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Debt, hurricanes, texting: Puerto Rico's troubles explained

Protests against governor erupt

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - You may think the protests erupting in Puerto Rico are all about the government's texting scandal. But the problems run much deeper.

And unless big reforms come soon, protesters say they're ready to "make a revolution."

Here's what's going on in Puerto Rico, and some of the biggest questions people are asking:

How did Puerto Rico become a US territory?

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for centuries until the US invaded it during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The next year, Spain ceded Puerto Rico (and Guam) to the US.

In 1900, President William McKinley designated Puerto Rico as an "unorganized territory." Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917. In 1950, President Harry Truman allowed Puerto Rico to draft its own constitution.

Since then, Puerto Ricans have voted five times on whether the island should be become a state -- in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017.

Puerto Ricans voted yes in 2012, but that didn't really matter because Congress would still need to pass a law admitting Puerto Rico as a state. That hasn't happened yet.

Why is Puerto Rico's economy so bad?

Puerto Rico's debt is huge -- about $70 billion. About 40% of its residents live in poverty, and the median household income in 2017 was $19,775.

Part of the problem stems from a US law back in 1920. The Jones Act requires all goods ferried between US ports to be carried on ships built, owned and operated by Americans.

Those ships are much more expensive to buy and operate than ships from other countries. And that makes just about everything on the island more expensive.

Then there's overspending by the Puerto Rican government. Things got really bad in 2015, when Puerto Rico defaulted on its monthly debt for the first time, and in 2017, when Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy -- the largest US municipal bankruptcy in history.

It's a vicious cycle. As the economy gets worse, more Puerto Ricans leave, and the government has less tax money to pay its debts.

What did Hurricane Maria do to Puerto Rico?

The strongest storm to hit the island in 85 years killed an estimated 4,645 people in 2017. It also wiped out power for months, damaged 90% of Puerto Rico's homes and destroyed infrastructure across much of the island.

The hurricane cost an estimated $95 billion in total damage. That's almost the same amount as an entire year's economic output for Puerto Rico.

But a study showed the federal response to Puerto Rico was far less than the responses to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which struck Texas and Florida the same year and had much lower death tolls.

Why is it taking the island so long to recover?

When Hurricane Maria struck, Puerto Rico was still trying recover from Hurricane Irma, which had pummeled the island just two weeks earlier.

And Puerto Rico's frail power grid has long been on the brink of collapse.

"I think the most honest thing to say about our grid is that it's weak or fragile," Puerto Rico Power Authority CEO Walt Higgins said last year, shortly after taking the helm.

What's this big texting scandal about?

Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism published about 900 pages of leaked chats from the governor's private Telegram Messenger group.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and 11 top aides and Cabinet members exchanged profanity-laced, homophobic and misogynistic messages about fellow politicians, members of the media, celebrities and others in a scandal many are calling "RickyLeaks."

In one message, Puerto Rico's then-chief fiscal officer Christian Sobrino Vega wrote that he was "salivating to shoot" San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a frequent critic of the governor.

The governor responded: "You'd be doing me a grand favor."

Sobrino Vega also made crude remarks about a Puerto Rican pop star, saying "Nothing says patriarchal oppression like Ricky Martin. Ricky Martin is such a male chauvinist that he f---- men because women don't measure up. Pure patriarchy."

In another message, Gov. Rosselló referenced a former New York City Council speaker and suggested someone "beat up that whore" after she had criticized a politician for supporting Puerto Rico statehood.

Since the leaked messages were published, throngs of protesters have filled streets in Puerto Rico demanding the governor's resignation -- as well as reforms to problems that have long plagued the island.

"We are tired of the abuse, of so many years of corruption," protester Leishka Flores said. "We are here to make a revolution."

What will happen to the officials and aides?

Puerto Rico's Justice Department has issued summonses for everyone involved in the private chat group with Rosselló.

The participants will be ordered to appear before Justice Department officials and have their cell phones inspected, department spokeswoman Mariana Cobian said.

Though Cobian said all participants of the private chat were being summoned, she declined to provide a list of names.

The FBI would neither confirm nor deny whether it was also investigating the chats, bureau spokesman Luis Rivera said.

Despite widespread calls for his resignation, Rosselló said he's not stepping down.

"Despite the difficulties that we have internal and external, the work will continue and the agenda will be completed in all areas -- social, educational, safety, health, infrastructure, recovery and everything related to the financial situation," he said.

"You do not give up on work already started, and today, more than ever, a lot of people are counting on my commitment to do so."

If Rosselló changes his mind and does resign, the law says the secretary of state is next in line to take the helm. But that position is currently vacant. Next in line would be Puerto Rico's treasurer.

CNN's Patrick Gillespie, Heather Long, Chris Isidore, Leyla Santiago, Ray Sanchez and Michelle Krupa contributed to this report.


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