Why was the former governor of Puerto Rico arrested?
(CNN Spanish) --
(CNN Spanish) --
A week before the FBI arrested former Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez on bribery charges, superstar Bad Bunny criticized the current governor and the island's private power company in front of a crowd of attendees during his concert in San Juan.
"We have a government over us that is ruining 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," an ode to the island's familiar power outages.
Her message sent the packed arena into a frenzy.
Wanda Vázquez, former governor of Puerto Rico, is accused of corruption charges during her campaign in 2020
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 resign, Puerto Rico teeters on the brink of another political crisis. .
"The government has turned its back on the people," said Francisco Amundaray Diaz, 33, a tour guide in San Juan, the capital of the US Commonwealth.
“Puerto Rico is a failed state.
Our leaders are totally oblivious to the real needs of the people.”
"We live in constant crisis"
A man stands on a balcony in San Juan after a major power outage on April 6, 2022.
FBI agents arrested Vázquez on Aug. 4 at his home in the latest in a series of unrelated state and federal corruption cases against government officials, mayors, contractors and businessmen 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 part in a bribery scheme that exchanged cash for municipal contracts, the Justice Department said.
"We live in a constant crisis — whether it's electricity or the economy — and people in our government continue to get rich off of us," said Wendelys Ruiz Torres, 33, a home care aide who lives with regular blackouts and power cuts. voltage at his home in the western rural town of Las Marias.
In Las Marías, nestled in the Cordillera Central, the slightest rain causes blackouts, some lasting weeks, according to Ruiz.
Other times, low voltage has ruined a television, a microwave and a laptop that his son had bought with his savings just six months ago.
Occasionally the house darkens when the dryer is turned on.
Your refrigerator makes strange sounds.
"Before the blackouts," Ruiz said, "light bulbs flicker like Christmas lights. They go on and off. And then darkness."
Feds: Bribery scheme raised to 'highest levels'
Former Governor of Puerto Rico Wanda Vázquez leaves court in San Juan after her arrest on bribery charges on August 4, 2022.
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 resigned following mass protests, represented a new low point for a US territory that has a long history of bribery and corruption.
The former attorney general and prosecutor whose job included fighting corruption, Vázquez became the first former governor to face federal charges.
“I am innocent and a great injustice has been done against me,” Vázquez told reporters after his release last week.
"I have not committed any crime, any irregularity."
From December 2019 to June 2020, the former governor allegedly conspired in a scheme to finance her campaign for governor, according to the Justice Department.
Vázquez allegedly received more than $300,000 from two businessmen to fund political consultants during his campaign, according to Stephen Muldrow, US Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico.
Vazquez and others are charged with conspiracy, bribery of federal programs and honest services wire fraud.
The former governor, who is listed on three of seven counts in an indictment, faces up to 20 years in prison if she is convicted.
"The alleged bribery scheme reached the highest levels of Puerto Rico's government, threatening public confidence in our electoral processes and government institutions," Deputy Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. said in a statement.
The bribes were allegedly paid in exchange for Vázquez making an appointment with the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions that benefited the businessmen involved in the scheme, Muldrow said.
The indictment alleged that the owner of an international bank and his consultant, a former FBI agent, agreed to provide funds for Vázquez's campaign.
In return, he would replace the island's top banking regulator with one of his choosing.
At the time, the bank was "subject to inspection" by the regulatory agency, federal prosecutors say.
A former political consultant to Vázquez and the president of an international bank have pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme, according to the Justice Department.
Electric company shares "frustration"
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi, who was elected in November 2020 after defeating Vázquez in the primary election, said his administration has "zero tolerance for corruption."
"No one is above the law in Puerto Rico," said Pierluisi, a member of the same statesman party as Vázquez, via Twitter.
Island politics is dominated by two political parties: one favors the current Commonwealth status and the other statehood.
When asked days after the concert about Bad Bunny's criticism of his government, Pierluisi praised what he said were his administration's successes during the pandemic, in fighting crime and improvements in education and infrastructure, according to local media reports.
He did not elaborate.
Bad Bunny performed "El Apagón" among other songs, at his concert on July 28 in San Juan.
Pierluisi also said his government will "continue to monitor" LUMA Energy, the Canadian-American private 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 that Maria's path of destruction is unprecedented and that hundreds of projects to rebuild roads, bridges, hospitals and parks have already been funded. , along with dozens of projects to replace power poles and street lighting, substations, and transmission facilities.
