Fact-Checking Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s Claims on Statehood for Puerto Rico

This post was published in Pasquines on October 4, 2018.

At the end of September, Newsweek’s Robert Valencia interviewed Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor, Ricardo Rosselló. They met a few days after President Donald Trump told Geraldo Rivera that he did not support Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations. The president also blamed the island’s recovery on Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, and other “incompetent” leaders. Rosselló used the interview to make a case for why Puerto Rico should be admitted as the nation’s 51st state.

In making his case for statehood,  Rosselló made two problematic statements that require further scrutiny….

To keep reading, please click here.

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U.S. Television News Networks’ Coverage of Puerto Rico of Harvard-Funded Study on Mortality Rates after Hurricane Maria

On May 29, 2018, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article that estimated that 4,645 Puerto Ricans died because of Hurricane Maria. Although the study’s authors do not claim that 4,645 died because of the hurricane, the media, by in large, reported it this way. As I noted in a previous post, because of their survey’s margin of error, the authors estimate that deaths connected to Hurricane Maria could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498. Thus, the 4,645 is the median between these two estimates.

The study, which was funded by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reopened a long-standing debate on the Government of Puerto Rico’s inability to account for all the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria. The fact that the study’s estimates were higher than the official death count or other estimates shocked many Puerto Ricans.

In social media, people have adopted different avatars that make reference to the 4,645 estimated deaths. Many Puerto Ricans have used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share their stories of loved ones who died as a consequence of Hurricane Maria. In what NPR’s Adrian Florido described as an “impromptu memorial” , thousands of pairs of shoes were placed in front of Puerto Rico’s capitol building, symbolizing the number of people who have not been accounted in the government’s official tally, which today stands at 64. During the weekend, many Puerto Ricans visited the building to honor those who lost their lives and to protest the Rosselló administration’s lack of transparency and its mishandling of this controversy.

Even though the Harvard-funded study’s effects on the island’s politics was covered by many U.S. news organizations, some critics find that the issue did not receive the coverage it deserved. For instance, James Downie writing in the Washington Post’s Post Partisan blog noted that the story was not discussed in the Sunday news shows. Similarly, Kate Sullivan and Lis Power of Media Matters showed that the Harvard-funded study received less airtime than Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet, which led ABC to cancel her show.

While the critics are correct, it is important to highlight that many news networks did mobilize their resources to cover the fallout of the Harvard-study in the island. For example, CBS News sent David Begnaud to Puerto Rico, while CNN sent John Sutter and Leyla Santiago and NBC deployed Gabe Gutierrez. These journalists have covered the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Maria, visiting the island several times in the last eight months.

So how much media coverage did Puerto Rico earn in the past two weeks? Which U.S. news network devoted the most airtime to any issue connected to Puerto Rico?

To answer these questions, I used the GDELT Project’s TV Explorer application (version 2.0) to measure how much airtime the major U.S. TV news networks devoted to issues connected to Puerto Rico. The application aggregates data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive. My analysis covers the period between May 21, 2018 and June 3, 2018. I decided to explore a period of two weeks to get a rough idea of how much coverage Puerto Rico issues earn in U.S. TV news networks.

The image included with this post is a wordcloud of the top words associated with this coverage. It clearly shows that these words are connected to the fallout of the Harvard-funded study.

The next bar graph compares the overall coverage of news connected to Puerto Rico across the main U.S. news networks.

chart (43)

On average, Univision devoted the most airtime to Puerto Rico in this time period, followed by CNN, MSNC and PBS. Not surprisingly, the story did not earn too much interest from FoxNews.

