Anger grows in Puerto Rico over hidden emergency aid, government corruption
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — In a scene reminiscent of Puerto Rico’s turbulent summer of 2019, a few hundred protesters gathered on the streets of Old San Juan Monday, banging pots and pans, waving signs and demanding that Gov. Wanda Vázquez step down as anger grows over the botched delivery of emergency aid in the wake of this months’ earthquakes.
The frustration comes after a government warehouse full of supplies was found on Saturday near the southern town of Ponce, close to the epicenter of a series of earthquakes. Much of the aid, including bottled water and baby food, had been sitting around since the disastrous 2017 hurricane season and was expired. But there were also cots, generators, batteries and emergency radios.
Vázquez has called for an investigation and fired three of her staff members, including the head of the emergency management agency, Carlos Acevedo. But Vázquez — who became governor in August after her predecessor Ricardo Rosselló was ousted amid massive protests — said that she had been unaware of the storage facility’s existence until someone publicized it on social media.
Luis Francisco Ojeda, a prominent radio commentator, said that the warehouse, and others like it, was an open secret in government circles and that Vázquez, who had previously been the Secretary of Justice, likely knew about it.
“They’re all accomplices in this,” he said on his afternoon radio show Monday. “The government is nothing more than a gang of looters.”
Genesis Cumba, a 32-year-old translator, joined others in front of the governor’s palace Monday chanting slogans like: “Help the people, you indecent crooks” and “Wanda Resign.”
“I’m frustrated, disappointed and angry,” she said. “We need a clean government and we need a transparent government. They keep hiding things from us and stealing from us.”
While Monday’s crowds were small, she said that the protests that eventually led Rosselló to resign also started out small.
“All of the politicians need to go,” she said. “Ricardo Rosselló was just one piece on the chessboard.”
What remains unclear is why the aid was being hoarded at a time when it was so needed. A series of earthquakes and aftershocks that began Dec. 28 has destroyed or damaged more than 550 homes and left some 7,000 people living in municipal and improvised shelters in southern Puerto Rico.
Eduardo García, one of the co-founders of a political movement called Project Dignity, said the undistributed aid may come down to “crass negligence” but he also feared that unscrupulous officials were selling it or using it to justify warehouse rental contracts for the politically connected.
“This government is covered up in corruption,” he said, as he stood outside the Capitol building. “Corruption is what has made Puerto Rico economically and morally bankrupt.”
On Monday afternoon, Gov. Vázquez said the National Guard had finished taking inventory at the warehouse and were distributing the aid in the hard hit south.
The U.S. territory of 3.2 million has been stuck in a decadelong recession and is staggering under more than $72 billion in debt. It’s also been fighting for the release of federal aid it needs to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in 2017. Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development finally released $8.2 billion in recovery funds but with additional controls and safeguards in place.
On Sunday, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said the news of the warehouse discovery only underscored the need for those controls.
“The news out of Puerto Rico is disturbing to say the least,” he wrote on Twitter. “In order for the healing to begin, the corruption must end. This further underscores the importance of the reforms and financial controls we put in place to ensure these resources reach those who need them most.”
President Donald Trump — who has long been criticized for his lackluster reaction to Hurricane Maria — routinely questions the island’s leadership.
“Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt,” he wrote in October. On Sunday, his son, Donald Trump Jr., highlighted stories about finding the aid.
“So Trump was right after all!!!!” he tweeted. “As usual.”
García said that it always pains him when Trump insults the island, “but now we’re proving him right,” he lamented.
“Puerto Ricans themselves are not corrupt,” he said, “but we have thieves who have embedded themselves in politics.”
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