2020 ends with unfinished business and a glimpse of hope
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
This is the second of two parts of the series The Year in Review 2020.
Dismissals, an ongoing battle against COVID-19, more governmental chaos, tropical storms, federal arrests of House representatives, chaotic elections, and coronavirus vaccines all took place during the second half of 2020.
The STAR reviewed some of the events that gathered the most attention from the public and media outlets until the end of an atypical year.
Governor dismisses then-Justice secretary amid ongoing investigation
Then-Justice (DJ) Secretary Dennise Longo Quiñones was dismissed by Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced on Jul. 3 as the agency was investigating both Vázquez and La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Antonio Pabón Batlle for relief supplies mismanagement in the case of a Family Socioeconomic Development Administration warehouse in Ponce.
After the dismissal, the governing New Progressive Party (NPP) was under fire on Jul. 7 as the Special Independent Prosecutor Panel (PFEI by its Spanish initials) issued a resolution requesting that the DJ deliver six PFEI reports immediately, which then-interim secretary Wandymar Burgos Vargas ordered an agent to take back from the panel.
Meanwhile, Vázquez held a press conference on the same day in which she defended her withdrawal of trust from Longo Quiñones by saying it came from alleged interference in a federal investigation of a Medicaid fraud case in the Puerto Rico Health Department that occurred from 2014 to 2019, and which involved Longo Quiñones’ mother, former interim Health Secretary Concepción Quiñones de Longo.
Tropical Storm Isaias causes heavy flooding in western PR
With the local government claiming to be ready to face the hurricane season, the island was pummeled on Jul. 30 by Tropical Storm Isaias, which produced 60 miles per hour gusting winds and heavy rain across the island.
Moreover, both southern and northwestern Puerto Rico faced flash floods that damaged residences and structures that were already susceptible due to the earthquakes earlier in the year.
Although the heavy rain was expected to take the island out of a drought that had begun June 30, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Caribbean Environmental Protection Division Director Carl Soderberg told the STAR that it was going to be a short-term solution because the water would likely go to waste given the reservoirs’ “compromised” storage capacity.
In addition, the tropical storm left more than 400,000 Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority customers without electricity, causing outrage as then-executive director José Ortiz alleged that the power grid was “robust.”
On Aug. 3, the governor said she had requested Ortiz’s resignation as head of the public corporation.
Forensic Science Institute returns after separation from DPS
Forensic Science Bureau Commissioner María Conte Miller issued a resignation ultimatum on Aug. 4, saying she could no longer “handle” being under the Department of Public Safety (DPS) due to bureaucracy, lack of supplies, and delays in criminal investigations,
Employees protested the next day in support of Conte Miller and to demand that the Puerto Rico Senate pass House Bill 2075, which would detach the bureau from the DPS and restore it as the Forensic Science Institute.
On Aug. 6, the upper chamber passed the bill.
Primary elections postponed due to ballot distribution delay
The State Elections Commission (SEC) determined on Aug. 9 to accept electoral commissioners’ agreements to postpone the primary elections until Aug. 16 due to voting centers experiencing backlogs of ballots not being delivered on time, and that only voting centers that had “opened ballot containers” would finish the electoral process.
The ruling raised further controversy among the NPP and Popular Democratic Party (PDP) electoral commissioners, who said the SEC had a $22.5 million deficit for both the primary and general elections and that the entity spent $800,000 from a COVID-19 emergency fund to conduct the electoral event.
On Aug. 16, however, the primary elections ran regularly, turning Isabela Mayor Carlos Delgado Altieri into the PDP gubernatorial candidate and making former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi the NPP gubernatorial candidate when he defeated the incumbent governor.
NPP Rep. María Milagros Charbonier arrested by FBI
More than a month after FBI agents searched NPP Rep. María Milagros Charbonier’s residence, a Puerto Rico district federal grand jury pressed 13 charges against the legislator, her husband Orlando Montes, her son Orlando Gabriel Montes Charbonier, and her assistant Frances Ceballos for alleged involvement in conspiracy; theft, bribery and kickbacks concerning programs receiving federal funds; and honest services wire fraud.
According to the indictment, Charbonier received up to $100,000 from the scheme.
Three days later, a federal grand jury pressed similar charges against NPP Rep. Nelson del Valle, his office director Mildred Estrada and her daughter Nickolle Santos.
“The corrupt scheme repeats itself,” said Puerto Rico District Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow.
Citizens struggle to acquire unemployment benefits amid COVID-19 pandemic
Six months after the coronavirus pandemic began on the island, residents were still waiting on Aug. 25 for their unemployment compensation even after Carlos Rivera Santiago was appointed as the new secretary of Labor and Human Resources.
Some told the STAR that they had not received financial aid since March, others since January, leading some to move off the island as they struggled to carry on due to lack of income.
Rivera Santiago said amid the complaints that over 76 percent of claimants were already getting their unemployment benefit payments, although he told the STAR that “there’s a lot that needed improvement” at the agency.