The next charts help us visualize each news network’s coverage of stories connected to Puerto Rico for the two weeks period. For ease of reading, I have divided these networks into three subgroups. The first subgroup includes CNN, MSNBC and FoxNews, which are the main U.S. cable news networks. The second one looks at the affiliated TV stations news networks that broadcast in English, which include: ABC News, CBS News and NBC News. I also added PBS to this subgroup. The final subgroup represent the country’s main Spanish news networks, Univision and Telemundo.

chart (45)

This line graph clearly shows the impact the Harvard-funded study had on the coverage of news stories connected to Puerto Rico. And while MSNBC devoted more airtime to the story early on, CNN’s coverage increased over time. This may be connected to Anderson Cooper’s interview of Governor Ricardo Rosselló regarding this controversy – an issue a I covered in my last post.

The next line graph shows that PBS devoted the most airtime to the Harvard-funded study among the non-cable news networks. However, its coverage, like MSNBC’s decreased quickly. CBS News, on the other hand, had the most consistent coverage in the days following the publication of the Harvard-funded study.

chart (46)

Surprisingly, ABC’s news coverage was pretty low. Could this be connected to the fallout of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet or is this part of a trend that could be observed over a longer period of time? This is an interesting question, but for now I will give ABC the benefit of the doubt. After all, Barr’s sitcom aired in ABC.

In terms of the Spanish news networks, it is not clear why Univision dedicated more airtime to the Harvard-funded study than Telemundo. But it is interesting to see that Telemundo’s coverage spiked during the weekend, as Univision’s coverage declined. Could it be that Telemundo was interested in the “impromptu memorial” created by Puerto Ricans in front of the island’s capitol building.

chart (47)In the next days, I will look at how the U.S. print and online media covered news connected to Puerto Rico during this time period. This will help us make sense how much coverage the Harvard-funded study received in the U.S. mainland. For now, it is interesting to see how U.S. TV news networks covered the fallout of the Harvard-funded study on Puerto Rico’s excess mortality following Hurricane Maria.

“Hell to Pay”: One of Governor Ricardo Rossello’s Favorite Phrases

On May 31, 2018, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced, with much fanfare, to his 500,000+ Facebook followers:

“In few minutes watch my interview with Anderson Cooper CNN talking about Puerto Rico recovery efforts.”

It is interesting that his post mentioned that he was invited to talk about “recovery efforts” rather than the Harvard University-funded study – “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria” – which was undoubtedly the main news story regarding Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts in both Puerto Rico and in the United States.

Cooper asked Rosselló about the Harvard-funded study and why his government failed to share its mortality data with the study’s authors. Although Rosselló said he welcomed the study and noted that he had commissioned George Washington University to study the matter, Rosselló said he was surprised to hear that officials in his government had refused to share its data with the researchers.

Unconvinced by Rosselló’s remarks, Cooper asked him again why his government fail to grant the authors’ request and the governor promised to further investigate the issue, noting that “there will be hell to pay” if he finds out that government officials decided not to cooperate with researchers.

An hour after the interview, CNN shared a video of the interview, using the following headline: “Rossello: Hell to Pay if Data Not Available”. In Twitter, the “Hell to Pay” phrase has been widely used to describe the governor’s interview with Cooper.

I have been researching Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts for a long time and I have listened to countless of hours of Governor Rosselló’s answers to questions from reporters, lawmakers in Capitol Hill or Trump administration officials. And this phrase – “hell to pay” – is one that Rosselló has used in the past, anytime journalists question his or his government’s credibility or ability to manage a crisis. Every time he has used the phrase, it has been followed by a promise to hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions.

The following table provides a short summary of Rosselló’s use of the phrase since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but representative of a pattern in Governor Rosselló’s behavior. Links to each story are provided too.

Date Source Headline Context
10/9/2017 Reuters Hell to pay’ over water, food deliveries, Puerto Rico governor warns Questions regarding the Puerto Rican government’s and federal authorities’ mishandling of the distribution of water and other supplies to hurricane victims.
10/12/2017 PBS News Hour White House is committed to long-term Puerto Rico recovery despite Trump tweets, says Gov. Rosselló Allegations that local Puerto Rican officials are not distributing supplies to hurricane victims.
10/19/2017 CSPAN President Trump Meeting with Governor of Puerto Rico In question and answer session with press, President Trump and Governor Rossello are asked about allegations that supplies have been hoarded by local Puerto Rican officials and not distributed to hurricane victims.
10/27/2018 ABC News PR Governor Threatens “Hell to Pay” As Probes of Whitefish Contract Begin A reaction to questions regarding PREPA’s award of the Whitefish Energy contract to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid after Hurricane Maria.

