(Thais Llorca / EPA) (Thais Llorca / EPA-EFE/REX)
Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended onto a main highway in Puerto Rico’s capital Monday, shutting down traffic in both directions and dancing through a torrential downpour, in the biggest protest in more than a week of public calls for Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s resignation.
The Expreso Las Americas highway was packed for miles with protesters as part of the ongoing demonstrations in San Juan and other parts of the island against Rossello and his administration for alleged corruption, homophobia, misogyny and callousness toward victims of Hurricane Maria.
Earlier, Laura Rodriguez, a music teacher from Caguas who arrived in San Juan around dawn, said she was incensed that Rossello has refused to step down in spite of prolonged demands by a broad cross section of Puerto Ricans. Many people at the protest — grandmas in wheelchairs and teenagers, computer engineers and stay-at-home moms — said the governor’s comments in recently leaked messages were offensive and unforgivable.
“I feel indignation, pure indignation,” said Rodriguez, 34.
The demonstration Monday, which was centered near the biggest shopping mall on the island, followed several days of protests. Last week, a caravan of motorcycles rumbled from the outskirts of San Juan toward the governor’s official residence, La Fortaleza, and a group of singers released a song called “Sharpening the Knives,” which offers a searing rebuke of Rossello. On Sunday morning, more than 50 yogis splayed out colorful mats in front of La Fortaleza, chanting mantras and discussing how proud they were to see people uniting on the island.
In 900 pages of group-chat messages that were published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, the governor and some of his aides used sexist and misogynistic language, engaged in fat-shaming and joked about dead bodies accumulating in the days after Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in September 2017. Three days before the messages were published, two of Rossello’s former Cabinet members were arrested on suspicion of directing about $15.5 million to politically connected businesses.
Rossello, who is 2 1/2 years into his four-year term, announced Sunday evening that he won’t run for reelection in 2020. But during his short speech, in which he apologized and said he had heard people’s criticisms, he said he intended to stay on the job.
“I am aware of the dissatisfaction and discomfort,” he said during a short speech, which was streamed on Facebook. “I have heard you and I hear you today.”
The governor’s words rang hollow, many protesters said Monday. If he truly heard them, they asked, why was he still their governor? The governor’s refusal to resign disgusted but didn’t surprise Rodriguez. He cares only about himself, she said, not the people he represents.
“He has disrespected us,” she said. “But the pueblo — the people he has abandoned — we will keep packing the streets until he’s gone.”
She teared up during the protest as she thought back to the weeks after Hurricane Maria. She thought about the time she waited in line 16 hours for gas and about her precious students — the students who dropped out after the storm and about those who broke down in tears in her classroom. She thought about their diligence, as they studied by candlelight for nine months, waiting for electricity to be restored in their homes.
As she spoke, many in the crowd clanged on upside-down pots with drum sticks and other protesters danced along. The smell of sunscreen mixed with hot dogs grilling nearby. A man sold small Puerto Rican flags for $3 and people held up signs reading, “Ricky es basura!” referring to the governor as trash.
The crowd showed other signs of discontent and unity.
One man picked up a newspaper from the ground and stared at a solemn portrait of the governor. He shook his head and ripped it in half. The man selling flags gave one for free to a woman who had no cash.
Alanis Vazquez and her mother, Gloryvee Nieves, a schoolteacher from San Lorenzo, joined the protest in disgust with what they described as government negligence after the hurricane. So many people died in the days and weeks after the storm, Alanis said, because water, food and medication took so long to arrive.
Alanis, 17, had a number written on her right hand -- 4,645 — an estimate of the lives lost during and after the hurricane.
“Thanks to the government,” she said, “we suffered much more.”
Both mother and daughter said they believe the governor will resign soon.
“This is historic for Puerto Rico and for the whole world,” Nieves said. “This has united us as one people.”
Omar Silva, guitarist for the reggae band Cultura Profetica, joined protesters Monday, smiling as he stared into the crowd.
“Anyone who says they knew a movement such as this would happen is lying,” he said. “It took us by surprise.”
Nearby, film director Pedro Muñiz said he, too, was in awe of the crowd size.
“Three weeks ago,” he said, “I would have never thought that I would see a living revolution in Puerto Rico. This is a revolution without the need to fire one gunshot.”
Muñiz said it was foolish for Rossello to insist on keeping his job, adding that he expects the governor will eventually resign.
A little later, Robert Rabin, 66, strolled past a massive screen that showed an aerial view of the crowd. A protest so large, he said, is not only about Rossello or the leaked messages.
“People are here because they’re indignant about years of capitalism and colonialism,” said Rabin, a leader in the 1999 uprising against the Navy’s use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a weapons testing ground.
Nearby, in the shade of a massive Puerto Rican flag, Haydee Silva reflected on the last several days. The 73-year-old retired physical therapist said the governor had somehow managed to insult nearly every Puerto Rican. Women, gay people, victims of the hurricane, heavy people, she said, sighing as she ticked off the list.
“He’s an embarrassment,” said Silva, who traveled from Trujillo Alto to the capital with her friends on Monday. “He has mocked us, all of us.”
She then waved her hand back and forth, as if bidding him farewell. Goodbye, she said, hopeful that the governor will resign before sundown.
At Expreso Las Americas, dark clouds masked the sun and sheets of rain pounded down.
A group of about 15 drenched protesters began a choreographed dance and, within a minute, hundreds of others had joined them. A woman wearing a T-shirt that read “Stronger Than Ever” filmed the dance on her cellphone.
“History, history, history,” she repeated, tearing up.
In an interview Monday with Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, the governor again apologized for his comments in the group chat and then asked people to consider the good he has done.
“I used words that I have apologized for,” Rossello said, “but I’ve also taken significant actions in the direction of helping, you know, vulnerable sectors in our population.”
Carrero is a special correspondent.