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Thousands take to the streets in Puerto Rico to demand governor's resignation

By ARELIS R. HERNÁNDEZ AND KAYLA EPSTEIN | The Washington Post | Published: July 22, 2019

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Puerto Ricans filled the streets in a massive planned protest, paralyzing a major San Juan highway in an island-wide demonstration to demand that their governor must go.

The embattled Puerto Rican leader has refused to resign after more than a week of growing protests in the U.S. territory's capital city. Ricardo Rosselló, 40, a Democrat and member of the island's statehood party, said Sunday he would not seek reelection in 2020 and would step down from his role as head of the party.

But the announcement did nothing to assuage Puerto Ricans incensed by a leaked series of group-chat messages in which Rosselló and his closest collaborators denigrated their opponents, insulted women and gay people, made light of Hurricane Maria's dead and revealed potentially criminal behavior by his administration.

Leaders of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives are exploring the possibility of impeachment, but it is not clear when or if proceedings will take place. Rosselló said he respects the process and welcomes the inquiry. The Secretary of State is the next in line, but the governor has yet to fill the vacancy left by Luis Rivera Marin, who resigned earlier this month because of his role in the embarrassing content leaked from the Telegram messaging app.

But residents of the archipelago are growing impatient.

As they go on, these protests have morphed from a targeted repudiation of their leader to an exasperation of all the grievances Puerto Rican have harbored for years. The debt. The economy. The unelected federal oversight board managing the territory's finances. The lack of opportunity for its young people. 

Lucia Crespo, 15, came to the march on Monday with her mother, carrying a sign in English lamenting the fact that she had to leave Puerto Rico in 2015 because there were few prospects for her family after her father lost his job in the slow economy. She now lives in Denton, Texas. But she would rather be home. 

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"We moved there for a better life but we want to come back," she said. "But it's just impossible, and it's really sad."

The last week has been marked by creative and expressive demonstrations. From scuba divers holding protest signs under the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean to neighborhoods across the island banging pots outside their windows in unison every night at 8 p.m. on the dot, Puerto Rico has never seen a display quite like it.

Today's demonstration could represent the largest mobilization in the history of Puerto Rico, a colony the United States acquired during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The island has been a self-governing territory since 1952 with the adoption of their Constitution a few years after residents elected their first native-born governor.

The masses assembled in San Juan early Monday, with tens of thousands flooding the streets ahead of a planned 9 a.m. start time, while photos and videos of the march inundated social media.

Veronica Caro, sat inside the grounds of Hiram Bithorn stadium, which has hosted opening days games for Major League Baseball, waiting for the march to begin. She sat clutching a large Puerto Rico flag and was incredulous that the island's leader had disrespected the people so deeply. 

"We voted for him because he promised to bring a new face to Puerto Rican politics and change things," Caro, 31, told The Washington Post. "But he turned out to be more of the same."

Sitting next to her was Marta Rivera, a 59-year-old retiree from Carolina, Puerto Rico, who called the governor "worse than Trump."

A slogan calling for the governor's resignation, "Ricky Renuncia," was everywhere: In hashtags and on hats, on signs and sidewalks, and the lips of protesters who hoped their show of force would succeed in driving him from power.

Music blasted through the streets as protesters expressed themselves through song, with some dancing in the roads that had surrendered to the wave of demonstrators.

Prominent officials and celebrities joined members of the public in calling for Rosselló's ousting.

In an interview with CNN, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz declared that, "it is impeachment time."

The mayor had been a target in the controversial chat group, and she did not hold back in her criticism of the governor.
"The crimes committed by the governor are so horrendous that it cannot wait," she said. "He's obstinate, his mental health isn't there, he doesn't wanna resign, it's impeachment time."

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted her support for Puerto Rico's protesters on Saturday, writing that "like all Americans, they have the fundamental right-and duty-to hold their leaders to account. On Sunday, celebrity chef José Andrés called for Americans to support the demonstrations on the island.

Meanwhile, Rosselló has displayed signs of defiance as tens of thousands march to oust him.

Rosselló met with Puerto Rico's mayors and New Progressive Party leadership late Sunday in a meeting closed to the public. A few PNP officials began to defend the governor on the airwaves saying he did not commit any crimes in the chat and the calls for removing him are undemocratic. The message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Analysts say Rosselló seems to be trying to wait out the outrage and dare members of the politicians force him out by impeachment. The governor said Sunday he welcomed an impeachment inquiry and respect the process. 

"There is nothing more democratic than exercising our rights to protest and invoking our constitution, which lays out the way to impeachment," said Amarilis Padilla-Lugo, the ex-director of a primary care health program for the homeless. "Our elected leaders have a responsibility to listen to us."

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Epstein reported from Washington, D.C.
 

Posters of Gov. Ricardo Rossello containing the Spanish message "Ricky resign" hang during a protest near La Fortaleza governor's residence in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sunday, July 14, 2019.
CARLOS GIUSTI/AP

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