Why does this matter? Democracy works when the government and its leaders are transparent and accountable. Puerto Ricans know that their government and elected leaders are not perfect. What they want are responsive institutions and leaders, who are working on behalf of the public good and are willing to put society’s collective needs over their own wants.

To this day, it is not clear whether some local officials failed to distribute supplies to hurricane victims. Although Ricardo Ramos, resigned as the CEO of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority,  we are still waiting for the governor to commission an investigation into the Whitefish Energy contract. The pattern continues now with the government’s accounting (or lack thereof) of the increased mortality rate after Hurricane Maria.

As noted above, Rosselló told Cooper that he was “shocked” to learn that his government denied access to its mortality data to the Harvard-funded research team. And there are two problems with this statement. First, although he has publicly stated that he welcomes the Harvard-funded study, he has not read it. After all, the study notes:

Although the government of Puerto Rico stopped sharing mortality data with the public in December 2017 (our request for these data was also denied), in April 2018 the Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, an autonomous government entity, adopted a resolution to improve the counting of disaster-related deaths and publish all mortality data online without further delay.

This is troubling. If Rosselló did not take the time to read the study everybody has been talking about in Puerto Rico and in Washington, D.C. for the last days, how committed is he to making sure that this problem is not repeated in the future?

Second, and probably more worrying, Rosselló is either lying or lives in a bubble, where his advisors are trying to shield him from reality. As NPR’s Adrian Florido recently tweeted:

Gov. told CNN that “there will be hell to pay” if he finds that his govt. has refused to release mortality data.  [Centro de Periodismo Investigativo] sued them for the data. I was in a courtroom last week in which his govt’s lawyers were defending withholding it. How does he not know that?

This is not the first time that Governor Rosselló or his political allies have stretched the truth to protect their own interests.

Will things change thanks to the Harvard-funded report or Andersen Cooper’s tough questions? Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to this question.

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Harvard University-Funded Study: “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria”

How many Puerto Ricans died due to Hurricane Maria? This has been one of the most contested issues since the hurricane made landfall on September 20, 2017. In an earlier post, published in November 25, 2017, I explained the roots of this controversy. The post describes the work of Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo which’s investigative reports have demonstrated problems with the Rosselló administration’s accounting of hurricane-related deaths, President Donald Trump’s visit to the island, which sparked this controversy, and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto’s views on the matter, which have been widely covered by the media.

In this post, I want to share some thoughts on the Harvard University-funded study, “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria” which was conducted by Nishant Kishore, Domingo Marques, Ayesha Mahmud, Mathew Kiang, Imary Rodriguez, Arlan Fuller, Peggy Ebner, Cecilia Sorensen, Fabio Racy, Jay Lernery, Leslie Maas, Jennifer Leaning, Rafael Irizarry, Satchit Balsari and Caroline Buckee, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 29, 2018.

But before looking at the study, it is worth recapping some of the developments that have taken place since I published my last post on this issue.

More Twists and Turns

Since my last post on hurricane-related deaths, a few things have taken place that have further politicized this sensitive issue. For example, the New York Times published the findings of its study, which estimated that the death toll could be as high as 1,052 people. Latino USA and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo partnered to review the available demographic data, arguing that the number was closer to 985.

Intense public pressure forced the Rosselló administration to establish a commission to further study the controversy. But rather than appointing an independent panel, the governor asked Héctor Pesquera, the Secretary of Public Safety, to lead the commission. This was problematic in at least two ways. First, one of Pesequera’s responsibilities was to account for the number of hurricane-related deaths. Second, his repeated dismissal of journalists’ questions regarding the government’s figures created a public relations crisis, which tarnished the Rosselló administration’s credibility in both Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland.

