A week before former governor of Puerto Rico Wanda Vázquez was arrested by the FBI on bribery charges, pop superstar Bad Bunny riled up a throng of concertgoers in San Juan, calling out the current governor and the island’s private electric company in an expletive-filled rant.
“We have a government over us that messes up our lives,” the 28-year-old artist told the crowd, echoing the frustrations of many Puerto Ricans.
“The country belongs to us and we are the ones in control,” he said at the sold-out July 28 concert, where he performed “El Apagón,” or “The Blackout” – an ode to the US territory’s familiar power outages. His message sent the packed arena into a frenzy.
Nearly five years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island and three years after massive anti-government protests – supported by Bad Bunny and other artists – forced another former governor to step down, Puerto Rico teeters on the brink of yet another political crisis.
“The government has turned its back on the people,” said Francisco Amundaray Diaz, 33, a tourist guide in San Juan, the capital of the US commonwealth. “Puerto Rico is a failed state. Our leaders are totally alienated from the real needs of the people.”
‘We live in constant crisis’
FBI agents arrested Vázquez August 4 at her home in the latest in a string of unrelated state and federal corruption cases against government officials, mayors, contractors and businesspeople across the island.
In May, the mayors of two Puerto Rican towns were arrested on federal conspiracy charges for allegedly soliciting bribes and extortion, according to the US Justice Department.
Two months later, in July, the former mayor of another town was sentenced to 30 months in prison for his involvement in a bribery scheme in which cash was exchanged for municipal contracts, the DOJ said.
“We live in constant crisis – whether it’s the electricity or the economy – and the people in our government continue to enrich themselves at our expense,” said Wendelys Ruiz Torres, 33, a home care attendant who lives with regular power outages and voltage reductions at home in the rural western town of Las Marías.
In Las Marías, nestled on the Cordillera Central mountain range, the slightest rainfall leads to blackouts, some lasting weeks, according to Ruiz. Other times the low voltage has ruined a TV, a microwave and a six-month-old laptop her son had bought with his savings. Occasionally, the house goes dark when the dryer starts. Her refrigerator makes strange sounds.
“Before outages,” Ruiz said, “the bulbs flicker like Christmas lights. On and off. And then, blackness.”
Feds: Bribery scheme rose to ‘highest levels’
The arrest of Vázquez, 62, who was sworn in as the island’s top elected official in August 2019 after disgraced former governor Ricardo Rosselló stepped down following massive protests, represented a new low for a US territory with a long history of graft and corruption.
A onetime justice secretary and prosecutor whose job included combating corruption, Vázquez is the first former governor to face federal charges.
“I am innocent and a great injustice has been committed against me, ” Vázquez told reporters after her release last week. “I have committed no crime, no irregularity.”
From December 2019 through June 2020, the former governor allegedly conspired in a scheme to finance her gubernatorial campaign, according to the DOJ.
Vázquez allegedly received more than $300,000 from two businessmen to finance political consultants during her campaign, according to Stephen Muldrow, US Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico.
Vázquez and others are charged with conspiracy, federal programs bribery and honest services wire fraud. The ex-governor, who is named in three of seven counts in an indictment, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
“The alleged bribery scheme rose to the highest levels of the Puerto Rican government, threatening public trust in our electoral processes and institutions of governance,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. said in a statement.
The bribes were allegedly paid in exchange for Vázquez making an appointment to the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions that benefited businessmen involved in the scheme, Muldrow said.
The indictment alleged the owner of an international bank and his consultant – a former FBI agent – agreed to provide funding for Vázquez’s campaign. In exchange, she would replace the island’s top bank regulator with one of their choosing. At the time, the bank was the “subject of an examination” by the regulatory agency, federal prosecutors say.
A onetime political consultant for Vázquez and the president of an international bank have pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme, according to the DOJ.
Electric company shares ‘frustration’
Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who was elected in November 2020 after defeating Vázquez in a primary election, said his administration has “zero tolerance for corruption.”
“No one is above the law in Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi, a member of the same pro-statehood party as Vázquez, said in Spanish via Twitter. Island politics are dominated by two political parties – one favors the current commonwealth status, the other statehood.
When asked days after the concert about Bad Bunny’s criticism of his government, Pierluisi lauded what he said were his administration’s successes during the pandemic, in fighting crime and improvements to education and infrastructure, according to local media reports. He did not elaborate.
Pierluisi also said his government “will continue to monitor” LUMA Energy, the private Canadian-American consortium that began operating the island’s power transmission and distribution system in June 2021.
Manuel Laboy, executive director of the island’s Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience, said Maria’s path of destruction was unprecedented and that hundreds of reconstruction projects have already been funded for roads, bridges, hospitals and parks – along with dozens since April to replace electrical poles and street lights, substations and transmission facilities.
