Euphoria in Puerto Rico as mass protests force governor to resign

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – People danced on the streets of San Juan’s old city on Wednesday as Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced he would quit over offensive chat messages that sparked massive protests on the bankrupt island.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello speaks as he announces his resignation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early July 25, 2019. La Forteleza de Puerto Rico/Handout via REUTERS

After 12 days of sometimes violent demonstrations, the first-term governor said he would step down on Aug. 2, having failed to soothe critics’ concerns by vowing not to seek re-election and giving up the leadership of his political party.

“I feel that to continue in this position would make it difficult for the success that I have achieved to endure,” Rosselló said, listing accomplishments ranging from creating new industries to promoting equal pay for women during his time in office.

Packed with protesters awaiting the announcement, San Juan’s historic Old City erupted in joy when news broke that Rosselló, whose administration has been dogged by allegations of corruption, was stepping down.

The blocks directly outside the governor’s mansion were filled with thousands of writhing, dancing, mostly-young Puerto Ricans. They waved flags and lit fireworks, as chants of “Fight yes, Surrender No,” and “Olay Olay” rang out.

“Man it’s amazing, man, it’s wonderful, man I’m so happy,” said 19-year-old Leonardo Elias Natal. “It’s time to wake up and I’m so proud of my country.”

Others, like Elias Natal’s girlfriend, were more measured.

“I’m really, really, really, really happy, but I know we need to stay right here, screaming,” said Julie Rivera, 21, already planning to return on Thursday to protest against the woman Rosselló tapped to succeed him.

Puerto Rico Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez, a 59-year-old former district attorney, was too close to Rosselló, according to Rivera.

VILLAIN TO SOME, FALL GUY TO OTHERS

Rosselló’s term as governor has seen the island hit with back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed thousands of people and wreaked widespread destruction just months after the U.S. territory filed for bankruptcy.

Weary of crisis and a decade-long recession, Puerto Ricans were angered when U.S. authorities on July 10 accused two former Rosselló administration officials of pocketing federal money through government contracts.

The final straw for many on the island came July 13 when Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of chat messages between Rosselló and 11 close allies.

In messages between November 2018 and January 2019 the group made offensive and sometimes violent statements about female political opponents, gay singer Ricky Martin and ordinary Puerto Ricans.

The chats tapped into simmering resentment toward the island’s political elites, seen as out of touch by many Puerto Ricans, drawing an estimated 500,000 people onto a San Juan highway on Monday to demand that Rosselló quit.

Another massive demonstration was planned for Saturday.

Rosselló also faced the twin threats of an investigation by the island’s Department of Justice and political impeachment by its legislature.

Puerto Rico’s lower house president on Wednesday said the impeachment process had begun after an independent panel of lawyers he commissioned found four felonies and one misdemeanor may have been committed in the chats.

Slideshow (9 Images)

But not all Puerto Ricans were delighted at Rosselló’s fall.

Ricky Shub, 33, agreed that the former scientist should step down. But he said Rosselló had become a lightning rod for decades of pent up anger toward corrupt governors.

“He’s taking the fall for a bunch of past governors that put us in this position,” said Shub, watching the celebrations in the old city from his friend’s roof deck. “Everyone here is right to do what they’re doing, but they should have done it 20 years ago.”

Reporting by Nick Brown in San Juan; Additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Karen Pierog in Chicago; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore


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