For most of January, journalists working for the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo asked the Rosselló administration to share its data on hurricane-related deaths with the public. The New York Times, CNN, Buzzfeed and other news outlets asked for the same information. But Pesquera’s unwillingness to share these data forced the Centro de Periodismo Investigative and CNN to sue the Government of Puerto Rico in the local court system on February 7, 2017.

The next day Governor Rosselló admitted that there were flaws in his administration’s handling of the controversy. For that reason, the Government of Puerto Rico commissioned George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health to conduct a study that could “estimate the excess mortality tied to Hurricane Maria”. According to the Caribbean Business News, the Government of Puerto Rico agreed to pay $305,368 to finance the analysis. In exchange, the research team, led by Carlos Santos-Burgoa, agreed to share its preliminary findings by May 22, 2018 and a submit full report to the Rosselló administration  before July 23, 2018. Due to unforeseen circumstances Santos-Burgoa’s team failed to deliver its preliminary report. After asking the Puerto Rican government officials for an extension, George Washington University’s public relations office announced that its team hopes to submit its findings by the end of the summer.

As noted above, on May 29, 2018 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study estimating that Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of around 4,645 Puerto Ricans. The official government death toll stands at 64. How can we explain this discrepancy, especially given the fact that other studies’ estimates, including Alexis Santos and Jeffrey Howard’s analysis, are much lower?

From 64 to 4,645

The Harvard-funded study did not have access to the Government of Puerto Rico’s records. Indeed, the New York Times reported that the Rosselló administration “refused to provide data to them.”

To estimate the number of death associated with Hurricane Maria, the authors of the study surveyed “a representative stratified random sample 3,299 households, of an estimated 1,135,507 total households, across Puerto Rico.” The authors decided to stratify the population “according to remoteness, defined according to the travel time to nearest city with a population of at least 50,000 persons.” According to the study, 93% of respondents agreed to complete the survey.

The Harvard-funded study estimates that Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of 4,645 individuals. Although this figure is larger than the estimates of past studies cited above, it is important to remember that the analysis covers a longer time period (September 20 – December 31, 2017). And while the 4,645 number has garnered lots of attention it is also critical to keep in mind that the authors are not saying that the hurricane caused this amount of deaths. Because of the survey’s margin of error, the authors estimate that deaths connected to Hurricane Maria could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498. Thus, the 4,645 is the median between these two estimates.

One of the main benefits of this study is that it helps us understand the main causes of these deaths. For example, the survey asked respondents to estimate the days they lived without clean water, electricity or cell phone coverage. Thus, the authors can show how these variables may have affected mortality rates in the island after Hurricane Maria. Unsurprisingly, the respondents to the survey cite that “interruption of medical care was the primary case of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane.”  Only 10% of the reported deaths seemed to have been caused directly by Hurricane Maria. These findings corroborate other investigative reports’ conclusions.

While survey research has its weaknesses, my first reading of this study suggest that the authors’ did a good job. The methodology is sound and the fact that the authors’ have publicly shared their data demonstrates their willingness to engage critiques and to let other social scientists use their observations to explore the impact Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Ricans’ lives.

My biggest question is whether the Harvard-funded study took into consideration the spike in the numbers of suicides that have taken place in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. While the researchers’ survey does include suicide as a cause of death, their paper does not address this issue, which has received considerable attention in the last months.

The Study’s Fall Out

To figure out how many people died because of Hurricane Maria, it seems that we will have to wait for the findings of Santos-Burgoa’s team. Given that this group of researchers have complete access to the government’s data, they should be able produce a more precise accounting of the excess deaths following Hurricane Maria. But the fact that the Rosselló administration  has spent over $300,000 on this study and that this team is the only one that has access to the government’s data will raise questions regarding these researchers’ independence and the legitimacy of their findings.

