Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than any place else have ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!... (Donald Trump Tweet, August 28, 2019, 9:45am)

Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation as governor of Puerto Rico (PR) on the evening of July 24, 2019 came after more than two consecutive weeks of popular uprising, in which hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans protested, marched and rallied demanding the end of his corrupt administration, and a different kind of politics. This uprising was catalyzed by the leak of a now infamous chat; multiple corruption scandals; the negligent and criminogenic (mis)management of the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria; and the violent austerity measures imposed by the PR government and the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (henceforth FOMB). The Puerto Rican Summer of 2019, as I will be referring to the popular uprising that ousted Ricardo Rosselló, is unique in its sociopolitical configuration, demands, and mobilization strategies. During these two weeks, PR experimented with a new set of political practices, in which the law and legal discourses, hierarchical and traditional forms of organizing, and political parties were no longer at the center of the mobilizations. The Puerto Rican Summer of 2019 embodied, as I will show in this paper, a form of decolonial justice.

Corruption and anticorruption discourses were central to the Puerto Rican Summer. Ricardo Rosselló was not only an incompetent and corrupt politician, but, for protesters, his administration came to symbolize a larger context of systemic social harm produced by years of colonial neoliberalism, economic and financial crisis and the violence of austerity. Therefore, the claims for Rosselló’s resignation consolidate multiple and diverse aspirations for another way of doing politics.

My contention is that there are three identifiable understandings of corruption and anticorruption in the case of the Puerto Rican Summer: 1) colonial corruption and anticorruption policies implemented by the US government in PR; 2) corruption as a form of governmentality, and the Puerto Rican government’s anticorruption policies that focus on petty corruption, while ignoring the corruption of the powerful; 3) and decolonial approaches to corruption and/or the Puerto Rican Summer of 2019 as forms of decolonial justice.

These three understandings are examples of the strong relationship between corruption, law and colonialism in PR. Therefore, by studying these three understandings of corruption and the implementation of specific anticorruption policies, this intervention shows that while the corruption of the powerful has become normalized under the guise of the economic state of emergency, the Puerto Rican Summer provided us with a new way of understanding corruption.

Colonial (Anti)Corruption: exceptionality and the production of corrupt subjects 

Colonial discourses of (anti)corruption fall within the first understanding or definition arising from the Puerto Rican Summer. This understanding - conveyed by Donald Trump’s tweets against Puerto Rican politicians, and by official declarations and restrictions on federal funds for disaster recovery-- is historically and sociopolitically embedded in US colonialism. That is, corruption discourses, and descriptions of colonial territories and subjects as corrupt, are a constitutive part of Western colonialism (Miller, 2008). Ideas of corruption and economic backwardness (as opposed to civilized enlightened values of fairness, openness and transparency) have consistently featured in imperialist historical narratives that invoke the primitiveness of less-developed states in order to justify colonial interventions.

Colonial discourses of (anti)corruption continue to play a central role in neoliberalism. International Financial Institutions (IFIs) currently invest significant amounts of time and effort on initiatives that are not fundamentally different from colonial anticorruption narratives. Anticorruption measures are used prescriptively as a precondition to grant aid, debt relief or membership to international bodies (Whyte, 2015). Furthermore, anticorruption policy in this form is often imposed by the same international institutions as structural adjustment policies that demand the removal of protective economic policies and encourage privatization and market reform. This perspective explains corruption as a problem that is created by poor governance in weak developing states (and undoubtedly, this is part of the story, but it is certainly not the full story), and it obscures any possibility that US and IFIs’ policies themselves influence the conditions in which corruption exists. In short, for many global north countries and IFIs, standing against corruption allows state officials to construct a moral narrative that legitimizes all manner of political interventions at local and national levels, as well as globally. This is a contradiction this paper will unravel further in the context of US colonialism in PR, and the exceptional conditions in PR under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), post-hurricane Maria recovery efforts, and Rosselló’s administration. The contradictions stemming from colonial-neoliberal discourses of corruption in PR and the imposition of anticorruption policies can be better described as anticorruption corruption.

As Villanueva (2019:190) has pointed out: “Corruption discourses served to justify the U.S. government’s denial of Puerto Ricans’ right to self-rule. As a result, the ‘corrupted’ colonial subjects were forced to endure an intense policing regime to correct their behavior.” Furthermore, when we look at the legal and political development of US colonialism in PR, we can identify that corruption has played a double function: 1) corruption has been the discourse that legitimized US colonialism in PR and the imposition of a colonial state of exception; 2) and US capitalism has routinely pushed for anticorruption measures and exceptional practices to ensure wealth extraction and profit-making. By looking at the development of tax-incentives and economic development policies implemented by the US in PR, Villanueva (2019) has exceptionally sketched this process, and further explains the dynamic of anticorruption technologies and narratives taking place in PR. Likewise, I have defined the imposition of exceptional-economic policies in PR as the colonial economic state of exception (Atiles, 2018). In short, colonial law and the economic state of exception serve to legitimize political-economic exploitation and corruption.

