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Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico, under fire for weeks, agrees to step down

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced late Wednesday evening that he is resigning from office effective Aug. 2, buckling to the unrelenting pressure of a popular uprising of unprecedented scope that in less than two weeks has turned this long-suffering U.S. territory upside down.

Rosselló was swept from office not three years into his term by 12 days of massive protests and political upheaval triggered by a leaked, profanely insolent phone-app chat and the arrest of six current and former administration officials on corruption charges. But the recent scandals were only the bitter capper to years of mounting frustration on the part of Puerto Ricans, faced with widespread and incessant corruption, a lagging government response to a cataclysmic hurricane, and a deep economic recession with no end in sight.

In the end, after days of strident insistence that he would serve out his term, Rosselló went quietly — announcing his decision in a live stream on his administration’s Facebook page — at the end of a speech long on his government’s accomplishments.

“Despite having the support of the people who elected me democratically, I now feel that continuing in this position will make it difficult for the success achieved so far to last,” Rosselló said. “Today, I’m announcing I will be resigning from the governor position effective Friday, August 2, 2019, at 5 p.m.”

The news of his resignation, expected since local media reported late Tuesday that his departure from office was imminent, set off celebrations in the capital of San Juan on Wednesday.

In Old San Juan, in front of the iconic Doña Fela parking garage not far from the governor’s mansion, a mostly young crowd of hundreds gathered around improvised speakers on top of a pickup truck broadcasting the Facebook Live feed of the voice of the man so many had pushed to overthrow through daily acts of resistance.

As Rosselló recounted some of his administration’s accomplishments, the crowd remained quiet and tense, the mounting anxiety of hours of waiting in anticipation to erupt at his hoped-for final words, when he announced he would be stepping down.

The crowd screamed, drowning out the sound of the rest of Rosselló’s message. Couples hugged and kissed. Some cried, danced, or both at the same time. A group of young people leaning over a metal railing waved Puerto Rican flags and sang.

“I was scared, I was like, ‘Wow, if he doesn’t resign, he’s not worth anything.’ I was thinking that because we had an entire people united, the artists, internationally, so we’re just so happy,” said 26-year-old Mergam Alvarado. “We’re such a great country and we deserve something that can guide us better.”

Rosselló’s post will be filled for the remainder of his four-year term by Wanda Vázquez, his secretary of justice. Under the Puerto Rican constitution, the secretary of state is first in line to succeed a governor who can’t complete a term. But the position has been vacant since the person who occupied it under Rosselló, Luis Rivera Marín, one of a dozen participants in the private Telegram app chat, resigned.

Rossello’s stubborn insistence on holding onto his office seemed only to inspire protesters’ determination to oust him. On Sunday, after meeting with leaders and elected officials of his pro-statehood New Progressive Party, Rosselló said he would not run for re-election in 2020 and quit as party head.

If he thought that would tamp down the protests, he soon found out otherwise.

The resignation came two days after hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans staged the largest demonstration in island history, marching down a major expressway to demand Rosselló’s resignation, producing stunning images that led the news across the United States.

Rumors had swirled for days that the governor would resign as Rosselló hid from public view even as his administration released a series of business-as-usual photos of the chief executive conducting meetings and signing orders in his official residence of La Fortaleza in Old San Juan.

The embattled governor spent the last days of his administration accepting the resignations of members of his cabinet and staff, including the secretary of state, the head of the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico, the director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, his chief of staff and his press secretary.

Legislators and mayors of his party on the island, members of the U.S. Congress, Puerto Rican celebrities and leaders in diaspora communities around the world — including his former running mate in 2016 — condemned the Rosselló administration and demanded that he step down. Virtually no one spoke publicly in his support as Rosselló, increasingly isolated and having lost all semblance of political clout, bowed to the inevitable.

The demonstrations were notable for the broad cross-section of Puerto Ricans who participated, given longstanding divisions between partisans of statehood, the U.S. commonwealth status quo, and independence. But those sectarian differences seemed to melt away during protests that melded the anger and wounded pride felt by many at Puerto Rico’s diminished status with a festive atmosphere, including dancing and Afro-Caribbean drumming.

If at least twice squads of fired-up young demonstrators engaged in late-night clashes with police in riot gear that ended in the firing of rubber bullets and tear gas, Wednesday night’s mood was mellower, though several people vowed to carry on the fight against a government many see as unresponsive to citizens’ concerns and steeped in corruption.

Near Calle Fortaleza, some guards standing on the corners of streets near the screaming crowds were no longer wearing heavy equipment on their shoulders. Protesters, now celebrating, assured in their chants they would come after other government officials still in power.

The celebration was for some the conclusion of a long fight, a series of self-sacrifices with a clear target and end goal. For many others, the ousting of Rosselló represented the start of an intentional movement in Puerto Rico led by the popular masses.

“We’ve spent 12 days waiting for this to happen. Even though he made us wait all day, we finally did it. Our people discovered that we have the power to change history,” said Jackmari Ortiz, 34. “It’s going to be difficult to step on our people again because we’re tired of the abuse, of the stealing, of the injustice, of so many deaths... This is just the beginning.”

The resignation signals a perhaps unexpected and rapid triumph for a popular movement that did not exist two weeks ago. But it’s unclear whether the movement will continue under an unelected leader from a deeply unpopular administration, or how the resignation could lead quickly to the radically improved governance many protesters were demanding.

Reports on Tuesday suggested more federal indictments could be announced as investigations into Rosselló’s administration continue. The NPP party, which many hold responsible for a culture of public corruption stretching back years, remains in control of La Fortaleza and the island’s legislature.

The island’s Justice Department executed warrants on Tuesday to search the phones of some of the participants of the controversial government group chat, as the legislature weighed initiating an impeachment process. A report written by a group of lawyers hired by the island’s House of Representatives to explore the political proceedings concluded Rosselló could be impeached over 3 alleged criminal and 2 ethical violations linked to the leaked chat, according to the newspaper El Nuevo Día.

According to the search warrant, the members of the chat “relayed privileged and official information to private citizens, potentially violating the Law of Government Ethics of Puerto Rico.” At least four of the chat participants were not working for the Puerto Rico government at the time, the document shows.

Rosselló’s political unraveling began on July 10, when the FBI announced the indictment of six former government officials and contractors on corruption charges.

Protesters were also outraged over an 889-page private group message that was leaked two days later, where Rosselló and 11 other close allies mocked and insulted women, LGBTQ people, political opponents, celebrities and journalists. The profane chat app sparked massive demonstrations.

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Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello Carlos Giusti AP

In the chats, one of the participants also mocked the backlog of bodies that piled up at the island’s medical examiner’s office due to a lack of resources and staffing following the devastating Hurricane María in 2017.

Nearly 3,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the devastating storm that left the island without basic resources for months. The government’s death toll remained at 64 for almost a year after Maria’s landing, causing outrage and controversy among citizens. After numerous reports and studies pointed to thousands of deaths connected to the hurricane, Rosselló’s administration commissioned an independent study by George Washington University to assess the death toll.

The initial toll was revised to 2,975 in August 2018.

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