And here lies the dilemma Puerto Rican society faces today. This controversy has further eroded Puerto Ricans’ trust on their government’s capacity to address natural disasters and their elected leaders’ willingness to do the right thing. And while the Harvard-funded program did not consider the Trump administration’s role in this controversy, it is safe to say that many Puerto Ricans’ faith in the federal government has waned as well.

While the Harvard-funded study could have prompted a much needed conversation of what future actions the Puerto Rican government can take to prevent future hurricane-related deaths, it has had the opposite effect. The study has mobilized the island’s political factions and reduced the possibility of a sensible discussion of both the merits and limitations of this study. For example, in Twitter, supporters of Governor Rosselló have dismissed the study’s conclusions. Some have even questioned the independence of the study, arguing that Domingo Marques, one of the authors who teaches in Puerto Rico’s Carlos Albizu University, is a “communist” and an ally of Mayor Cruz.  For her part, Cruz, who has challenged the Rosselló administration’s figures since early October 2017 and is thinking of mounting a run for governor in 2020, has been photographed wearing a baseball cap that reads 4,645. In different interviews, she has  promised to honor the memories of those that died because of the government’s negligence. And while Governor Rosselló has refused to meet with journalists, including CBS News’ David Begnaud, Pesquera has questioned the findings of the Harvard-funded study, claiming that its methodology is unscientific.

What seems lost in this controversy is the experiences of those Puerto Ricans who lost a friend or a family member due to Hurricane Maria. It must be difficult to find closure in this political environment.

And what is even sadder is that this political controversy is overshadowing the fact that many of these deaths could have been prevented. It is important that the Government of Puerto Rico and the U.S. federal government can learn from their mistakes and also hold accountable those officials or healthcare professionals who were negligent and may have not done enough to save these people. This is not only necessary from a policy standpoint. It is a moral imperative.

 

 

 

 

 

Consequences of an Unrealistic Timeline: The Politics of Restoring Electricity to Puerto Rico’s Customers

BACKGROUND NOTE: In a previous post, titled “The Risk of Unrealistic Expectations”, I examine why restoring electricity to the island has been so slow. Since then, I have been researching this issue and it is now part of a wider academic project examining U.S.-Puerto Rico relations after Hurricane Maria. In this post, I focus on Governor Rosselló’s criticisms of the U.S. Army Corps Engineers’ (USACE) strategy and efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers following Hurricane Maria. The next posts look at the USACE’s strategy and examines the data connected to these efforts.

On 27 September 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ordered the U.S. Army Corps of the Engineers (USACE) to work with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to restore the island’s electric system, which was devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

From all the issues Puerto Rico has faced since Hurricane Maria, restoring electricity to the island’s customers has probably received the most media attention. It probably ranks as the most controversial topic of discussion among Puerto Ricans. The USACE’s efforts have not been  free from controversy. The main sticking point has been the timeline to restore electric service.

On 14 October 2017, writing in FEMA’s Blog, Brigadier General Diana Holland, the USACE’s Commander for the South Atlantic division, noted:

We believe that 80% of the system is affected, but that is only an estimate. We know that it took five months to restore the majority of power following Hurricane Georges… and I have been told that the damage this time is more extensive.

On that same day, Ricardo Rosselló, the island’s governor, announced PREPA’s timeline to restore electric service, promising that his administration would reestablish power to 95% of customers by 15 December 2017. Table 1 captures the governor’s timeline.

Table 1. Rosselló’s Timeline for Restoring the Electric System 

Date

Generation Goal

Actual Generation

Difference

31 October 2017

30%

33%

+3

15 November 2017

50%

29%

-21

1 December 2017

80%

66%

-14

15 December 2017

95%

65%

-30

A week later Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the Commanding General of the USACE, said that most Puerto Ricans should have power by the end of May 2018. The USACE’s timeline has not really changed since mid-October 2017. USACE officials believe that most customers will have power restored by the end of February 2018 and they hope to complete the entire project by May 2018.

