Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans demand governor resign

Protests continue to rock Puerto Rico as tens of thousands flood the streets of San Juan, seeking the governor's resignation after leaked offensive chats, amid a struggling economy.

Ricardo Rossello's obscenity-laced online chats spark biggest protests in over 15 years

People chant slogans as they wave Puerto Rican flags during a protest calling for the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Monday. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Waving flags, chanting and banging pots and pans, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans filled a central expressway Monday to demand the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rossello in what appeared to be the biggest protest on the island in nearly two decades.

The latest demonstration came 10 days after the leak of 889 pages of obscenity-laced online chats between Rossello, a Democrat, and some of his close advisers. In the conversations, they insulted women and mocked constituents, including victims of Hurricane Maria.

The leak has intensified long-smouldering anger in the U.S. territory over persistent corruption and mismanagement by the island's two main political parties, a severe debt crisis, a sickly economy and a slow recovery from Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017.

Democrats and others have criticized U.S. President Donald Trump's administration over its response to the storms, which led to nearly 3,000 deaths. 

Asked if Rossello should resign, Trump said he was terrible.  

"You have totally grossly incompetent leadership at the top of Puerto Rico," Trump told reporters at the White House. "The leadership is corrupt and incompetent."

A banner with a picture of Rossello is seen during the national strike calling for his resignation in San Juan. (Gabriella N. Baez/Reuters)

"The people have awakened after so much outrage," said 69-year-old retired nurse Benedicta Villegas. "There are still people without roofs and highways without lights. The chat was the tip of the iceberg."

Jannice Rivera, a 43-year-old mechanical engineer who lives in Houston but was born and raised in Puerto Rico and flew in solely to join the protest, said: "This is just the beginning. Finally, the government's mask has fallen."

The crowd surged through along the Americas Expressway highway despite the punishing heat — toddlers, teenagers, professionals and elderly people, all dripping in sweat and smiling as they waved Puerto Rico flags large and small and hoisted signs.

One group dragged a portable karaoke machine and chanted, "Ricky, resign!"

"This is to show that the people respect themselves," said Ana Carrasquillo, 26. "We've put up with corruption for so many years."

Won't seek re-election

In an interview on Monday with Fox News, Rossello said he will not resign and that he is focused on tackling corruption and helping the island recover from Maria.

"I'm making amends," he said. "I've apologized for all the comments that I made on the chat."

Rossello, a Democrat, announced Sunday evening that he would not quit, but sought to calm the unrest by promising not to seek re-election in 2020 or continue as head of his pro-statehood political party. That only further angered his critics, who have mounted street demonstrations for more than a week.

"The people are not going to go away," said Johanna Soto, of the city of Carolina. "That's what he's hoping for, but we outnumber him."

Asked who was advising Rossello on staying in office, Rossello's secretary of public affairs, Anthony Maceira, said the governor was speaking with his family, and "that carries a great weight." Rossello's father, Pedro, was governor from 1993 to 2001.

The territory's largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, added to the pressure with the front-page headline: "Governor, it's time to listen to the people: You have to resign."

Organizers labelled the planned road shutdown "660,510 + 1" — which represents the number of people who voted for Rossello plus one more — to reject his argument that he is not resigning because he was chosen by the people.

Protesters confront police after the demonstrators were pushed back from a parking lot gate last weekend to allow politicians to leave after a meeting with Rossello. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In a video posted Sunday night on Facebook, Rossello said he welcomed people's freedom to express themselves. He also said he is looking forward to defending himself as Puerto Rico's legislature begins exploring impeachment.

"I hear you," he said. "I have made mistakes and I have apologized."

The demonstrations in this territory of more than three million American citizens represent the biggest protest movement on the island since Puerto Ricans rallied to put an end to U.S. Navy training on the island of Vieques more than 15 years ago.

Economic struggles

Monday was the 10th consecutive day of protests, and more are being called for later in the week. The island's largest mall, Plaza de las Americas, closed ahead of the protest, as did dozens of other businesses. The upheaval also prompted at least four cruise ships to cancel visits to Puerto Rico, and many officials worry about the effect a resignation would have on the already fragile economy.

Puerto Rico is struggling to restructure part of its $70 billion in debt under federal supervision and deal with a 13-year recession through school closings, cutbacks in infrastructure maintenance and other austerity measures.

At the same time, the island is trying to rebuild from Maria, which caused more than $100 billion in damage, threw Puerto Rico into a year-long blackout and left thousands dead, most of them succumbing during the sweltering aftermath.

Also, the island has seen a recent string of arrests of Puerto Rico officials on corruption charges. Those arrested included the former education secretary.

With files from Reuters