“I understand that frustration,” he said Friday, referring to complaints about frequent blackouts. “It’s painful. It does affect lives. It does affect the quality of life. It does affect our capability to achieve economic growth and economic development… But we’re making progress and headed in the right direction.”
For its part, LUMA Energy has maintained that it inherited a troubled electrical system decimated by decades of mismanagement and corruption, bankruptcy and, most recently, the force of Hurricane Maria.
After Bad Bunny’s concert rant, LUMA issued a statement saying it shared the frustration “all our customers have with the reliability of Puerto Rico’s electric system which has suffered from years - if not decades - of neglect and mismanagement.
“The 3,000 men and women of LUMA are working hard every single day to repair, rebuild and transform the electric grid for our 1.5 million customers,” the statement said.
“All Puerto Ricans, including Bad Bunny, deserve a world-class energy system and LUMA is working every day to build a brighter future.”
Mario Hurtado, LUMA’s chief regulatory affairs officer, said Friday that power outages are down 30% – according to data presented to regulators – since the company took over operations of the electrical system a little over a year ago.
“We’re just getting going,” he said. “We’re aware that customers deserve better service… We have a lot more to do.”
Puerto Rico’s ‘crisis generation’
The latest political scandal comes at a time when many younger Puerto Ricans have only known a life of hardship. Years of economic recession and a ballooning debt crisis have resulted in shuttered schools, cuts in government services, layoffs and university tuition hikes.
In 2016, the US Congress created a board to oversee the island’s finances. Recent tax incentives meant to bring outside money to the cash-strapped island have led to protests against an unwelcomed surge in gentrification.
In July 2019, the embattled Rosselló, 40, stepped down after weeks of protests over a series of scandals that included the disclosure of crude, sexist and homophobic chat messages between the governor and members of his inner circle.
But the eventual downfall of his administration may have been set in motion by Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on the island on September 20, 2017, less than nine months after Rosselló took office. The Category 4 storm decimated the antiquated power grid, leaving more than a million people without electricity or running water for what would become months.
Problems with the distribution of food, water and other vital supplies were widespread. And it took the Rosselló administration nearly a year to admit the storm killed several thousand people – not the dozens that had been the official line.
Bad Bunny and other young Puerto Rican artists attended the July 2019 protests. He also helped write the song “Afilando los Cuchillos,” or “Sharpening the Knives,” which became an anthem for the movement. The song gave voice to the historic moment, touching on homophobia, government mismanagement and neglect, and homes left roofless by hurricanes.
At the July 28 concert in San Juan, Bad Bunny told the audience the island is “the only place” he performs where he needs to “install like 15 industrial electrical generators because I can’t trust Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.”
Mayra Velez Serrano, a professor of political science at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, said Bad Bunny’s message resonates with “a lot of young people, the crisis generation” – which has only known despair and uncertainty.
“A generation that feels they don’t have a future on this island. They keep moving away. They’re highly educated. They can’t find decent jobs. And what they see is their politicians just not doing their job and stealing money and engaging in corrupt acts.”
Now, in the midst of new political turbulence, Puerto Rico’s slow recovery and renewal continues, as Hurricane Maria’s fifth anniversary gets closer.
“The economic and social circumstances on the island are so precarious that people who may feel the need to take to the streets will not, because they’re overwhelmed with their responsibilities, working two or three jobs to pay rent as the cost of living keeps rising,” said Amundaray, the tour guide in San Juan.
“But the energy of the people is increasing.”
‘The frustration is there’
Many Puerto Ricans were not surprised by Vázquez’s downfall.
“Year after year, it is the same thing,” Ruiz, the home care attendant, said of government corruption and mismanagement.
“We believed there would be change when they brought down a governor and look at what she’s accused of doing. Wow,” she said, referring to Rosselló and Vázquez.
In 2018, Vázquez came under fire for allegedly intervening on behalf of her daughter in a case stemming from a home theft. She faced charges of violating government ethics laws. But a judge later ruled there was insufficient evidence to arrest her.
Vázquez’s ties to Rosselló brought scrutiny during her brief tenure as governor under the ruling pro-statehood New Progressive Party. Critics accused her of failing to open investigations against members of her own party, particularly Rosselló and his administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
In January 2020, Puerto Ricans poured onto the streets of San Juan calling for her resignation after Maria relief supplies were found in a warehouse in the city of Ponce, more than two years after the storm.
Later that year, Puerto Rican officials confirmed Vázquez was being investigated for suspicion of mishandling resources meant to mitigate earthquake damage on the island.
“The frustration is there,” said Carlos Suárez, who teaches at the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies and was in Puerto Rico last weekend for the funeral of his grandmother. “The question is what will be the spark needed to turn this moment to political mobilization where people take to the streets.”