Thousands fill streets of San Juan to demand Puerto Rico’s governor resign

FILE PHOTO - Demonstrators protest for the resignation of Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez FILE PHOTO - Demonstrators protest for the resignation of Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez

(Reuters) – Thousands of people began pouring into the streets of San Juan on Monday morning in massive demonstrations to demand that Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello resign over offensive chat messages.

FILE PHOTO: Puerto Rico's new governor Ricardo Rossello addresses the audience during his swear-in ceremony outside the Capitol in San Juan, Puerto Rico January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Puerto Rico’s new governor Ricardo Rossello addresses the audience during his swear-in ceremony outside the Capitol in San Juan, Puerto Rico January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

Rossello’s announcement on Sunday that he would not seek re-election next year and would resign as head of the New Progressive Party seemed to have little effect on the crowds, who called for him to immediately step down as governor.

Crowds of people, some waving the U.S. island territory’s flag, gathered near San Juan’s baseball stadium for the latest in a series of more than a week of protests in the capital and elsewhere.

There is also a call for a general strike from trade unions. Many business owners decided to close shops and offices for the day, media reported.

Rossello, 40, asked for forgiveness and said he respected the wishes of Puerto Ricans in a message broadcast online on Sunday.

“I know that apologizing is not enough,” Rossello said in a video posted on Facebook. “A significant sector of the population has been protesting for days. I’m aware of the dissatisfaction and discomfort they feel. Only my work will help restore the trust of these sectors.”

His comments drew outrage from many Puerto Ricans, with social media videos showing San Juan residents leaning out of apartment windows banging pots and pans.

The publication on July 13 of sexist and homophobic chat messages between Rossello and top aides unleashed simmering resentment over his handling of devastating hurricanes in 2017, alleged corruption in his administration, and the island’s bankruptcy process.

“‘#Resign Ricky isn’t just a call for him to resign from the party, but from his seat as the top official,” Linda Michelle, an industrial engineer and Puerto Rico radio personality, tweeted on Sunday. “Whoever wasn’t sure about going to the march tomorrow has now made up their mind to go.”

“POWER OF THE PEOPLE”

Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress, as well as Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers, have called for the governor to step aside after nine days of sometimes violent protests.

“Once again: Rossell must resign,” U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted on Sunday in response to his video.

But Puerto Rico’s Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who may take over leadership of the pro-statehood PNP, said Rossello’s actions “put an end to part of the controversies and trauma hitting our people”.

Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez, also of the PNP, appointed an independent panel on Friday to investigate whether the chats warranted impeachment.

“I welcome the process started by the legislative assembly, which I will confront with complete truth,” Rossello said in the video.

The political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the island’s bankruptcy process as it tries to restructure some $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.

It has also raised concerns among U.S. lawmakers who are weighing the island’s requests for billions of federal dollars for healthcare and work to recover from Hurricane Maria, which led to nearly 3,000 deaths.

Opposing Rossello are a raft of Puerto Rican celebrities ranging from singer Ricky Martin and rapper Bad Bunny to “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Martin, a target of the governor’s chats, said he would march with protesters on Monday.

“I want to feel the power of the people,” Martin, 47, said in a Facebook video, urging legislative leaders to start an impeachment process.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Karen Pierog in Chicago, Zach Fagenson in Miami and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Jonathan Oatis)

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