It is important to reflect on how PROMESA and the FOMB allow for the uncovering of the corruption of the powerful and the imposition of anticorruption corruption. PROMESA was imposed under the guise that PR needed technical and non-partisan solutions to address the decade-long economic and fiscal crisis. The main rationale behind this colonial move was that the Puerto Rican government and its politicians have been historically engaged in unscrupulous spending, debt issuance, and overall practices of corruption. Therefore, an external, apolitical, expert led FOMB must be imposed to deal with the crisis and the systemic corruption that precipitated PR into the current economic and financial crisis. However, the nomination of the members of the FOMB show to be quite problematic. Three of the appointees, out of the seven members, are particularly problematic, given their involvement in Puerto Rican public finances: Carlos M. García and José Ramon González are both bankers that spent the last two decades revolving between Santander Securities and the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank, and who played a key role in the configuration of PR’s $72 billion public debt. José Carrión III is a republican insurer turned chairman of the FOMB, with family ties to Banco Popular of PR and former Resident Commissioner of PR in the US Congress--Pedro Pierluisi. These appointments are an excellent example of the misleading definition of corruption, US-PR’s history of state-corporate crimes, revolving doors and economic power.

Thus, colonial discourses of corruption and anticorruption practices in PR are exemplified by: 1) the colonial history of PR, and the political constitution of Puerto Ricans as corrupt-colonial subjects. This processes of ontological definitions as corrupt subjects also take place at the local level, when the ruling classes or local politicians defined dispossessed  Puerto Rican as corrupt; 2) the economic development of PR through the imposition of a colonial state of exception, tax-incentive policies, and the development of a tax-haven on the archipelago; 3) and anticorruption corruption, epitomized by the imposition of PROMESA and the FOMB to “tackle” the economic crisis, and the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The latter was marked by numerous scandals of corruption involving FEMA, the US government and the local government (e.g. millions of dollars in contracts to Whitefish and Cobra).

Furthermore, when Donald Trump lashed out at Puerto Rican politicians while PR was preparing for the possible impact of hurricane Dorian, calling them corrupt and incompetent on Twitter on August 28, 2019, many US politicians and public figures reacted indignantly and called out the President (especially because the President falsely claimed that PR had received $91 million in recovery funds). In fact, rather than focus on individual cases of corruption, Trump’s tweets directed our attention to the colonial discourses of corruption and the anticorruption policies implemented by his administration in PR. That is anticorruption corruption. 

Rosselló’s Administration and Corruption as Governmentality

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and in the months leading up to the Puerto Rican Summer, PR saw the development of the second discourse of corruption. That is, corruption as a form of governmentality and/or the Puerto Rican government’s anticorruption policies that focus on petty corruption, while ignoring the corruption of the powerful. To illustrate this process, I will describe two anticorruption policies orchestrated by Rosselló’s administration: The Anticorruption Code for the New Puerto Rico (Law 2 of January 4, 2018) and the Executive Order OE-2019-31 of July 2, 2019 that created a Lobbyist Register under the argument that this would limit corruption.

In 2017, the Rosselló administration initiated a “transparency and anticorruption” campaign that focused on petty corruption. It is precisely under this rationale that the Anticorruption Code for the New Puerto Rico (Law 2 of 2018) was established. The Law [BJ1] [AOJ2] aimed to unify the different existing anticorruption laws and codes in PR, therefore, “strengthening the tools to fight corruption and broaden the protections available to individuals who report acts of corruption” (Statement of Motives).

Nevertheless, the Law oversees the systemic and structural nature of the corruption of the powerful in the colonial neoliberal Puerto Rican polity. That is, the Law does not address issues such as: the obscene salaries granted to public officials; revolving doors between the government and private sector (especially Banks and Law firms) (e.g. Members of the FOMB and members of the PR Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority FAFAA); the fraudulent and predatory debt deals with Wall Street; the fact that the Debt has not been audited; the development and promotion of a tax-haven economy; the normalization and naturalization of Corporate Welfare, and the systemic elimination of social-welfare; and the lack of governmental accountability. Thus, the Law does not look at the causes of economic, racial and social inequality and the systemic social harm produced by anticorruption policies.

An example of the normalization of the corruption of the powerful is that the Law defined corruption in its Statement of Motives as the “abuse of a public authority to obtain undue advantage, generally secretly and privately”. It goes on and argues that other forms of corruption in PR are the “improper use of privileged information, patronage, bribery, influence peddling, extortion, fraud, embezzlement, malfeasance in office, quid pro quo, cronyism, co-optation, nepotism, impunity, and despotism” (Statement of Motives).