Given the USACE’s views, why did Governor Rosselló announce such an unrealistic timeline? In an interview on 27 December 2017 with Agencia EFE, Rosselló insisted that USACE officials had personally assured him that they could meet his timeline. Of course, it is plausible that the governor was under this impression. But, it is unlikely that USACE agreed to this plan as PREPA’s executive director, Ricardo Ramos, told the press on 27 September 2017 that it would take six months to reestablish power to Puerto Rico’s customers. Moreover, repeated statements from the USACE personnel contradict Rosselló’s opinions on the matter.

In one of her recent columns, Sandra Rodriguez de Cotto argues that Ramos’s remarks did not sit well with the governor’s closest advisors. She also writes that the experience may have affected his connections to Rosselló’s inner circle and that his demeanor and body language had changed after the incident. Was Ramos pressured to conform with the governor’s timeline, even though he believed that it would take longer to reestablish power?

Two days before Rosselló’s announced his timeline, Ramos was asked by a reporter to explain when he thought power would be restore to the island’s customers, he said:

In terms of the power system restoration, for cultural reasons, we’re not saying exactly what the date is, because we will get expectations that will put pressure on the utility and its employees.

David Ferris of E&E News seems to have been surprised by Ramos’s remarks. He noted:

That statement would make the typical utility executive raise his or her eyebrows in disbelief. Confronted with angry customers, the CEOs of mainland U.S. power companies might prefer not to raise expectations about when a blackout will end. Yet they usually give their best guess, knowing that shrugging would only incur the wrath of customers and after them regulators and politicians.

Citing Puerto Rican lawmakers, Ferris concludes that Ramos’s statement is an outgrowth of PREPA’s corporate culture which places little value on transparency or public accountability. While his assessment is correct, his analysis fails to understand that Ramos’s statement was more calculated. Under pressure to conform with Rosselló’s more aggressive timeline, he decided to punt and let others answer the question.

It is this background that may explain why Ramos approved two controversial contracts with Whitefish Energy for $300 million and Cobra Energy for another $200 million. It could also explain why PREPA and the Rosselló administration did not sign mutual assistance agreements with the American Public Power Association (APPA) or other U.S. utilities in the mainland. Once these contracts were signed, PREPA officials believed these companies would help its crews meet the governor’s timeline.

But these decisions proved to be disastrous for the recovery efforts. FEMA and the USACE had not been informed of these two contracts and they did not approve them. Given Whitefish’s lack of experience, exorbitant charges and problems connected to the bidding process, the Rosselló administration was pressured by the U.S. Congress and FEMA to cancel the contract. While Rosselló distanced himself from the Whitefish scandal, emphasizing that he had little say in PREPA’s decisions, this strategy undermined Rosselló’s timeline and tainted his credibility with Puerto Ricans, lawmakers in Washington, and Trump administration officials.

After the cancellation of the Whitefish contract and frustrated by all the criticisms, Rosselló met with Nick Brown and Jessica Resnick-Ault of Reuters and during the interview he lashed out at the USACE blaming the slow progress to a “lack of urgency” among USACE officials. He noted that: “Everything that has been done right now has been done by PREPA or the subcontractors PREPA has had.” In addition, Rosselló told Brown and Resnick-Ault that because of the USACE’s slow efforts, his administration was pushed to sign mutual assistance agreements with utilities in New York and Florida to speed-up the recovery process.

Rosselló’s current views of the USACE’s efforts are still the same, but he has recently argued that the slow pace of the recovery efforts is tied to the island’s territorial status, suggesting the federal government has treated Puerto Rico’s disaster differently than other states’ natural disasters. Are Rosselló’s opinions correct? Has the USACE, when it comes to the the restoration of electric services, dropped the ball or treated Puerto Rico differently from other missions in the U.S. mainland?

I will explore in future posts. But for now, it seems clear that one reason why the restoration of electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers has been so slow can be linked to Rosselló’s decision to unveil an unrealistic timeline that pressured Ramos and his colleagues at PREPA to device an equally unrealistic strategy.