SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico —
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.
Gov. Ricardo 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.
“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.
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.
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 is if Rossello were to resign.
Protesters have characterized the governor’s insulting messages in the group chat as the final drop into a cup already filled to the brim with frustrations.
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.
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.