That is, the Law follows the narrow and restrictive neoliberal-colonial definition of corruption provided by major international organizations, such as Transparency International. These are definitions that often see corruption as a problem of the public sector, bureaucracy, and as a result of the unnecessary concentration of economic decision-making in the hands of governments. Even when the Law acknowledges that the most common manifestation of corruption in PR is due precisely to the strong ties between public officials and the private sector, and to the problem of the normalization of bribery in the processes of contract granting, the anticorruption measures developed by the Law are one-sided and merely targeting the public sector. That is, the Law only emphasizes penalizing members of the public sector without discussing or even acknowledging corruption in the private sector.

Therefore, the Law is not tackling the key issues surrounding the major cases of corruption in PR, such as: colonial exploitation, financial and economic power, and the neoliberal understanding of the government as an instrument to guarantee corporate interests. In short, what defines this Law is its misleading emphasis on zero-tolerance for petty corruption, and its adherence to the neoliberal trend of anticorruption measures promoted by IFIs--institutions that, as demonstrated earlier, in their very own definitions and measures reproduce colonial-neoliberal understandings of the state, the private sector and corruption, insisting on privatization or the private sector as a solution to corruption in the public sector. Therefore, one can consider that this Law has served the purpose of legitimizing corruption (of the powerful) as governmentality.

One year after the enactment of this law, Rosselló’s administration found itself facing numerous corruption scandals, including the leak of a chat in which Rosselló, members of his cabinet, and members of the “private sector” not only made homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynistic comments, but also held discussions on key governmental and strategic issues. This clearly exemplifies how corruption works as a system of governmentality and entirely quotidian ways (such as over a messaging app) with no need for “backroom deals”. Even when the scandal began, Rosselló’s statements and interpretations emphasized describing the case as a technical problem that a law or an executive order could solve. And so, it was under this understanding that Rosselló issued Executive Order OE-2019-31 of July 2, 2019. The Executive Order follows the same rationale of Law 2 of 2018, that is, it focuses on petty corruption, and on the separation between the public and private sectors. The key aspect of this Executive Order is to create a list of lobbies that in theory would bring transparency. However, the Executive Order does not tackle the key problems identified in this paper so far, but rather, the Executive Order aimed to legitimize Rosselló’s administration and normalize anticorruption corruption. Nevertheless, the move was unsuccessful, and Rosselló, along with other members of his cabinet, were forced to resign.

The Puerto Rican Summer of 2019: Anticorruption and decolonial justice

#RickyRenuncia, #RickyCorrupto, were some of the hashtags used on social media to demand the resignation of Rosselló during the Puerto Rican Summer. The popular demand for Rosselló’s resignation, and the uprising that took place between July 13 and August 2, constitutes the third and final understanding of corruption and anticorruption policies I am tracking. My contention is that these sociopolitical mobilizations constitute an understanding of corruption that can be understood through Maldonado’s (2007) definition of decolonial justice. According to Maldonado:

Such justice is inspired by a form of love that is also decolonial. ‘Decolonial love’ […] gives priority to the trans-ontological over the claims of ontology. Decolonization and ‘des-gener-acción’ are the active products of decolonial love and justice. They aim to restore the logics of the gift through a decolonial politics of receptive generosity (Maldonado, 2007: 260-261).

Maldonado’s idea of decolonial justice goes beyond the legalistic conceptions of justice. Maldonado (2007) defines decolonial justice through the centrality of the Other in the ethical and philosophical reasoning. For the author justice operates through recognition, generosity and the ability to feel for/with the Other. Decolonial justice gives preference to those who have been victims of slavery and colonial, racial and gender violence, that is, those denied ontological resistance. Decolonial justice entails a broader conception of the process of restoration for the violent past, a Global South and Caribbean way to deal with colonial violence.

The Puerto Rican Summer, in its complexity, multidimensionality and diversity, crafted a richer interpretation of corruption. The way in which these demonstrations emphasized the systemic and political nature of corruption gave a new meaning to this concept in PR--one that emphasized the corruption of the powerful. Two examples of this process of resignification of corruption are key: firstly, the general utilization of the number 4,645, or the Kishore, Marqués, Mahmud et al (2018) estimate of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria, to remember those who died as a result of the negligent management of the aftermath of Maria. This number served as a symbol of mourning, but also reflected the general understanding that Rosselló and his administration, by not providing basic recovery in the wake of Maria, were responsible for the deaths.

