Following Protests, Puerto Rico Governor Announces He Won't Seek Reelection

by | July 22, 2019 AT 9:00 AM

By Marisa Gerber and Milton Carrero Galarza

Puerto Rico's embattled governor -- who had gone almost entirely silent in the days since thousands of protesters began demanding his resignation -- dug in his heels Sunday, refusing to step down.

But in a four-minute speech, streamed live on Facebook, Gov. Ricardo Rossello said that he would not seek reelection in 2020 and that he would step down as president of his New Progressive Party.

Insisting that he loved the island and had considered the calls for him to resign, he said, "Puerto Rican brothers and sisters ... I have heard you and I hear you today. ... I've made mistakes and I apologize."

Rossello has faced fierce criticism after messages between him and several of his top aides leaked, in which the men used homophobic and sexist language and joked about victims of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in September 2017.

Another major demonstration is expected Monday after ones held in the last week that drew thousands of people into the streets of San Juan. Some universities have canceled classes for the day and many people here said they planned to skip work to join the protest. They already felt compelled to action, some said, but the governor's refusal to step down has further fueled their dedication.

"It makes us angrier," said Puerto Rican singer Ileana Cabra, who has joined along with protesters nearly every day for more than a week. Cabra, who goes by the stage name iLe, said she was confident that Puerto Ricans will continue marching in the streets until the governor resigns.

"We will keep pushing, we won't stop," said Cabra, who, along with several other artists, released a protest song last week called "Sharpening the Knives."

Many people here say they're disgusted not only by the leaked messages _ concrete proof, they say, of their leaders' callousness _ but also with rampant government corruption. On July 10, FBI agents arrested two of the island's former top officials, who allegedly directed lucrative contracts worth millions to politically connected businesses.

Many politicians, including the U.S. commonwealth's nonvoting member of Congress, also have called for Rossello to step down.

In his remarks Sunday, Rossello _ who is viewed by some as an extension of his father, a former governor -- acknowledged that he had invited criticism but said he planned for now to continue on the job.

Minutes later, truck drivers passing through the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan began blaring their horns and people chanted: "Renuncia! Renuncia!" It wasn't enough, they said; they want him to resign.

Nancy Mosquera, 40, was walking near the shoreline in San Juan when she heard that the governor intended to keep his job.

"He doesn't want to leave? Tomorrow he'll see everything and he'll have to go," Mosquera said, alluding to the upcoming protest.

Marta Vazquez Santos, 49, who lives about 20 minutes south of the capital in Guaynabo, said Rossello's decision to step down as president of his political party meant nothing to her. This isn't about political parties, she said, and not stepping down felt insulting.

"It shows a lack of respect," she said.

Before long, protesters had packed the narrow streets near the governor's official residence, known as La Fortaleza. Along a street called Calle del Cristo, protesters covered the last word with a paper reading "corrupto," rechristening it from Street of Christ to Corrupt Street.

People snapped photos and streamed videos and as the sun set into a muggy night, protesters jumped up and down, waving the Puerto Rican flag. The sound of saxophone music mixed with the crowd's incessant chanting.

"Por los muertos de Maria," they shouted in song. In the name of the hurricane victims, they said, Rossello had to go.

"Ricky renuncia!" they shouted.

Using the governor's nickname, they called on him to quit.

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times