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World & Nation

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello announces resignation amid mounting protests

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello.
(Getty Images)

Puerto Rico’s besieged governor resigned late Wednesday, following more than 10 days of unrelenting public demands for him to step down, including a protest on Monday that was one of the largest in the island’s history.

After spending several minutes ticking off a list of his accomplishments in a recorded message, Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced that his resignation will take effect on Aug. 2.

Rossello’s ability to govern the U.S. territory had grown increasingly tenuous in the days since Puerto Ricans learned of leaked messages between him and several top aides.

From the hundreds of pages of profane, sexist and homophobic messages, many Puerto Ricans focused on one exchange in particular — a joke about bodies accumulating after Hurricane Maria decimated the island in September 2017. That comment, many said, was cruel and unforgivable.

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“I was furious; I am furious,” said Gilda G. Garcia, 75, one of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to join in recent protests in San Juan.

Before his resignation, Rossello had apologized but publicly vowed to stay on the job. Day after day, even as scores of politicians asked him to resign and protesters spray-painted the walls of the capital with messages calling him evil and corrupt, Rossello dug in his heels.

He had heard the people, he said during a recorded message Sunday, and therefore wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020.

For many Puerto Ricans, that wasn’t enough. He needed to leave now, they said. And he finally did, resigning 2½ years into his first term.

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Many Puerto Ricans had awakened Wednesday expecting the governor to step down within hours, following multiple news reports that his resignation was imminent.

That expectation only swelled after news broke that three lawyers reviewing the leaked messages and researching impeachment at the behest of Puerto Rico’s House speaker, Carlos “Johnny” Mendez, told Nuevo Dia that the group had unanimously concluded that crimes had been committed.

This is huge! We got rid of the corruption!
Cristofer Rodriguez, 26, protester

But then, around 1 p.m. local time, the account of La Fortaleza tweeted saying that “incorrect rumors” were swirling and that Rossello remained on the job.

“He is in a process of reflection and of listening to the people,” the statement said.

About three hours later, Mendez a member of Rossello’s New Progressive Party — told reporters at the Capitol that he intended to give the governor until the end of the day to resign. Mendez said that the impeachment process had already begun and that the only thing that would stop it was if Rossello were to resign. Finally, just before midnight, Rossello appeared in a video streaming on Facebook in which he sat stiffly at a desk flanked by both the U.S. and Puerto Rican flags. He clasped his hands while detailing his accomplishments — getting raises for teachers, defending the rights of the LGBT community and fighting against corruption, he said.

But after having prayed, thought of his children and considered the complaints, Rossello said, he had decided to resign, adding that he hoped his decision would act as call for reconciliation on the island.

“Thank you for the privilege,” he said solemnly.

Seconds later, car horns blared through the streets of Old San Juan and protesters cried and chanted. They danced and hugged and hoisted the Puerto Rican flag in the air. Protester Cristofer Rodriguez, 26, who lives about half an hour from the capital in Vega Alta, said he felt rejuvenated.

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“This is huge!” he said. “We got rid of the corruption!”

Nearby, Carlos Garcia Cintron, 64, said he was grateful to the thousands of young people who had filled the streets of his city day after day.

“The youth has come to give us hope,” he said. “We all feel better about our lives now.”

In the days before the resignation, protesters had characterized the governor’s insulting messages in the group chat as the final drop into a cup already filled to the brim with frustrations.

Puerto Rico governor
Puerto Ricans celebrate after Gov. Ricardo Rossello's announcement.
(AP)

For years, Puerto Ricans have simmered in disgust with previous corruption scandals, tensions in the island’s relationship with the mainland and a reeling economy, said Jorell A. Melendez-Badillo, an assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at Dartmouth College.

The economy, which was already crippled by years of fiscal mismanagement, tanked in 2006 when the Internal Revenue Service eliminated tax incentives for U.S. companies on the island. After big firms left, taking many jobs with them, the government sold more and more bonds to pay its expenses. Before long, the debt had skyrocketed to more than $70 billion.