The second example is the emphasis by protestors that Rosselló, his administration, and the FOMB should resign given their corrupt and criminogenic behavior. The idea that every part of the local and US colonial government is corrupt, or that they exist to serve the interests of the Bond holders and Vulture funds, radicalized the definitions and understandings of corruption. These two examples show, firstly, a sense of responsibility, mourning and collective pain for those who died in the wake of Hurricane Maria as a result of the state-corporate crimes, and secondly, the resignification of corruption as a systemic part of US capitalist-colonialism and local government colonial-neoliberalism. For the protestors the problem was the juridical-political system, the intrinsic relationship between government structures and colonial capital, and the lack of democracy and transparency. All of this, as well as the denouncement of the role of the FOMB in the exercise of the violence of austerity, the allocation of exorbitant salaries, and political favors made Rosselló the symbol of systemic corruption and anticorruption corruption.

This systemic understanding of corruption explains why legality and technical measures were not used as rhetorical devices during the Puerto Rican Summer. Rather, the demonstrations emphasized a radical claim for the transformation of the government. In this sense, for a period of two weeks, PR experienced a real state of exception, and/or the suspension of the internal state of exception imposed by Rosselló’s administration to administer the economic crisis. Later on, the law and legal discourses captured the social mobilization, when Pedro Pierluisi was appointed to the State Secretary and assumed the Governorship for a weekend, and the Supreme Court had to decide on the constitutionality the event. From there, we can identify a new transformation of the social mobilizations, in this case, manifested on the Town Assemblies. 

That is, the popular claim for Rosselló’s resignation suspended legality and created a space in which the terms of the debate were not based on the constitutionality of the event, but on the popular claim for alternate ways of doing politics. Even when the Puerto Rican Police engaged in excessive uses of violence and rioting, under the justification that after 11 PM the demonstrations were no longer protected by the PR Constitution, protestors did not articulate their claims in terms of legality, but rather, in political terms. Therefore, what we saw during the Puerto Rican Summer was the abandonment of colonial legal rationality, and an emancipatory praxis that can be defined as the configuration of a new political ethos, or the decolonial justice described above.

This, of course, did not take place in a vacuum--the abandonment of colonial legal rationality for a period of two weeks was the result of a long process of transformation that began with the mobilizations against the US Navy in Vieques, and was radicalized in the context of the student strikes of 2010 and 2017, active opposition to PROMESA and the FOMB (LeBrón, 2019), and recovery efforts and self-organizing after Maria. All of these are evidence of a new reconfiguration of Puerto Rican politics, one that is not only defined by demonstrations, the uses of social media, or the articulation of anticorruption discourses, but by two weeks of permanent and sustained waiting. The wait and expectation for the resignation or impeachment of Rosselló, or at least some form of justice after years of enduring the violence of austerity. A wait for something yet to come.

But as was the case in the wake of Hurricane María, people waited until there was nothing but rage. The rage of knowing that the US colonial government and the local government would not come, made them organize and revolt. Solidarity, perreo combativo, and the rage that united the people in the Calle Resistencia, in the streets of San Juan, in almost every Town Square in PR, and elsewhere, and the hope for a different PR, ousted Rosselló and gave a new meaning to corruption. These are the signs of a unique form of resistance, a Puerto Rican-way of decolonial justice.

Other essays from this forum include:

Making Space for Decolonial Futures: An Editors’ Introduction, Joaquín Villanueva and Marisol LeBrón

“Esta ‘democracia’ no la entendemos”: On Exercising Democracy in the World’s Oldest Colony, Mónica A. Jiménez

La Calle Fortaleza in Puerto Rico’s Primavera de Verano, Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo

Summer 2019: The Great Racialized Puerto Rican Family Protesting in the Street Fearlessly, Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach (a version of this article is also provided in Spanish)

Three Poems from the Summer 2019, Ana Portnoy Brimmer

Black Feminist Tactics: On La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción’s Politics without Guarantees, Rocío Zambrana

Puerto Rico’s Coal-Ash Material Publics and the Summer 2019 Boricua Uprising, Hilda Lloréns

Environmental justice movements in Puerto Rico: Life-and-death struggles and decolonizing horizons, Gustavo García-López

The Public Reckoning: Anti-debt Futures After #RickyRenuncia, Sarah Molinari

Puerto Rican Freedom Dreaming: Solidarity and the Radical Protest Tradition, Sara Awartan

Aguadilla, Decoloniality, and the Summer of ‘19, Pedro Lebrón Ortiz


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LeBrón M (2019) Policing Life and Death. Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Oakland: University of California Press.
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José Atiles is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra. Dr Atiles’s socio-legal research focuses on the Puerto Rican experiences with colonialism, law and exceptionality, corruption, tax-haven and anticolonial mobilizations. He is the author of Apuntes para abandonar el derecho: Estado de excepción colonial en Puerto Rico and Jugando con el derecho: movimientos anticoloniales puertorriqueños y la fuerza de ley (Editora Educación Emergente).