Governor calls three-year disaster recovery after Hurricane Maria ‘significant’
With thousands of Puerto Rico families still living under blue tarps and others still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt three years after Hurricane Maria, Vázquez declared on Sep. 17 that disaster recovery had been “significant” as approval for disaster recovery projects had increased by 300 percent.
Vázquez also said the government, in one year, had “sped up, obliged and disbursed” more disaster recovery funds than authorities responding to hurricanes Harvey and Katrina in the United States.
Rosimar Rodríguez Gómez case sparks outrage over island femicides
Conte Miller announced on Sep. 28 that the dead body found in Dorado was that of kidnapped 20-year-old Rosimar Rodríguez Gómez, who was reported missing after she was forced into a white van by unidentified individuals in front of her home in Toa Baja on Sept. 17.
The FSI executive director was not able to provide much information as Rodríguez Gómez’s death was under investigation; however, she told a member of the press that “her death was not natural.”
At press time, some 60 femicides had taken place in Puerto Rico, including the murder of trans nursing student Michelle Ramos Vargas on Oct. 2.
Island Supreme Court rules statehood referendum is constitutional
Even though it didn’t earn approval from the U.S. Department of Justice back in July, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 5 that the “Final Definition of Puerto Rico’s Political Status Law,” which would authorize the Statehood Yes/No referendum to be included in the general elections, was constitutional.
The high court ruled in favor “since it allows all Puerto Ricans, under equal conditions, to participate and express themselves in favor or against ratifying and implementing the status formula that was favored in La Fortaleza under quarantine as Health secretary tests positive for COVID-19 .
It was expected that La Fortaleza would have a busy day as meetings would be held on Oct. 14 to discuss the new executive order to address the COVID-19 pandemic starting Oct. 17.
All meetings had to be canceled and postponed, however, after Puerto Rico Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano tested positive for the coronavirus “after having been traveling for the past few days.”
‘Dueño del Soneo’ dies at 62
Z93 FM Program Director and broadcaster Marcos Rodríguez, also known as “El Cacique,” announced on Oct. 29 that Puerto Rican singer Carlos “Cano” Estremera had passed away. He was 62.
Back in November 2018, Estremera had undergone a double lung transplant, and in May of this year the singer was hospitalized due to a bacterial infection.
“My heart is shattered, I have no consolation,” said Yanira Arce, Estremera’s widow, on her social media profile.
Stumbling blocks persist in general elections
Forty-nine percent of Puerto Rico citizens cast their votes in the Nov. 3 elections, in which the NPP gubernatorial and resident commissioner candidates, Pedro Pierluisi and Jenniffer González Colón, respectively, took the lead.
However, the next day things got tense in the island capital as concerns grew over questionable actions during the vote count in the electoral contest between NPP San Juan mayoral candidate Sen. Miguel Romero and Citizens’ Victory Movement mayoral candidate Rep. Manuel Natal Albelo.
During the electoral chaos, on Nov. 5, re-elected NPP Rep. Nestor Alonso was arrested by the FBI on charges related to a kickback scheme involving a Home Depot account, according to a Puerto Rico district court indictment.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 10, 186 unopened ballot cases containing uncounted ballots were found at the Absentee and Early Voting Administrative Board warehouse.
At press time, the general vote count had not yet been finished, nor had any candidate been officially certified by the SEC.
Health chief claims $150 million required next year to tackle COVID pandemic
González Feliciano, the island Health secretary, told the head of the incoming government’s transition committee, Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz, on Nov. 18 that over $150 million was required in 2021 to maintain the agency’s efforts in the fight against the coronavirus.
The Health secretary added that the expenses were not yet budgeted and might fluctuate as the estimate doesn’t contemplate future inoculation efforts and immunization analyses.
Arecibo Observatory radio telescope collapses
Following two cable failures in October, the iconic global astronomy facility collapsed on Dec. 1, sending a wave of disbelief and sadness through both the global scientific and local communities.
A segment on Noticentro with meteorologist Ada Monzón became viral as she struggled to hold back tears during the weather report when she stopped to announce the collapse.
The scientific facility was the leading research center in the world for determining the shape and size of asteroids, what they are made of, their speed and their path.
FDA rules emergency use authorization on COVID vaccines
On Dec. 11, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 got emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A week later, the FDA ruled a second emergency permit for the Moderna vaccine.
Both vaccines have arrived on the island, letting local authorities inoculate around 70,000 to 80,000 medical workers against the virus that as of press time had taken the lives of 1,484 Puerto Rico residents.
Tito Rojas dies at 65
Puerto Rican salsa singer Julio César Rojas, better known as Tito Rojas, known as “El Gallo Salsero,” died on Sunday, Dec. 27 of a suspected heart attack in his hometown of Humacao. He was 65 years old.
His sudden death shocked islanders as he had performed on the Christmas Special “Canta Gallo, Canta en Navidad” about a week before, singing his danceable hits with his full band.