Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s decision to resign this week was hailed as a political victory by the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who called for him to step down. For women’s rights groups, who played a key if overlooked role in the protests in San Juan, Rosselló’s resignation was a watershed moment in their pursuit of a better quality of life for women on the island.
Yet many women’s rights advocates simply see it as the beginning of a longer fight, not the end.
Having Wanda Vázquez named as Rosselló’s successor appears to symbolize a step forward for women’s issues in Puerto Rico; Vázquez is the secretary of justice and the former director of the government’s Women’s Advocacy Office.
But her appointment also raises concerns among many women’s rights advocates on the island who see Vázquez’s ascension as a potential step back because of her record of not engaging in gender violence issues and ethics accusations she faced as secretary of justice.
Women’s rights groups began pushing for change long before scandals over corruption in Rosselló’s administration and leaked misogynistic comments by the governor and his inner circle threw the government into turmoil.
The recent protests that led Rosselló to step down were the “culmination of all the other fights,” said Ana Castillo Muñoz, a member of Mujeres en Resistencia, a women’s group that organized when the first misogynist chats surfaced earlier in July.
The battle intensified after Hurricane Maria struck the island in September 2017. After the storm, women’s advocates and shelters reported an increase in domestic abuse cases, and began pushing for the government to declare a state of emergency over gender violence on the island.
Despite the reports by shelters, official government statistics did not reflect the rise of such violence. A report from Puerto Rico’s Center of Investigative Journalism showed that, due to the collapse of infrastructure after Hurricane Maria, agencies were not able to gather solid statistics on the issue.
In 2018, 51 women were murdered in Puerto Rico. According to the government’s Office of the Women’s Procurator, 23 of the women killed were murdered by their partners. The number reveals a significant rise from 2017, when 33 women were murdered – 11 in domestic violence disputes. Roughly half of those murders have not been thoroughly investigated, according to police reports. In response to the inaction, Puerto Rican legislators issued a resolution in May calling on the government to investigate the murders of women and improve reporting of gender violence on the island.
“It’s a reality that in Puerto Rico the cases of violent deaths of women continue, and many of these, according to the police, are linked to drugs, domestic violence, revenge and discussions,” Itzamar Peña, a senator from the former governor’s party who presides the Women’s Committee, said in a government press release. “However, the Police of Puerto Rico has not been able to determine in some of the cases the motive for the crimes, which remain unclear. ”
In the early push for a state of emergency declaration over gender violence, feminist grassroots organization Colectiva Feminista en Construcción drafted a proposal to tackle gender violence and organized protestors who camped out for three days last November in front of the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan. Colectiva also started an online petition to urge Rosselló to sign an executive order for a national plan to end gender violence.
The group was granted a meeting months later, after Rosselló faced backlash for meeting with two famous rappers instead of women’s groups. This meeting, however, did not lead to a state of emergency declaration.
Public frustration with the governor boiled over into outrage when messages in a Telegram app chat group between Rosselló and his top advisers were leaked.
In one of the comments, Rosselló referred to former New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito as a “puta,” a derogatory Spanish word for prostitute. Another member of the group chat said he was “salivating to shoot” Carmen Yulín, the mayor of San Juan. The governor responded, “You would be doing me a great favor.”
The leaked chats also included comments by Christian Sobrino Vega, a chief fiscal officer, who made homophobic remarks while mocking feminism.
“Nothing says patriarchal oppression like Ricky Martin,” he wrote. “Ricky Martin is such a male chauvinist that he f—- men because women don’t measure up. Pure patriarchy.”
The chats shocked many Puerto Ricans, fueling greater opposition to a government already caught up in a widespread corruption scandal. Days before, the FBI indicted two of Puerto Rico’s top former officials for funneling $15.5 million to connected government contractors. Several others in connection to a sprawling government corruption scheme were arrested.
But for women’s rights advocates who had already been battling the government for months, the misogynistic banter added further proof that top officials didn’t care about gender violence or discrimination. Rosselló had also eliminated gender study curriculums in 2017 and has denied that the lack of gender studies in schools has contributed to a rise in crimes against women.
“Through the Telegram chat and the comments, you can see that not only the governor, but his entire team does not have awareness of what is gender violence, about what is violence in Puerto Rico, and about what women have to say about it,” said Zoán Dávila, a lawyer and spokesperson for the group Colectiva.
Sara Benítez, a retired sociology professor and spokesperson for the feminist group Movimiento Amplio de Mujeres de Puerto Rico, said the chats were a galvanizing moment.
“We’re always calling on women to speak out against violence. But when you read a chat like this, what message does that send to victims?” Benítez said.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the Puerto Rican government’s Women’s Advocate Office, denounced the misogynist comments.
“The events that have transpired reveal the urgency of working toward gender equity starting with the most basic education. The normalization of the objectification of women in all social spheres has been evidenced, not excluding people in the highest leadership positions in the country,” said Leticia Jover, a spokesperson for the office.
Rosselló’s decision to pick Vázquez — chief of the Women’s Advocacy Office for seven years — as his replacement appeared aimed at addressing his critics. But since he announced the pick Wednesday, the choice seems to have backfired.
During her tenure leading the advocacy office, Movimiento Amplio de Mujeres and other organizations called for Vázquez to step down, arguing that she failed to prioritize issues of equal pay, discrimination in the workforce, and sexual harrassment. The women’s groups also criticized Vázquez for distancing herself from prominent, local women’s organizations.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report that year concluding that the Puerto Rican police was not adequately investigating crime of domestic violence and responding to rape crimes.
“Wanda Vázquez is another instrument of the system. Just like Rosselló, we have to demand her resignation,” Castillo said. “I don’t believe that she will push the feminist narrative now, when she failed to do so as the director of the Woman’s Advocacy Office.”