How COVID-19 justified authoritarianism within a US jurisdiction

Today marks the fourth day of the most undemocratic, government-imposed 24/7 curfew/quarantine on the people of Puerto Rico.

On Sunday, March 15th, Puerto Rico’s governor, Wanda Vazquez Garced, issued an Executive Order whereby until at least March 30th, everyone within the United States’ territory must stay inside their homes 24/7 except for any need to venture out to obtain “essential services or articles” such as food or medicines. Furthermore, no one is to be on the streets between 9:00 pm and 5:00 am except for those working in any establishment providing those “essential services”, as well as any member of the police, press, or any other person such as a truck driver delivering cargo to stores whose job is necessary to support the emergency.

The salient prohibitions of the order include:

Malls and stores must close.

Schools must close; classes are suspended indefinitely.

Only restaurants with a drive-through or delivery services can operate. No sit-down service allowed.

Movie theaters, gyms, and any public gathering places cannot open.

People cannot go to their own private offices and work alone.

No one can go to public places such as the beach or the park for a walk. Not even on their own.

Any violation of the order entails a $5,000.00 fine. Over thirty fines have been issued so far.

MS. GARCED’S POLICY HAS BEEN THE MOST STRINGENT GOVERNMENT POLICY ADOPTED IN ANY JURISDICTION OF THE UNITED STATES.

The Executive Order and its implementation could be deemed an exercise in authoritarianism inasmuch as it substantially infringes upon the civil rights guaranteed under the United States’ Constitution.

It does not pass constitutional muster.

However, no one has dared challenge it.

As an American citizen and attorney who cherishes the civil rights that derive from the Constitution, I carefully pondered over the legality and need for the governor’s course of action.

AFTER CAREFUL CONSIDERATION, I BELIEVE THE GOVERNOR HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO ADOPT THE DRASTIC POLICIES TO CONTROL THE PANDEMIC.

The first known corona virus case in Puerto Rico originated from an elderly tourist traveling from the North of Italy who disembarked from a cruise on March 8th. The Italian cruise they traveled on had been rejected at the previous destination port, Jamaica, since one of its crew members had died of COVID-19.

Presenting all the indicia that compelled her and her husband’s exclusion from our island, she and the other 1780 persons disembarked that morning into the San Juan port. People that should have categorically been denied entry to the island, were allowed for an entire day to walk around our crowded old city.

Oblivious to the danger of spreading the disease that cruise passengers represented, neither the then-Puerto Rico Secretary of Health, Rafael Rodriguez Mercado, nor the Tourism Director Carla Campos implemented any cautionary measures to control the spread of the disease from any port of entry.

Despite the media coverage sprouting everywhere about COVID-19's repercussions around the world, the Puerto Rico government did not initiate an aggressi e campaign to teach the people about the danger that the epidemic presented.

Tourists and Puerto Ricans alike went about their business as usual.

Two days before the governor issued the order, La Placita de Santurce, a favorite San Juan area hangout spot, was packed as usual.

A day after a version of this photograph went viral, the governor issued the Executive Order.

THE ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Ms. Garced’s Executive Order will take a huge toll on our already-deteriorated economy that was starting to sprout. It is the last nail on a carefully crafted coffin that took politicians over 30 years to build. Puerto Rico’s consistently corrupt political leaders, reckless disregard to their oath of adhering to the law did away with their duty to foresee, build a resilient island, act in the interest of the people and, above all: honestly carry out the job for which they were elected.

It all blew up on our face since 2016 when Puerto Rico was forced into bankruptcy for a $92B debt the island was unable to pay.

On September 2017, Hurricane Maria obliterated our island and its electric grid.

It took over four months after the hurricane for 80% of the homes to get power back. The island’s bankruptcy and persistent local governmental corruption severely interfered with the island’s recovery. In 2019, 40,000 families still lived under blue tarps.

Fed up with corrupt, inept millennial governor Ricardo Rossello, in the summer of 2019 a million of us joined in a protest and forced him to resign.

On January 2020, two earthquakes and its aftershocks left hundreds of families homeless in the Southern part of the island. Most are still living in tents set up in campsites scattered along four municipalities.

Despite all of these considerations, the conviction with which the governor defended the Executive Order and threatened to prosecute those that dare violate it convinced me that it is anything but capricious.

Puerto Rico’s island paradigm.

Puerto Rico is a United States territory whose resources and medical facilities range from limited to inadequate. Surrounded by water, we cannot drive to a neighboring state with available hospital beds. Everything must get here by sea or air.

Our population density ranks 24th in the world, with 1024 persons per square mile.

I dare calculate that the mismanagement of this crisis could translate to higher casualties than the ones recorded in Italy so far.

Hence the former Puerto Rico Secretary of Justice’s decision to implement dramatically unconstitutional but imminent provisions to curtail the inevitable spread of the disease.

Faced with the tough choice between reducing COVID-19’s inevitable casualties versus saving the economy and respecting civil rights, I have to commend Ms. Garced for adopting a strong stance and forcing people to protect themselves.

The governor’s acts have may have validated her capacity to be a ruthless dictator.

After watching her determination defending her stance, I am convinced it can only come out of a deep concern to protect as many people as she can in light of the ghastly projections she has been privy to and deems too atrocious to disclose.

This time, I am willing to relinquish a bit of my rights for the sake of my life.

Puerto Rican mother, attorney, warrior & survivor; fighting for equal environmental rights, one pipe at a time”. “Mi nada, a nadie se lo debo.” Julia de Burgos.