‘The governor has trampled on the rights of our country…’
The demonstrators were joined by some of Puerto Rico’s most famous singers, including Ricky Martin. The huge crowds sang, chanted, and danced in the streets while carrying the territory’s red, white and blue flag with a lone star.
Puerto Ricans are up in arms over alleged embezzling of money meant for victims of Hurricane Maria in 2017, which left nearly 3,000 dead.
They are also upset about the recent release of text chats in which Gov. Ricardo Rossello and other male officials make fun of journalists, gays and hurricane victims, among other people.
Under mounting pressure, Rossello said on Sunday he will not seek re-election next year and will step down as leader of his party. But he refused to resign from his post as governor.
“I have listened, and I am listening to you today,” Rossello said in a video posted in Spanish via Facebook. “I have made mistakes and I have apologized.”
That confession failed to appease demonstrators who have been taking to the streets for more 10 days demanding he step down.
“It is not enough. He should surrender power to new leaders,” Isham Rodriguez, 36, said as he banged pots together while walking in Monday’s protest march.
“The governor has trampled on the rights of our country,” he said as the crowd chanted slogans aimed at the governor, including “Ricky isn’t here, Ricky is selling off what’s left of the country.”
President Donald Trump also weighed in, calling Rossello “a terrible governor” and saying that hurricane relief funds were “in the hands of incompetent people and very corrupt people.”
With protests showing no sign of abating, Rossello appeared on Fox News to try to defend his record. “I used words that I’ve apologized for. I have also taken significant actions in the direction of helping vulnerable sectors in our population,” he said.
Calls for impeachment
Pop singer Martin, who is gay, Puerto Rican and one of those ridiculed in the Rossello chats, rejected the governor’s gesture and joined the protest, carrying a gay pride flag.
“Ricardo Rossello, you are not only cynical, you are Machiavellian,” Martin wrote on social media, as a slew of Puerto Rican artists, including Bad Bunny, Residente, Olga Tanon and others joined the demonstrations.
Martin urged lawmakers to begin impeachment proceedings against the governor.
“Corruption, it’s insane. We are tired, we can’t take it anymore,” he said in a short clip posted from the street protest to his 12.3 million Instagram followers.
“I do live in America but I had to come to Puerto Rico [to] let the world know that we will make a change,” Martin said. “It’s pretty much barbaric what he’s doing, we’re tired and we’re angry.”
The hundreds of pages of chats leaked two weeks ago also featured comments offensive to women. And days earlier, prosecutors ordered the arrest of six government officials accused of embezzling $15 million in hurricane reconstruction money.
Rossello had said in March that he would seek re-election in polls scheduled for November 2020.
As lawmakers study the possibility of impeachment, the governor said Sunday he would face any proceedings “in a responsible manner.”
Former Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla told Telemundo that Rossello “is buying time to see if the protests die down.”
But San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who was also maligned in the text chats, called for his impeachment. “The mood is a mood of fighting. It’s a mood of ensuring that the people’s voices are heard. Hundreds of thousands of people using their voice as their most important weapon,” she said.
“It is impeachment time. He’s obstinate. His mental health isn’t there. He doesn’t want to resign,” she told CNN.
On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered in front of the governor’s residence, chanting slogans such as “They will not stop us” and holding signs that said “Ricky resign.”
Police fired tear gas at a crowd last week after a fire broke out near the government headquarters. Five protesters were arrested.
Puerto Rico was already in dire straits even before Hurricane Maria, which laid bare the disastrous state of its electrical grid.
An economic crisis prompted the territory to seek protection from creditors under U.S. bankruptcy law.
Budget cuts—which, among other actions, forced the closure of schools—prompted many Puerto Ricans to flee the island.
Combined with the post-hurricane exodus from the island, Puerto Rico lost 4 percent of its population.
Trump faced harsh criticisms from Rossello and Cruz, who claimed he had short-shrifted the territory in relief funding, and other partisan Democrats on the mainland joined in attacking the president, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
He has long maintained that the funding was provided but that corrupt officials had skimmed it from their own people.
Trump himself came under criticism recently for suggesting that several freshman Democratic congresswomen who had made anti-American statements should “go back” to the cultures they identified more with.
That included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez, whose parents were native Puerto Ricans.
© Agence France-Presse