bureaucracy is too big to unsettle. And its politicos never die, never fade away.

One of Every Five

One of every five workers in Puerto Rico is employed by the government, including the federal government and the municipalities, but mostly the central government based in San Juan. It’s an army of over 200,000 people, according to the Puerto Rico Planning Board, the keeper of statistics. (To be fair, the government workforce used to be about 11 percent bigger as recently as 2018.)

The 200,000 represents one bureaucrat for every 15 people in Puerto Rico, which has 78 municipalities, and therefore 78 mayors and 78 municipal councils. There are 30 senators and 51 representatives in the legislature. And no term limits. That’s on an island of 3 million people, and declining as the population heads for the exits, with about 40 percent landing in Florida. (Do not think that what happens in Puerto Rico does not affect Florida because we’ve already seen that it most certainly does.)

In a more perfect society, the elected officials would be voted out of office in November. But the island is likely to see más de lo mismo, or more of the same, this election season.

Deepening Crisis

On an island where pala or political patronage is the official religion and government is the employer of last resort, it’s fair to state the workers aren’t employed for their skills or expertise. They are hired because they helped get someone elected. And they will do so again this year. Civil service be damned.

That helps explain Puerto Rico’s deepening crisis in the face of natural disasters – disasters that are exacerbated by the man-made disasters of political incompetence. A decrepit electric grid that needs total replacement. Over 90 percent of public schools considered crumbling hazards. Thousands of people sleeping in tents and, before that, under open skies at the mercy of inclement weather and hoards of mosquitoes. Warehouses filled with undistributed emergency supplies. A federal government that shrugs its shoulders at its citizens to the south.

Hasta cuándo? When does it end?

Revolving Door

Former and current elected officials appear to fear nothing, least of all the wrath of voters. In the revolving door that is Puerto Rico politics, Pierluisi is running for governor this November on the pro-statehood ticket, despite having broken the law and, along with his wife, earning perhaps millions of dollars off Puerto Rico’s painful bankruptcy. And Vázquez Garced, who vowed not to run for governor, has changed her mind and likely will be his primary opponent.

Former governors have recycled themselves, becoming legislators and resident commissioners. The talentless children of elected officials have followed in their footsteps, or tried to. Rosselló, whose father Pedro Rosselló also was governor, being the biggest and most shameful example.

Puerto Rico is going to run out of people to chase from political office unless and until it swallows hard and deeply reforms its political structure. Does it need 200,000 government workers who are clueless in a crisis? Probably not. Does it need 78 municipalities, 78 mayors and 78 councils? Probably not.

A smaller government might mean a flatter bureaucracy. Elected officials may hold more concentrated power, but because there would be fewer of them they may be more accountable to the people they swore to serve.

Puerto Ricans need to rethink the government they have, a government that is not serving their needs, not representing their interests. Until then, the guillotine may as well have a rubber-edged blade.

˜˜María Padilla, Editor

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