In 2016, Congress installed a fiscal board to oversee the island’s troubled finances — a move that perturbed many Puerto Ricans who joined in protests this week.

They said they not only despised the idea of Washington telling the island how to spend its money, but disagreed with some of the austerity measures, including cuts to pensions. During the protests, people often chanted that, on his way out, Rossello should take la junta with him, using the local name for the board.

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Rossello had only been governor for eight months when Hurricane Maria tore through the island, killing at least 2,975 people and leaving many without power for months. Although some on the island have long viewed the 40-year-old governor as immature and little more than an extension of his father — a former governor — Rossello managed to avoid widespread criticism until a few weeks ago.

On July 10, two former members of his Cabinet were taken into custody, accused of directing some $15.5 million in contracts to businesses with political connections. Three days later, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of leaked group chat messages in which Rossello and his aides discussed ways to manipulate news coverage, denigrated women and made homophobic comments about Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin.

Soon thousands of protesters had descended upon the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan and started chanting outside the governor’s La Fortaleza mansion.

“Ricky renuncia!” they shouted, using the governor’s nickname and demanding his resignation.

Before long, the chant had been printed on thousands of T-shirts, spray-painted on walls and emblazoned onto a massive flag flying above a carwash along a main highway just outside Old San Juan. The protests soon spread to cities across the commonwealth and grew in size, topping out Monday when hundreds of thousands of people packed onto Expreso Las Americas, a main highway in the capital, chanting and dancing as rain pounded down.

For protester Nilsa Fuentes, who drove to the capital from her home in Corozal, attending the gathering was a moral obligation — something she needed to do to honor the hurricane victims as well as people in her town still living in devastated homes with roofs made of blue tarps.

The moment Fuentes heard about the leaked messages, including the joke about hurricane victims, she flashed back to the five months after Maria when her family lived without electricity. She thought about all the times she and her husband drove 10 minutes to a nearby river to bathe and wash clothes because they couldn’t get water in their home. She thought too about her mother’s neighbor, whose body had begun to decompose in her home before her cadaver could be retrieved.

“I’m here for the pueblo,” she said. “One should never offend the dead.”

Meanwhile, Rossello did an interview with Fox News in which he again apologized but also asked Puerto Ricans to focus on the good he’d done while in office.

From the highway, some protesters marched to La Fortaleza, where they danced and chanted until 11 p.m., when police fired tear gas into the crowd in an attempt to clear the area.

On Tuesday night, as protesters started to hear rumors that Rossello might resign, people jumped up and down and pumped their fists in the air, singing an old Puerto Rican anthem.

Later, a demonstrator shouted, asking the crowd to quiet down so she could read them a headline from the island’s biggest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia. The governor’s resignation, she read­­­, was imminent. The crowd roared in celebration.

Nearby, Puerto Rican artists Rene Perez and Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, known respectively as Residente and Bad Bunny, danced and chanted among the protesters.

“¿Y dónde está Ricky? Ricky no está aquí. Ricky está llorando porque no vuelve pa’l país,” Perez chanted, saying the governor was gone and wouldn’t return.

Perez said he felt deeply proud to join in protest alongside so many fellow Puerto Ricans — a historic moment, he said, and one that he hopes will usher in an era of true accountability for politicians on the island.

“The protests have been exemplary, peaceful, thanks to the pueblo,” he said. “This is an example to future governments. We want to start from scratch, leaving behind the corruption.”

Under Puerto Rican law, the secretary of state would be next in line for Rossello’s job, but Luis Rivera Marin resigned several days ago in the aftermath of the leaked message scandal. Next in line for the job, if Rossello steps aside, is Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez.

Moments after the resignation announcement, Vazquez released a statement saying she would work with Rossello in his remaining days on the job to ensure “a responsible and transparent transition process.”

“If necessary,” Vazquez said, “I will assume the historic mandate.”

Special correspondent Carrero Galarza reported from San Juan.


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