Melissa Mark-Viverito on why Puerto Rico’s revolution isn’t over yet

Former New York City Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in 2014.
Former New York City Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in 2014.
William Alatriste for the New York City Council
Former New York City Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in 2014.

Melissa Mark-Viverito on why Puerto Rico’s revolution isn’t over yet

The former New York City Council speaker talks about the island’s recent uprising and why she’ll never be silenced.
July 26, 2019

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’re probably aware that this has been a pretty monumental week for Puerto Rico. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was ousted from office following almost two full weeks of non-stop protests. The island’s good-government activists are still butting heads with the government, as scandal-plagued Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez is preparing to take office on August 2.

Former New York City Council speaker, current interim president of the progressive political group Latino Victory and one of the people Rosselló targeted in his unearthed private chats, Melissa Mark-Viverito had a front row seat to Puerto Rico’s recent historic events. Born and bred on the island, the East Harlem resident returned to watch as the people of Puerto Rico took to the streets. City & State spoke to Mark-Viverito by phone about the territory’s monumental uprising, how she expects its government will transform in the future and those texts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your reaction when you saw that Ricardo Rosselló resigned as governor of Puerto Rico?

I was here in Puerto Rico and it was an incredible moment. This is literally a revolution. People are demanding that things cannot continue in the way that they have been. And in a short period of time – 12 days – people took to the streets and made this demand explicitly clear, regardless of party affiliation, regardless of other agendas. They were able to unite behind one demand, demonstrating the power of people coming together. As for me, it's incredible to witness this moment as a Puerto Rican born and raised here – to be here for this incredible part of us moving to the next phase of our history. It's definitely a revolution and an example for other social justice movements for what can be accomplished. And you know, (Rosselló) didn't resign – he was forced to resign. He was forced to leave that position. So, he was basically thrown out by the people that had elected him to office. 

Now that Rosselló has been ousted from office, Wanda Vázquez is expected to step into the governor's role, though there is speculation that a new Secretary of State may be appointed before August 2. Vázquez has had her own controversies, so I'm curious how you feel about her potentially becoming the next governor?

Again, when we talk about revolution, revolutions demand systemic change, right? People aren't just saying, “We're going to replace Rosselló with another person and then go about our day, politics as usual.” Absolutely not. There has been a very, very loud message that has been sent and the government can't just go about their day and think that they can make these backroom deals... So there is concern, since she is representative of what people rallied against. She has her own scandals, information is coming out about her today and it came out yesterday, regarding conversations she had engaged in, trying to do coverups of certain investigations because they were investigations into the governor or people affiliated with the governor, because she is a part of that party – very scandalous stuff. So the messaging of the people has quickly changed over to “Wanda Vazquez resign.” 

What do you think Puerto Ricans would like to see happen? Is there any person in particular that you think they would like to see in office?

My responsibility is just to listen and analyze what people are saying, what people are asking for, demanding and to be able to amplify that. I'm not a part of the diaspora. My mother lives here (in Puerto Rico) and I'm born and raised here but I can't dictate what is in the best interest of Puerto Rico, or what should be the next steps for the island. Clearly people are starting to articulate their discontent with Wanda Vazquez and what it looks like when the governing party wants to play this chess game, replacing one person with another and doing some backroom deals. 

What do you think is next in terms of Puerto Rico's debt crisis? How do you think things will proceed moving forward?

Well, the thing is that Congress imposed a fiscal control board through the legislation called "Promesa." That board has just implemented austerity measures and they seem to be prioritizing paying back the debt at the expense of basic social services and that's really problematic. People don't want a fiscal control board in existence anymore. And there is a conversation happening about having exhaustive, independent debt because there is an understanding that a large percentage of that debt has been incurred illegally. An audit needs to be done, the fiscal control board wants to say that it did do an audit, an exhaustive audit of all the debt, but that has not happened. So being able to do that to get a real accurate sense of what is Puerto Rico’s actual debt, is critically important for Puerto Rico to move forward. We want to see the debt audited, that has to be a priority for Puerto Rico to move forward.

I know Puerto Rico is split between two main political parties: the New Progressive Party – which is Rossello's party – and the Popular Democratic Party. How do you feel these parties could either lift up or hinder the voices of the Puerto Rican people right now? 

I think people just don't want the same politics as usual, which basically just falls into these two camps and I think the whole idea of a non-affiliated party will probably take hold: people that are considered more independent candidates, people that are not aligned with any of the typical political structures that have led us here. That hasn't worked. So people definitely want to see a dramatic shift in the way politics are done. And I'm wondering how debilitated these existing parties may become. I think it does allow for other movements and other parties that are forming. 

Where do you think the Puerto Rican government is headed within the next year or so? 

I don't know. It's fascinating, right? But I think what we've experienced is people seeing the power in themselves, and that they have the ability to take this island and the way that it's governed in a whole different direction. Basically what the chats exposed were that the people were not a priority, that (the government) was about special interests, it was about benefiting at the people's expense, about giving contracts to your friends, about amassing enough power and resources as you can to take care of your own and not the needs of the people. People are demanding that obviously be turned on its head and that (government) be an investment in the people and in the land. There's a whole new expectation of what is expected of elected leaders. The election is only about a year and a couple of months away, so it'll be interesting to see what kind of an impact this movement has had.

There were rumors about you potentially running for governor (of Puerto Rico) about a year or two ago–

No, no, no. There are residency requirements. There's a whole bunch of stuff you need to do just to be able to run. But I've always been someone who is deeply connected to my island and I've always used my platform to be very vocal. Unfortunately, in being vocal people always assume you're going to try to run for mayor or governor here on the island. I've always just been really, really connected. Issues here get overlooked all of the time. 

Being able to use my platforms on the stateside in order to really amplify the voice of Puerto Rico, I've always done that consistently. And obviously it's an important part of who I am, so I'm going to continue to always do that and that's what got me into the chats, right? I was expressing a point of view that the governor and his cronies didn't believe in and they did whatever they could to try to silence me. It will never work and it didn't work in this case, obviously.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is a staff reporter at City & State.