Protesters in Puerto Rico shut down a major highway Monday after the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, refused to step down.
To many in Puerto Rico, the governor’s address on Sunday evening, broadcast over Facebook Live, only added fuel to the widespread demands for his resignation. Rosselló said he would step down as the head of the New Progressive Party and wouldn’t seek re-election — but that he wouldn’t resign as governor.
“I am aware of the dissatisfaction and discomfort you have,” Rosselló said in the nearly four-minute video. “I have heard you, and I hear you today. I have made mistakes, and I have apologized.”
But the message was not well received, and the island’s trade unions called for a general strike on Monday, which spread on social media. The demonstrators hope to draw about a million people and had shut down traffic in one of the island’s major highways in San Juan. They wanted to break the attendance record of the historic march in 2000, which also shut down the highway, and demanded the exit of the Navy of the United States of Vieques, a smaller island off Puerto Rico's eastern coast.
The protesters stormed Puerto Rico Highway 18, also known as Expreso Las Américas, Monday morning as vehicles honking their horns and playing the unofficial Revolutionary Anthem of Puerto Rico were still on the road. A stage with artists Bad Bunny, Ricky Martin, Residente, and others will be waiting for the crowd back in the Hiram Bithorn Stadium, where Monday's protest started.
Though the country calmed down toward the end of last week after protests turned violent Wednesday, many said they were saving their energy to come out this week.
“Ricardo Rosselló’s message [Sunday] — on the eve of a national strike demanding precisely his resignation — only infuriates us more and gives us further energy to take the streets tomorrow,” Desirée Morales, a 22-year-old from Bayamón. “His message today does not change anything: We want him out.”
“The address today was redundant,” said José Caraballo, economist and associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico. “He didn't have a chance to win the election next year anyway. It may infuriate hesitant people to protest even more.”
Days of demonstrations
Thousands have already been protesting every night since July 13, after nearly 900 pages of homophobic and misogynistic Telegram messages leaked. For many, the messages only emphasized the years of corruption on the island, the lack of local and U.S. government support in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and a political system that’s ultimately broken.
Earlier this month, the FBI also arrested the former Puerto Rican secretary of education and five others in a fraud probe. They’ve been accused of directing funds to unqualified, politically-connected contractors.
Rosselló appears to have little support remaining. Many in his cabinet have resigned, including chief financial officer Christian Sobrino and Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera Marín, both participated in the chat. (Rivera Marín being the next-in-line for the governorship.)
“It’s a slap in the face to all Puerto Ricans,” said Laura Rexach, a local radio host. “For him [Rosselló] to think he can keep governing for another year and a half as if nothing has happened is insulting to our core.”
Protesters have demonstrated from their jet skis, on horseback and on motorcycles and banged pots in unison from their apartments. Some protesters even dressed as various government officials and posed as though they were defecating into buckets in the streets of San Juan.
Protests on Wednesday night turned violent, with police firing tear gas to disperse the crowds. Five protesters were arrested and about two dozen cops were injured, according to the Puerto Rican authorities.
The widespread opposition to Rosselló has taken to social media with the hashtag #RickyRenuncia to demand his resignation. And the calls have extended far beyond the island. From the halls of Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, and Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, have called for Rosselló to step down.
While the leaked chats kicked off the protests, dissatisfaction with the local government in Puerto Rico has much deeper roots. Puerto Ricans have been hurting for years as schools have closed and public services have been cut to deal with a ballooning debt crisis. Protesters also want to disband the unelected oversight board, which has been managing the restructuring of the island’s debt, largely by cutting public spending.
Nearly two years ago, Hurricane Maria also left thousands dead and the rest of the island without power and water for almost a year.
“This is about more than a text chat,” said Sharely Fred Torres, a Puerto Rican medical student in New York. “Our pain and trauma go far beyond Rosselló’s misogynistic, racist, insensible comments. This is about the hatred and greed that he now represents — the lies, neglect, and years of betrayal our island has endured.”
Correction 7/23 10:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the secretary of state's name. The text has been updated.
Antonia Hylton and Ani Ucar contributed to this report.
Cover image: Protestors perch on top of the barricades separating demonstrators and the Governor’s Mansion, La Fortaleza on Friday. (Jeff Mercado/VICE News)