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….

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“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.

 

 

 

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.

Why did Ricardo Rosselló Create Puerto Rico’s “Statehood Commission”?

Six months ago, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, signed a bill establishing the “Puerto Rico Equality Commission” – known today as the “Puerto Rico Statehood Commission”. The goal of the Commission is to help the Puerto Rican government lobby the U.S. Congress to admit the unincorporated U.S. territory as the nation’s 51st state. The bill stipulates that the Commission is part of ” the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA)” and as such PRFAA “shall request and justify before the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Legislative Assembly the allocation of funds for the operations of the Commission as part of the budget thereof.”

Inspired by the Tennessee Plan, the Commission’s seven members serve as “shadow lawmakers” asking Congress to recognize them as Puerto Rico’s representatives. Thus, two of these members serve as “shadow” senators and the rest are “shadow” congressmen. The strategy went into effect this week. On January 10, 2018, Jennifer González Colón, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, in a speech in the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives asked the U.S. Congress to recognize and seat the Commission’s members in their respective chambers.

After her “historic” speech, she joined the Commission’s member and Governor Rosselló for a press conference to explain their strategy’s rationale. In many ways, Rosselló and the Commission’s members noted that they wanted to end the island’s colonial history and its second-class status, while also fulfilling the will of the voters who favored statehood in the controversial plebiscite held on June 11, 2017.

Why has Rosselló and the leaders of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) pursued this strategy? After all, the island and its residents are still coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In addition, while the statehood option received 97% of the votes in the June plebiscite, only 23% of registered voters participated in the process – raising question about the validity of the vote. Both the White House and Congress have demonstrated little interest in Puerto Rico’s status question and statehood does not enjoy widespread support among Democratic or Republican lawmakers at this time.

Also, the strategy seems to be poorly executed. Here are at least two criticisms. First, the Commission’s website has not been updated recently. For instance, the site fails to mention that Alfonso Aguilar, who replaced Felix Santoni, is a member of the Commission. It also fails to explain who the “shadow senators” and “shadow congressmen” actually are. Plus the site fails to provide biographical notes for each of its members. Even worse, it is not clear how people can contact the Commission.

Second, the press conference was not even transmitted via C-SPAN. The best we have is a shaky Facebook Live video captured with a cell phone. If this was a serious effort, the Governor should have paid a videographer to tape the conference and share segments of the press conference with major news outlets and make a full copy available via YouTube.

If the goal of the conference was to raise awareness about Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations, it is not clear that this was achieved. Google Trends data for January 10, 2018 does show that interest in Puerto Rico among Google users in the United States increased. But interest was not driven by the announcement of the Statehood Commission, but by the tsunami alert issued for Puerto Rico following a 7.6 earthquake off Hondura’s coast.

A search in the TV News archive for January 10 and 11, 2017 also shows that the tsunami alert dominated the news coverage during the morning of the 10th, while the news coverage connected to Puerto Rico for the rest of the 10th and the 11th was connected to a national shortage of IV bags, many of which are produced in Puerto Rico. The single mention of the Statehood Commission is linked to a C-SPAN video of González Colón’s speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

An although some print and online media did cover the news conference and Rosselló’s plan, a MediaCloud search shows that coverage of the Statehood Commission was overshadowed by other issues connected with the island’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria.

In many ways, the goal of González Colón’s speech and the subsequent press conference was to try to unify the NPP and to try to remake Rosselló’s image as leader of the NPP and of Puerto Rico. Before Hurricane Maria, Rosselló was seen by many as a competent leader. Today, that is not the case. Some prominent lawmakers and Trump administration officials have questioned his decisions, many Puerto Ricans seem to be losing hope that he (and his administration, including the First Lady) can lead the Puerto Rican government forward, and many of the NPP’s leaders have either undermined his authority or are ready to do so in the near future. This last point especially applies to the Republican members of the Commission and the NPP who have raised questions of Rosselló’s criticisms of the Trump administration and the Republican Party following passage of the federal tax bill.

It is difficult to foresee what impact Puerto Rico’s slow recovery or the current state of US-Puerto Rican relations will have on the aspirations of the pro-statehood movement. But if Rosselló cannot find ways to secure the island’s streets, rebuild the electricity grid and get Congress to finance Puerto Rico’s recovery, many Puerto Ricans are not only going to question Rosselló’s governorship but his strategy of combining his fight for statehood with the island’s post-Maria recovery.  If this happens, the Commission’s credibility will weaken and pro-statehood Puerto Ricans’ dreams will also fade with time.

 

The Risk of Unrealistic Expectations: Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Electrical System and the Rosselló Administration’s Credibility Crisis

The Puerto Rican government currently faces two crises. One caused by Hurricanes Irma’s and Maria’s destruction of the island’s infrastructure. The other is a credibility crisis caused by  the government’s incapacity to address Puerto Rico’s post-Maria challenges and worsened by Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s unrealistic expectations about the recovery efforts.

The efforts to restore electricity to the island’s customers is a good example of these unrealistic expectations. On October 14, 2017, Rosselló promised that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) would reestablish electricity to 95% of customers before December 15.  During the news conference, he also ordered PREPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to meet a set of short-term goals, captured in the table below.

Date Electricity Generation Goal
Difference Between Actual Generation & Stated Goal 
October 31 30% +3%
November 15 50% -21%
December 1 80% -14%
December 15 95%   ?

The following graph help us see the pace of power restoration. The horizontal colored lines each represent one of the goals listed in the above table, while the blue trend line represents the percentage of electricity generated from September 21 to December 1, 2017.

chart (62)

The graph also illustrates some of the challenges the electrical system has faced in this time period. For example on November 15, PREPA met the goal of 50% electricity generation, but a problem with one of the high voltage transmission lines reduced the figure to 29%.

Why did Rosselló set in place these ambitious goals? After all, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), as I noted in a previous post, explained that these goals were unrealistic from the get go. One explanation is that Rosselló may have set these goals to encourage PREPA, private contractors and the USACE  to work harder and faster. Another more cynical explanation is that “groupthink” has affected the governor’s decision-making process,  forcing his advisors to conform with Rosselló’s understanding of the crisis and suppressing any form of dissension amongst his inner circle.

Regardless of the reasons, Rosselló’s decision to set these unrealistic expectations and PREPA’s and the USACE’s inability to meet these goals are starting to wear on Puerto Ricans’ patience. While we do not have any public opinion data, it seems that anger against Rosselló and his government is growing in the island. In Washington, D.C., more and more lawmakers are raising serious questions about the Puerto Rican government’s capacity to lead the island’s recovery efforts.