2020 covers islanders with climate of uncertainty
Earthquakes, COVID-19’s Arrival, Unused Emergency Supplies Found, Gov’t Chaos & More
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
This is the first of two parts of the series The Year in Review 2020.
From January until June, international conflicts, earthquakes, governmental chaos, and a global pandemic led Puerto Rico and their citizens into a challenging year.
The STAR reviewed some of the events that gathered the most attention from the public and media outlets during the first half of 2020.
Tensions between US and Iran raise fears of possible conflict
President Donald Trump on Jan. 1 threatened a retaliation against Iran after pro-Iranian protesters attacked a U.S. embassy in Baghdad as a demonstration against American drone airstrikes.
Trump said later on Jan. 3 that he ordered a precision drone strike at the Baghdad airport to “terminate” Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander who was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.”
Oil prices rose sharply by 4 percent amid an escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran after it was confirmed that Soleimani was killed in a U.S.-authorized strike.
Meanwhile, other threats were underway to shape this year’s history.
On the same day, the World Health Organization reported an outbreak of pneumonia caused by a new type of coronavirus in Wuhan, China.
The outbreak prompted Singapore and Hong Kong to introduce screening processes for travelers from the city. It came amid fears expressed online that the virus could be linked to the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus.
Southern PR trembles at dawn on Three Kings Day
The Puerto Rico Seismic Network reported a 5.9 tremor on Jan. 6 at the south of the island. The aftershock damaged residences, roads, schools, and historical structures, including the collapse of Punta Ventana in Guayanilla.
The earthquakes had begun on Dec. 28, 2019, raising concerns among citizens and scientists.
However, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake in southeastern Puerto Rico woke up islanders on Jan. 7, causing significant damage in towns and to structures in the south and leaving the entire island without electricity.
Citizens find warehouse loaded with essential supplies for Hurricane Maria victims
With citizens organizing to provide essential supplies for earthquake victims in the south of Puerto Rico as government relief efforts faltered, content creator Lorenzo Delgado, also known as El León Fiscalizador on Facebook, went viral on Jan. 18 as a warehouse was found in Ponce’s La Guancha sector with essential supplies that were supposed to be handed out by the government and dated back to October 2017, a month after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island.
The viral video caused citizens to flock to the location and push for the supplies to be handed over.
Cots, thousands of bottles of water, disposable diapers, gas stoves, Federal Emergency Management Agency blue tarps and baby formula, among other items, were found.
On the same day, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced dismissed Emergency Management and Disaster Administration Bureau Commissioner Carlos Acevedo due to the controversy and assigned former State Secretary Elmer Román to address the emergency.
On Jan. 19, Vázquez dismissed both Family Secretary Glorimar Andujar and Housing chief Fernando Gil Enseñat, while insisting that they did not know about the inventory in the Ponce warehouse.
Nonetheless, documents from August 2019 showed that both the governor and Román signed a “Joint Operational Catastrophic Incident Plan” that detailed state emergency warehouses, the La Guancha depot included.
Then-Health chief didn’t expect coronavirus arrival
On Jan. 27, then-Puerto Rico Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado said he wasn’t expecting that the coronavirus detected in China and that to date has taken the lives of nearly 1.8 million people worldwide would not arrive in Puerto Rico through common travelers as there are no direct flight connections between the island and the Asian country.
Meanwhile, Rodríguez Mercado said that what the Health Department was “a little more concerned about is that there is always an influx of illegal [immigrants] coming from China,” and he urged citizens to keep calm and said the agency was speaking with federal entities about how to tackle the virus.
Killing of Alexa sparks outrage, sadness over transphobia
Neulisa Alexa Luciano Ruiz, a homeless, Black, trans woman, was killed on Feb. 24 in Toa Baja, after someone called the police to falsely report that Ruiz was using the women’s bathroom at a McDonald’s restaurant improperly.
Ruiz’s murder, which was recorded and uploaded to social media, sparked outrage within the LGBTQIAP+ community, which led to a vigil being held at the University of Puerto Rico to pay respect and raise awareness among islanders that trans lives matter and deserve better.
Rap artist Bad Bunny performed on Feb. 29 on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon sporting a t-shirt with the message: “They killed Alexa, not a man in a skirt.”
At press time, no person had been arrested for Alexa’s killing.
Then-Health chief warns coronavirus might arrive in PR after all Rodríguez Mercado backtracked on Mar. 1 from previous statements, saying in a Noticentro interview that the coronavirus “could arrive” as the Dominican Republic reported its first COVID-19 case and urged citizens to be cautious.
