Puerto Rico governor clings to power as unrest escalates on the island

Puerto Ricans woke up on the morning of July 10 to the shocking news that the FBI had indicted six former officials and contractors from the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

The next day, the news got worse: Puerto Ricans found out their governor had called the former speaker of the New York City Council “puta” — a whore — in a private chat he shared with several other aides and cabinet members. Rumors circled there were more profane messages where those came from.

Two days later, most of the island was hypnotized by the more than 880 pages of the governor’s chat on the Telegram messaging app that became public. All over social media, people posted screenshots of the messages in which the governor and his allies had mocked citizens, political opponents, celebrities and journalists.

For many Puerto Ricans, who have been reeling for years from disasters both natural and fiscal, the insults on the chat revealed a “boys’ club” government in which public policies and media narratives were being shaped detached from the realities of their citizens. The sudden onslaught of scandals pried open the mounting frustrations that have been building for Puerto Ricans for years.

From a crippling public debt that provoked the federal government to take over the island’s finances, to massive population loss and the slow trickle of federal money in the wake of Hurricane Maria, many on the island feel the new scandals have brought Rosselló’s ability to govern to a tipping point.

Despite this unrest, Rosselló reiterated on Tuesday that he is committed to “keep on working” for the island amid massive protests calling for his resignation on Monday night, and condemned demonstrators he said threatened the safety of residents in Old San Juan.

“Aside from these [protests] I recognize their importance, I recognize the magnitude, and it’s important to me that the government continues working for the island and we get results,” said Rosselló, acknowledging he was the target of the protests.

The leak last week of the nearly 900 pages of private text messages, with memes and texts that show Rosselló and close aides insulting women, journalists and even mocking performer Ricky Martin for being gay, has led to growing calls for the governor to step down.

At a San Juan press conference on Tuesday morning, Rosselló said he had undergone a process of introspection and has decided to continue working for Puerto Rico.

“I feel that responsibility and will continue acting on it,” he told reporters.

Widespread protests flood the streets of San Juan

Rosselló admitted the scandals are a blow to Puerto Rico and his government, but limited most of his reactions to Monday night’s protests. Although he respected the freedom of speech of protesters, he said, he accused some in the crowd of endangering law enforcement and themselves.

Images circulated on social media showing hundreds of people in Puerto Rico flooding the touristy, cobblestone streets of Old San Juan on Monday evening, chanting “Ricky, renuncia” — Resign, Ricky. Hours after the protest began, participants began to spray graffiti on the walls — in some cases alluding to insults that were used in the chat.

Rosselló said at least 21 officers were injured during later confrontations between police and demonstrators, and claimed some of the protesters threw loose cobblestones at law enforcement. As the face-off escalated near midnight, police tear-gassed protesters, as a small group lit fireworks in front of the governor’s Fortaleza mansion.

“We cannot protect vandalism, aggression and violence,” the governor said. “I want to make sure that following this blow, we can rise again.”

But activists took to social media to defend their actions.

Videos of residents cleaning up the streets and painting over the graffiti spread online following Rosselló’s press conference. New York Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez shared a video on Twitter of one activist who appeared to be trying to appease protesters before police fired a rubber bullet at her.

Today, “you defended your police commissioner,” Velázquez tweeted at Rosselló. “But last night, while this woman asked the crowd not to throw objects at the police, they responded by shooting rubber bullets at her back... Have you watched this video Governor?”

At least two members of Rosselló’s cabinet have offered their resignations amid the chat scandal, including Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín and Christian Sobrino, who was Rosselló’s main financial adviser and Puerto Rico’s representative on the federal Fiscal Oversight and Management Board that controls the island’s finances.

The protests unfolded after 889 pages of the governor’s private Telegram chat were obtained and published by journalists in Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism last Saturday. The group message had more than 10 participants, including Rivera Marín and Sobrino. It is not known who leaked the chat.

Rosselló responded to concerns that the participants in the Telegram chat shared confidential information with people outside his administration but who were in the group message. The governor assured that a working group within his government has found “no illegal acts” in the chat.

Meanwhile, demonstrators are also outraged at the actions of six former government officials and contractors, including Puerto Rico’s secretary of education, who were arrested on federal corruption charges last week.

The governor, a Democrat, also rejected accusations from U.S. lawmakers that Puerto Rico’s government has lost its credibility. At least one congressman, Arizona Democrat Rep. Raúl Grijalva, has called for Rosselló to resign.

A spokesman for President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly accused the Puerto Rican government of being corrupt, said the ongoing crisis proved the president’s claims.