"I understand that frustration," he said Friday, referring to complaints about frequent blackouts.
"It's painful. It affects lives. It affects quality of life. It affects our ability to achieve economic growth and economic development... But we're making progress and we're going in the right direction."
For its part, LUMA Energy has argued that it inherited a troubled power system decimated by decades of mismanagement and corruption, bankruptcy and, more recently, the force of Hurricane Maria.
After Bad Bunny's concert rant, LUMA released a statement saying it shared the frustration "all of our customers have with the reliability of Puerto Rico's electrical system that has suffered from years, if not decades, of neglect and mismanagement.
"LUMA's 3,000 men and women are working hard every day to repair, rebuild and transform the power grid for our 1.5 million customers," the statement said.
"All Puerto Ricans, including Bad Bunny, deserve a world-class energy system and LUMA works every day to build a better future."
Mario Hurtado, LUMA's director of regulatory affairs, said Friday that power outages have fallen by 30%, according to data filed with regulators, since the company took over power system operations just over a year ago.
"We're just getting started," he said.
"We are aware that customers deserve better service... We have much more to do."
Puerto Rico's "Crisis Generation"
A couple walks down a dark street in San Juan after the April 6 blackout.
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 mounting debt crisis have resulted in school closures, cuts in government services, layoffs, and increases in college tuition.
In 2016, the US Congress created a board to oversee the island's finances.
Recent tax incentives aimed at bringing outside money to the cash-strapped island have sparked protests against an unwelcome rise in gentrification.
In July 2019, the embattled Rosselló, 40, resigned 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 triggered 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 aging power grid, leaving more than a million people without electricity or running water for what would be months.
Problems with the distribution of food, water and other vital supplies were widespread.
And it took the Rosselló government almost a year to admit that the storm killed thousands of people, not the dozens that had been officially reported.
Bad Bunny and other young Puerto Rican artists attended the July 2019 protests. He also helped write the song "Sharpening the Knives," which became an anthem for the movement.
The song gave voice to the historic moment, touching on issues such as homophobia, government mismanagement and neglect, and homes left roofless by hurricanes.
At the July 28 concert in San Juan, Bad Bunny told the audience that the island is "the only place" where he performs that he needs to "install like 15 industrial power generators because I can't trust the power grid." from Puerto Rico".
Mayra Vélez Serrano, a political science professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, said Bad Bunny's message resonates with "many young people, the crisis generation," who have only known despair and uncertainty.
"A generation that feels like they have no future on this island. They keep moving. They're highly educated. They can't find decent jobs. And what they see is that their politicians just don't do their job and steal money and engage in acts corrupt".
Now, amid new political turbulence, Puerto Rico's slow recovery and renewal continues, as the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria approaches.
"The economic and social circumstances on the island are so precarious that people who may feel the need to take to the streets won't, because they are overwhelmed with their responsibilities, working two or three jobs to pay rent while the cost of living it keeps going up," said Amundaray, the tour guide in San Juan.
"But people's energy is rising."
"The frustration is there"
We don't have a decent wage, say protesters in Puerto Rico 1:58
Many Puerto Ricans were not surprised by Vázquez's fall.
"Year after year, it's the same," Ruiz, the home care aide, said of government corruption and mismanagement.
“We thought there was going to be a change when they overthrew a governor and look what they accuse her of.
Wow,” she said, referring to Rosselló and Vázquez.
In 2018, Vázquez was criticized for allegedly intervening on her daughter's behalf in a case stemming from a home robbery.
She faced charges of violating government ethics laws.
But a judge later ruled there was not enough evidence to arrest her.
Vázquez's ties to Rosselló came under scrutiny during her brief tenure as governor under the pro-statehood New Progressive Party government.
Critics accused her of failing to open investigations against members of her own party, in particular for Rosselló's handling and her management of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
In January 2020, Puerto Ricans took to the streets of San Juan calling for his resignation after emergency supplies were found by Maria in a warehouse in the city of Ponce, more than two years after the hurricane.
Later that year, Puerto Rican officials confirmed that Vázquez was being investigated on suspicion of mishandling resources intended to mitigate earthquake damage on the island.
"The frustration is there," said Carlos Suarez, who teaches at the University of Florida's Center for Latin American Studies and was in Puerto Rico last weekend to attend his grandmother's funeral.
"The question is what will be the necessary spark to turn this moment into a political mobilization where people take to the streets."