Amid Corruption Scandal, Thousands Demand Resignation of Puerto Rican Governor

In what appears to be the largest protest in this U.S. territory in recent memory, protesters convened by Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and other well-known artists began gathering en masse under a scorching sun late in the afternoon.
by | July 18, 2019 AT 7:54 AM

By Bianca Padró Ocasio

To the accompaniment of percussion and air horns, a dense stream made up of thousands of chanting, singing Puerto Ricans began moving at a crawl through the streets of Old San Juan early Wednesday evening to demand the resignation of embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

In what appears to be the largest protest in this U.S. territory in recent memory, protesters convened by Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and other well-known artists began gathering en masse under a scorching sun late in the afternoon in front of the oceanfront Capitol building, the seat of the island's legislature, for the 5 p.m. protest.

As the sun went down, people continued peacefully streaming down the roadway leading into Old San Juan towards a broad plaza for a planned mass rally. Riding on an improvised stage atop a truck were Bad Bunny and René Perez Joglar, the rapper from the group Calle 13 who is known as Residente, who urged over a loudspeaker that Rosselló "go to hell." Other Puerto Rican celebrities joining the protest were singer Ricky Martin and actor Benicio del Toro.

Other protesters began showing up earlier in the day near the entrance to the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza, the site of a confrontation between riot police and some protesters on Monday night. The dead-end street leading to the mansion's gate was blocked by concrete highway barriers and a phalanx of police.

The mass of people soon filled the narrow streets of the historic Spanish Colonial district.

Many were young. Some had attended protests in the past several days to demand that governor Ricardo Rosselló step down. Many others had never been to a protest before. Some had traveled from their homes around the island or from abroad to be here.

But what appeared consistent and true was that Puerto Ricans of all walks of life were fed up, offended and angry at the 40-year-old governor and his administration, caught up in a string of scandals and investigations amid an extended financial crisis that has led to an exodus from the island.

"We had to be here. There's nothing else to do," said 48-year-old Aidelyn Paba, who said she lived in Fort Lauderdale and traveled for the demonstration. "Ricky doesn't represent us anymore... The graduating class from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez in 2015, that class, 90 percent of it has had to leave. They've stolen everything from us."

Around the early protesters, tourists strolled with shopping bags from Coach and shyly asked what was going on. Others took selfies in front of the officers or made their kids pose with signs calling for Rosselló to resign. One woman hosed down her door front and hid loose rocks she feared could be used as projectiles.

"Please try not to abuse the young people," Jeanette Saldaña told the group of police officers in front of the governor's mansion, the Fortaleza. She's a 52-year-old resident of Aguas Buenas, a town about 40 minutes south of San Juan, but said she could not stay for the afternoon protest due to health concerns. "The youth are doing the work of those who cannot be here, like older people, like people who cannot walk all the way here. So I'm asking for peace from you."

"I am against the governor and I am asking for his resignation," Saldaña added. "The statements he made against our people who don't deserve it, to our society, to women, to homosexuals, to obese people, to the people who are still living under blue tarps... I am making this demand and I am doing it respectfully."

On this Wednesday morning, San Juan was experiencing the calm before a much-anticipated storm.

A recent wave of unrest that has prompted daily protests on the island for several days stems from the news of federal indictments against six former island government officials for alleged corruption, and a leaked profane private group chat that Rosselló held with cabinet members and aides. After the 889 pages of the Telegram group chat were published last Saturday, Puerto Ricans became enraged at the governor and his close allies who were shown mocking political opponents, gay people, women and ordinary citizens.

The demonstrations on Wednesday were expected to bring large crowds into the touristy streets near the Capitol building and the governor's Fortaleza mansion. The calls for Rosselló to step down have been amplified by calls to action on social media from Puerto Rican celebrities, including trap music artist Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, known as Bad Bunny; rapper Joglar of Calle 13 singer Ricky Martin, and Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Hurricane shutters and plywood lined the storefront windows of a mostly empty Old San Juan, as residents and authorities in Puerto Rico prepared for the massive protests against Rosselló.

By 4 p.m., several hundred people had already gathered in front of the Puerto Rico Capitol building. They repeated chants as the rhythm of bomba and plena blasted over trucks and speakers, asking for the governor to leave.

Rita Pabón, 44, said she was tired of officials dismissing the protests as a movement led by a small few.

"I had never been to a protest. This is the first time I do it because I feel like Puerto Rico needs it," said Pabón, a resident of San Juan. "I want the governor to resign. It's not just the chat, it's all the ongoing corruption and it all fell on him. It fell on him to leave."

She was joined by her 18-year-old daughter, Natasha Curtin, who said it was also the first time she had ever been to a protest.

"We've had too many humiliations. It's everything, everything. We saw how they did that in the chat, and it was just the last straw," Curtin said. "He can say he's sorry, but we're not asking him to apologize. We're asking for him to leave."

Meanwhile, unions and other feminist groups led the crowd in a chant: "We don't want to negotiate, we just want him to leave and that's it."

The protests have spread across Puerto Rican communities in the U.S., including in Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and California. Puerto Ricans abroad posted on social media in support of Wednesday's demonstrations from Spain, Italy and the Dominican Republic.

Henry Escalera, the commissioner of the Puerto Rico police department, told the media on Wednesday the police force is prepared to deal peacefully with the crowds and hoped the protests wouldn't turn violent.

At least two Royal Caribbean cruises had been diverted from the island over security concerns from the ongoing protests, which the Tourism Department secretary Carla Campos Vidal said could have cost the island at least $532,000.

Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this story.

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