As protests grow and turn violent, Puerto Rico Gov. Rosselló insists he won't resign

“I was elected by the people,” the embattled governor said as protests grow calling for his resignation.
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People riot near the executive mansion demanding the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rossello, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 15, 2019.Carlos Giusti / AP

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By Nicole Acevedo

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló doubled down on his plans to stay in his job after protests calling for his resignation turned violent Monday night. The massive protests injured about two dozen police officers and roughly five protesters were arrested as a result of the demonstration, according to authorities.

During a press conference Tuesday afternoon, the embattled governor said, “I was elected by the people,” citing this as one of his main reasons for not resigning.

The remarks and the protests come in the wake of multiple scandals that have hit the Rosselló administration during recent weeks regarding corruption investigations and the leaking of private chats between the governor and some officials and close associates.

At least 889 pages of the private chats, which included profanity-laced, misogynistic and homophobic comments were released Saturday by Puerto Rico’s top investigative journalism media outlet after excerpts were first reported days before.

In the chats on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, Rosselló made fun of an obese man he posed with in a photo, called former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito a “whore” and said Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan who had announced her intent to run for governor against Rosselló in 2020, was “off her meds.”

“Either that, or she’s a tremendous HP,” the governor said, using the Spanish initials for “son/daughter of a b----.”

The members of the chat group were Luis Rivera Marín, Rosselló’s secretary of state; Christian Sobrino, who held a series of important economic posts; Carlos Bermúdez, a one-time communications aide; Edwin Miranda, a communications consultant; Interior Secretary Ricardo Llerandi; Public Affairs Secretary Anthony Maceira, and Elías Sánchez, one-time representative to the board overseeing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy.

The chat also contains vulgar references to Puerto Rican star Ricky Martin’s homosexuality and a series of emojis of a raised middle finger directed at a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances.

Talking about a lack of forensic pathologists as the death toll rose after Hurricane Maria, Sobrino said, “Can’t we feed a body to the crows?”

The scandal has sunk Rosselló into the deepest crisis of his career.

The messages were leaked shortly after Puerto Rico's former secretary of education, former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration head Ángela Ávila-Marrero and four other people with government contracts under Rosselló’s administration were arrested last week and are facing 32 counts of money laundering, fraud and other related charges for the alleged embezzlement of $15.5 million in federal funding between 2017 and 2019.

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The White House reacted to the unrest in Puerto Rico on Tuesday afternoon saying, “The unfortunate events of the past week in Puerto Rico prove the President’s concerns about the mismanagement, politicization, and corruption have been valid.”

Citizens protest near the executive mansion demanding the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rossello, in San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 15, 2019.Carlos Giusti / AP

“We remain committed to Puerto Rico’s recovery and steadfast in protecting taxpayers and the Puerto Rico survivors from political corruption and financial abuse,” the statement said.

In reaction to comments from the White House, Rosselló said that “corruption is a social evil” and it “has occurred in all administrations.”

The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is expected to make a stop in San Juan on Thursday, as part of an official trip that will take him to Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and El Salvador. The trip was later cancelled on Wednesday morning.

The scandal comes as the U.S.Senate is prepared to add more restrictions that could limit federal funds for the island, including $12 billion in Medicaid appropriations for the next four years and other hurricane-recovery aid.

Puerto Rico is still recovering from the category 4 hurricane that destroyed the island’s long-neglected infrastructure and power grid and resulted in the deaths of at least 2,975 people, making it the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years and has come to define a sad turning point in the island's history.

For many Puerto Ricans still recovering from Hurricane Maria and on the back of the island’s biggest public financial collapse, the scandal analysts and ordinary people are calling “Chatgate” or “Rickyleaks” has resulted in unprecedented protests against the U.S. commonwealth's chief executive.

Growing protests

As thousands marched in the capital Monday calling for Rosselló’s resignation, police tried to disperse them with pepper spray in front of the Fortaleza governor’s residence, which was protected by barricades.

Puerto Rico police spokesperson Axel Valencia told Telemundo during live coverage of the demonstrations that such protests are one of the biggest, most intense he’d seen in the island in recent history — leaving about 40 properties in Old San Juan, where protests took place, damaged.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Drug Enforcement Administration are investigating the violent acts and vandalism that took place Monday.

Protesters have been calling for Rosselló's resignation for over three consecutive days. Demonstrations first started with hundreds of people, then growing to the thousands. The growth was reflected on Twitter as the hashtag #RickyRenuncia (Resign Ricky, a shortened version of his name, Ricardo) was trending worldwide Monday.

Some leaders of the U.S. territory’s Legislature said they weren’t planning impeachment proceedings. Others introduced a resolution to initiate a process of impeachment for Rosselló. In it, House Rep. Dennis Márquez outlined 18 possible crimes that stem from the leaked chats.

At the same time, an influential association of mayors from Rosselló’s pro-statehood party said he had lost their support.

The president of the commonwealth’s House of Representatives, Carlos Méndez Núñez, said Sunday night that legislators from Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which has a majority in both houses, did not support starting impeachment proceedings against the governor. He said they gave Rosselló a one-week deadline to reflect, show contrition and prove he could continue to govern.

“Impeachment isn’t on the table yet," he said. "But we reserve the right to evaluate if that’s merited.”

Puerto Rican artists Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, known as Bad Bunny, and René Pérez, known as Residente, both said on social media they planned to return to Puerto Rico to protest Rosselló’s administration on Wednesday.

Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose production of “Hamilton” on the island is mentioned in the chats, called them “a very disturbing portrait of how this Administration operates.

Even if Rosselló survives until next year's election, it's clear to many observers that he has been profoundly weakened and less able to deal with crises.

Despite widespread cynicism in Puerto Rico about politicians’ corruption and self-dealing, the chat shocked residents in a way that other scandals haven’t, particularly given Rosselló’s image as a gentle, even meek family man, said Mario Negrón Portillo, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s school of public administration.

“Everyone woke up one day and the governor was spouting vulgarities,” Negrón said. “There’s nothing worse for a politician than losing legitimacy. I think Ricardo Rosselló has lost legitimacy.”

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Associated Press contributed.