“The unfortunate events of the past week in Puerto Rico prove the President’s concerns about mismanagement, politicization, and corruption have been valid,” according to White House press secretary Judd Deere. “We remain committed to Puerto Rico’s recovery and steadfast in protecting taxpayers and the Puerto Rico survivors from political corruption and financial abuse.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was scheduled to leave on a trip around Latin America on Thursday, announced Tuesday he would make a stop in San Juan and meet with the island’s state department staff “to express his appreciation for all their hard work.”

Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott are not calling on Rosselló to resign, though they say they are disgusted with his behavior.

“What’s frustrating for me is you think about these poor families, these poor families want jobs and want education and you sit there and get these people being indicted for fraud — they’re indicted not convicted — you see these ridiculous quotes about women and stuff like that, so it’s the families there deserve better,” said Scott, who visited Puerto Rico 10 times since Hurricane Maria destroyed the territory’s power grid. “But It’s a decision he has to make. I’m not calling for him to step down.”

Scott said the recent FBI indictments and leaked chats mean the federal government will need to closely scrutinize Puerto Rico’s use of federal funds.

“I think we’re going to have to continue to look at how all that money is spent,” Scott said. “We put barriers in on the disaster stuff but on all the dollars we’re going to have to look at and make sure it’s spent well.”

Scott also said everyone he knows in Puerto Rico is upset with the governor’s actions. He stopped short of saying Rosselló should not run for reelection in 2020 after Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in Washington, argued for it.

“Everybody I’ve talked to is disgusted. You don’t say things like that about women,” Scott said “That’s a decision [about running again] he has to make.”

Rubio, who publicly sparred with Rosselló over statehood after the governor criticized him for the 2017 tax bill’s effects on Puerto Rico, declined to weigh in on calls for Rosselló’s resignation.

“I won’t comment on that because I don’t vote in Puerto Rico. He’s not accountable to me,” Rubio said. “I can tell you that my job I believe is to ensure that the people of Puerto Rico are not punished for the wrongdoing of politicians. So whatever that takes to ensure the aid money continues to flow is what I want to do.”

Puerto Ricans in Florida ask for new leadership

Rosselló’s refusal to resign has not alleviated outrage from the large diaspora of Puerto Ricans in Florida, many of whom are survivors of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“The institutions of government in Puerto Rico are as fragile as its infrastructure after Maria,” said Jorge Bonilla, a conservative Puerto Rican talk-show host based in Central Florida. “I think it’s unsustainable that he continues to be governor. ... At this point you have to wonder what more can happen before Congress takes control” of the island.”

Bonilla’s fear —that the federal government would use the charges of government corruption as a pretext to increase federal oversight of the island — was echoed by other Puerto Rican activists.

“We were asking for funds for education, and [the feds] arrest the secretary of Education. We were asking for Medicaid funding, and they arrest healthcare officials,” said Miami-based activist Frederick Velez III Burgos. “For a long time, many of us were all contributing our tiny grain of sand. Now this happens and it’s as if that little hope we had has vanished. ... All of a sudden there is no credibility.”

At a rally in Miami on Tuesday night, activists gathered at the Freedom Tower to protest the current island administration.

“I’m here because I’m truly outraged at the Puerto Rico government,” said Ingrid Castillo. “If [Rosselló] does not resign, then we’re kicking him out. All of us Puerto Ricans are outraged. Right now we’re giving him a chance to leave on good terms, to not let this drag on because we want to accomplish this peacefully.”

Meanwhile in Puerto Rico, everyone has a story of someone who has left the island. It’s usually a tale that is both nostalgic and hopeful, because many in Puerto Rico want to follow those footsteps.

Once his youngest of two daughters has to go to school, Puerto Rico resident Juan Carlos — who did not want to give his last name — will not be able to afford a private education with his current salary as an Uber driver.

“I want to leave for Miami because my daughters’ private school costs too much. Public school education here is useless,” Juan Carlos said.

Also unclear is if the island’s legislature will begin the process of impeaching Rosselló, something the governor denied has even been discussed among members of his party, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.

“The most serious part about this whole situation — which is by itself problematic — is that it is happening in the midst of a deep financial crisis, an ongoing fiscal recession and a slow recovery nearly two years after Hurricane Maria struck,” said Jorge Duany, an expert on Puerto Rico and director of the Cuban Research at Florida International University.

Duany said the resignation of Puerto Rico’s secretary of state, who would succeed the governor if he left office, is dire. It leaves the party in power with the conundrum of choosing a potential successor for Rosselló as he downplays the crisis in his own administration.

“At this time, the stage where this is all playing out is too chaotic, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the Puerto Rican government’s structures have practically collapsed as a result of the government’s crisis of legitimacy,” Duany said.

Staff writer for El Nuevo Herald Maria Luisa Paul contributed to this report.

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