In Puerto Rico, a Crisis of Confidence
Governor Ricardo Rosselló, suffering from three weeks of errors and scandalous revelations regarding the actions of several government agencies and perhaps his inner circle, was in Washington last week in an attempt to change the narrative surrounding his fledgling administration. He came to Washington to ask for an awe-inspiring $94 billion, and left leaving Congress and the Trump administration raising even more questions about his capacity to handle the recovery effort.
Over the past few weeks, the governor attempted to play to his populist base by condemning the colonial nature of the Oversight Board, established by last year’s PROMESA legislation, and demanding more equality from Washington. He was looking to frame himself as the hero of the distressed people of Puerto Rico. This has been done before by none other than the governor’s father during the famous “Don’t Push It” hearings on Vieques back in 1999.
On top of this, in an effort to distance himself preemptively from allegations of corruption, Governor Rosselló has requested a letter of preventive resignation from the members of his cabinet. This strategic reprimand of all heads of agencies is intended to get them to focus on the recovery work following Hurricane Maria.
The governor’s announcement is similar to one made in the summer of 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. Plagued by the energy crisis, the poor performance of his administration in foreign policy, and warned by pollsters of the administration’s disastrous public opinion figures, Carter decided to blame his cabinet. Following a televised message that became known as “The Crisis of Confidence,” in which he warned the American people of the danger ensuing from distrust in their political institutions, Carter decided to hit the reset button by purging his cabinet and requesting mass resignations. The move proved disastrous in the minds of the American people, marking the fatal moment when President Carter lost their support.
Similarly, the governor’s move was unwise. Using intimidation is a sign of deep weakness and disloyalty, and is therefore incredibly demoralizing to the governor’s team. The heads of agencies, knowing that they are all in the same boat regardless of the effectiveness of their leadership, are beginning to prepare exit plans, in case the governor decides to follow through on his threat. The effect is devastating for the leadership and management that Puerto Rico desperately needs as it faces a long road to recovery post-Hurricane Maria.
Taking a deeper look, the governor’s dissatisfaction is not really with his cabinet, but rather his inner circle of advisors, who are benefitting from contracts and side deals, and are ultimately responsible for putting the governor in this position. Unfortunately, as a result, the Trump administration, Congress and the people of Puerto Rico are turning to the Fiscal Oversight Board to stabilize the Commonwealth and help it recover from the Hurricanes. This is unsettling given the deep conflicts of interest within the Fiscal Oversight Board and their lack of expertise in recovery efforts.
Governor Rosselló could demonstrate some semblance of leadership amidst this crisis of confidence. But to do so, he must take a different tact. If Governor Rosselló wants to turn the tide of his administration and regain legitimacy, he should take meaningful steps to restore Puerto Rico’s fiscal and financial health as a requisite for recovery. For example, given the changing circumstances after Hurricane Maria, the opportunity may arise for a new understanding with Puerto Rico’s creditors.
Requesting letters of resignation from the cabinet will not change Washington’s perception of the Rosselló administration. Nor will it improve the performance of incompetent cabinet members, many of whom are very close to Governor Rosselló. A more likely scenario to unfold is for Washington to give more powers to the Fiscal Control Board or appoint a Czar to oversee the recovery. As a result, the governor must remember that once credibility is lost, only transparency can help restore it. The exercise of leadership through intimidation will only deepen the crisis of confidence already afflicting Governor Rosselló in Washington and on the island. If he’s not careful, this could be his Jimmy Carter moment.
Angel Rosa is former Puerto Rico State Senator and Professor of Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico.