A week of simmering protests boiled over Monday as thousands of Puerto Ricans blocked a major highway and launched an island-wide strike to demand their governor’s resignation.
“This has never happened in Puerto Rico before,” said Angel Rosa, a political science professor at the University of Puerto Rico.
The massive protest was spurred in part by leaked chat messages between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and members of his inner circle.
But protesters say that scandal is just the latest reason why Puerto Rico’s leadership needs to go.
“I am fed up with the thieving government,” protester Maristella Gross said. “I am fed up with corruption. I am fed up with lack of integrity.”
Elvira Cuevas, a biology professor at the University of Puerto Rico, said she’s not just protesting for herself.
“I am here for those who died after Hurricane Maria,” she said. “I am here to denounce the machismo, the misogyny, the arrogance.”
Cuevas would not use the governor’s name, referring to him only as “the individual.”
“The man, this individual, does not represent us. This is the first time we see something like this. This is not about politics. This is about rage and indignation.”
The protesters spanned many generations and political leanings. Older protesters said Monday’s rally was one of the largest they’ve ever seen. Both supporters and opponents of US statehood came together for this cause.
“This is an opportunity to Puerto Rico to clean house, to start over,” said Ediris Rivera, 23.
Many protesters dripped with sweat, but her friend Neysha Benitez, 24, didn’t mind the sweltering heat.
“We cannot be silent anymore,” Benitez said. “Our voices need to be heard.”
Calls for resignation spread to the US mainland
Even staunch political rivals like President Donald Trump and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio found common ground in their opposition to Rosselló.
“He’s a terrible governor,” Trump said Monday.
While Trump didn’t explicitly call for Rosselló’s resignation, de Blasio did.
“Governor Rosselló has exhibited a pattern of sexist, homophobic and entirely inappropriate behavior,” de Blasio said in a written statement Monday.
“While Puerto Ricans attempt to heal from Hurricane María, he mocks victims for a cheap laugh,” de Blasio said. “Governor Rosselló should resign immediately.”
Rosselló offers concessions, but they’re not good enough
In a Facebook Live post, the governor admitted Sunday that a “huge portion of the population is unhappy.”
So he announced he won’t run for re-election next year and was resigning as the president of the New Progressive Party.
But that did nothing to calm angry protesters, who say they won’t rest until Rosselló resigns.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said the governor’s refusal to step down has “added fuel to the fire.”
“We are prepared here at City Hall with a makeshift emergency unit with medics and doctors and nurses to take in anybody that receives tear gas or has a cut in their body or potentially been shot,” she said.
While protesters stand their ground, Rosselló’s New Progressive Party is quickly making changes.
Thomas Rivera Schatz, the president of Puerto Rico’s Senate, announced Monday that he will be the party’s new president.
“To the Puerto Ricans who were offended, I reiterate that our party rejects this behavior, censures these expressions and is in solidarity with you,” Rivera Schatz posted on Facebook.
Defiance and calls for impeachment
Rosselló, who is about halfway into his four-year term, said he’ll keep serving as governor until he can hand the work “over to my democratically elected successor.”
“I have made mistakes, and I have apologized,” he said. “I am a good man who has a great love for my island and for everyone.”
But Rosselló’s defiance just prompted more calls for his impeachment, including from a famous pop star.
Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin — one of the people targeted in Rosselló’s messages — joined protesters Monday and urged officials to start the process of impeachment.
“The only thing you (Rosselló) just did is mess with the mental health of Puerto Ricans,” Martin tweeted. “If he doesn’t want to leave, (impeachment) is the only option we have.”
The president of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, created a special committee Friday to advise him on whether the governor committed impeachable offenses.
The impeachment research committee includes three attorneys who will have 10 days to provide Méndez with a detailed report, his spokesman Raúl Colón said.
The committee will evaluate the content of the leaked messages between Rosselló and Cabinet members and determine if there’s proof Rosselló committed a crime, Méndez said.
If officials discover the governor did commit impeachable acts, and a vote to impeach passes the House, the issue would go to the Senate. A trial would be presided over by the head of the Supreme Court, with the senators as jurors.
A two-thirds vote is needed in both chambers for an impeachment to be carried out.
Not everyone wants the governor to resign
Former Senate Vice President Orlando Parga said what Rosselló wrote in those leaked chats is derogatory and deeply offensive.
But he said matters of character should be judged at the polls next year.
Parga said if the governor is found to be involved in corruption, “he should step down immediately.”
“But for what has been revealed up to now, I don’t think … this is sufficient to force him out of power.”
‘We are going to stay here no matter what’
Protesters say they’re not backing down because they’ve endured political corruption, high poverty rates, crushing debt and a painful recovery since Hurricane Maria struck in 2017.
Layzne Alvez told CNN the US territory’s government had been “left to run wild with our economy, with our money, with all the federal funds the government are sending here.”
But Puerto Ricans aren’t a violent people, she said, so they don’t want to bring Rosselló down by force.
“We are going to stay here no matter what,” Alvez said. “We are going to force our local leaders, representatives, senators, whoever we need to, to get him out. We are going to stay here.”