The first case in the Dominican Republic was from an Italian woman who was visiting the island nation, while Italy already had reported 1,694 confirmed cases and 34 casualties.
Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico Health Department reported its first suspicious case of coronavirus on Mar. 8.
That case concerned a 68-year-old Italian woman who had arrived from the Costa Luminosa cruise, which was barred from docking in Jamaica due to coronavirus concerns.
COVID-19 case of Panamanian doctor alerts government
On Mar. 11, the government said during a press conference that it was trying to trace the movements of a Panamanian doctor who spent the weekend partying on the island -- including attending the National Day of Salsa, a musical festival held at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Hato Rey, where more than 25,000 people had gathered -- before being confirmed with COVID-19 back at home in Panama.
Meanwhile, local authorities said there were five suspicious cases on the island that were still being evaluated. Among them was an 86-year-old nursing home resident who had not traveled off the island, but was taken to the hospital with severe respiratory problems.
On Mar. 12, Vázquez declared a state of emergency and activated the Puerto Rico National Guard in response to the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak by deploying the Guard’s medical unit to all Puerto Rico airports. She also requested that citizens comply with “social distancing.”
Meanwhile, Rodríguez Mercado resigned as secretary of Health on Mar. 13 after three COVID-19 cases were confirmed on the island.
Governor decrees full lockdown to control spread of coronavirus
Amid the three confirmed COVID-19 cases, Vázquez declared an executive order and requested that the majority of the entertainment industry shut down because “it would promote the crowding of people.”
In addition, a curfew from 9 p.m. until 5 p.m. until March 30 went into effect.
On Mar. 25, the first resident coronavirus victim was reported on the island, as a 48-year-old private school teacher in Rincón, who was married to a local police officer, passed away.
Furthermore, the government faced heavy criticism as COVID-19 testing was sporadic among first responders and essential workers.
The government extended the lockdown on Mar. 26 and declared a curfew starting from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., from Mar. 30 until Apr. 12.
In addition, Vázquez tweeted that Interim Health Secretary Concepción Quiñones de Longo had resigned from her post. It was later announced that Lorenzo González Feliciano was to be appointed Health secretary.
Gov’t tried to buy COVID rapid tests from enterprises with close ties to NPP
On Apr. 5, the island Health Department tried to buy around a million coronavirus rapid tests from contractors Apex and 313 LLC, who had no experience in medical product management and whose owners had ties with the New Progressive Party (NPP), for $38 million.
The transaction was halted once it arrived at a bank that reported the high payment back to the Treasury Department.
Vázquez later defended the transaction on Apr. 8, deeming it legitimate, brushed off claims to the contrary as “distractions” and alleged that no permission for the purchase was required because the island was under a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, Financial Oversight and Management Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko said on Apr. 9 that every purchase from the government had to be evaluated by the board, whether there was a contract in place or not.
Judge agrees to consider lawsuit on Puerto Rico school food crisis
A judge on May 7 agreed to consider a lawsuit filed by a group of mothers and nonprofits who accused the Department of Education (DE) evading its duty to open public school cafeterias to feed students amid a pandemic.
The judge’s refusal to dismiss the lawsuit as requested by the government came amid new problems that had arisen since the agency had abruptly changed its position a week prior and announced it would open school cafeterias under certain restrictions.
It had previously refused to do so, citing concerns of infection among students and cafeteria workers, of which 64 percent are elderly.
Such resistance raised further controversy as the Youth Development Institute released a study stating that six in 10 children on the island live in poverty.
On June 1, non-governmental organization Mesa Social condemned DE’s legal attempts to deny opening school cafeterias, calling them “criminal negligence.”
Governor signs new Civil Code and Electoral Code amid opposition
Amid resistance from LGBTQIAP+ and community organizations, and complaints about a lack of transparency during the legislative process, the governor on June 1 signed the new Civil Code authored by now former NPP Rep. María Milagros Charbonier.
Vázquez told members of the press that it was an “advanced civil code,” while legal experts and activists claimed that the code could induce confusing interpretations over earned rights such as abortion, marriage equality, gender change on birth certificates, and surrogacy.
With Senate Bill 1314 not achieving consensus from civil rights organizations and opposition political parties, Vázquez announced on June 20 via a press release the signing of the new Electoral Code authored by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz.
The new code would go into effect ahead of both the primary and general elections.
The governor said she had met with different sectors and even handed back the bill for amendments on issues such as electronic voting. Likewise, she recognized it as “extremely difficult for all parties to agree completely on all points.”