After Weeks Of Protests, Puerto Rico’s Governor Will Resign
After weeks of protests and years of frustrations, Ricardo Rosselló, the Governor of Puerto Rico, announced last night that he will be resigning from office.
After two weeks of protests that were set off by a series of text messages, the Governor of Puerto Rico announced overnight that he would be resigning from office:
SAN JUAN, P.R. — Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico announced his resignation on Wednesday night, conceding that he could no longer credibly remain in power after an extraordinary popular uprising and looming impeachment proceedings had derailed his administration.
In a statement posted online just before midnight, Mr. Rosselló, 40, said he would step down on Aug. 2.
He said his successor for the moment would be the secretary of justice, Wanda Vázquez, a former district attorney who once headed the island’s office of women’s affairs. Ms. Vázquez was next in line under the commonwealth’s Constitution because the secretary of state, who would have succeeded Mr. Rosselló as governor, resigned last week when he also was caught up in a chat scandal that enveloped the administration.
But the governor appeared to leave open the possibility that a different successor could be in place by the time he steps down.
His ouster by popular demand meant more to Puerto Ricans than a rejection of Mr. Rosselló’s administration. It amounted to a resounding repudiation of decades of mismanagement and decline that everyday people blamed on politicians in San Juan and Washington.
Mr. Rosselló began his announcement by citing some of the accomplishments of his administration, including passing a balanced budget with no layoffs of public employees, fighting corruption, establishing positive economic growth and lowering taxes. “We raised the salary of teachers in the middle of a bankruptcy,” he said.
“I was willing to face any challenge, fully understanding that I would prevail against any accusation or process,” Mr. Rosselló said. But he said he had “heard the demand of the people,” and was convinced that continuing as governor “would endanger the successes we have achieved.”
He added: “I hope this decision serves as a call to citizen reconciliation.”
Hundreds of protesters outside La Fortaleza, the governor’s official residence, went suddenly silent on Wednesday night when Mr. Rosselló’s message began to air after hours of delay, with groups huddled around cellphones to listen. The crowd, shouting, grew restless as the 14-minute statement dragged on, but it burst into thunderous applause the moment he announced he would resign. Puerto Rican flags shot into the air and the drumbeats began, to chants of “¡Oé! ¡Oé ¡Oé!”
“I’m overjoyed. We did it, we did it,” said Meralys Lebrón, 28, as she danced with friends to the beat of the drums. “This matters to everyone in Puerto Rico. He showed us he was not the leader we need right now.”
“This is historic. Absolutely historic,” Aixa González, 28, said. “I have never seen anything like this and I can’t even put it into words. This is what he gets, this is justice.”
The governor’s announcement came only hours after the leader of the Puerto Rico House, Carlos J. Méndez Núñez, said lawmakers were planning to convene impeachment proceedings on Thursday. He said there were sufficient votes to oust the governor.
Mr. Rosselló is the first chief executive to step down during a term since Puerto Ricans started electing their governors in 1947. Until earlier this week, he had been expected to seek re-election in 2020.
Mr. Rosselló’s remarkable downfall followed more than a week of fervent public protests demanding his exit and a day of anxious anticipation on Wednesday. He had been expected to step down in the morning, but the announcement dragged on for hours amid a frenzy of rumors and speculation.
The demonstrations were touched off by a leaked private group chaton the messaging app Telegram that revealed crude conversations among Mr. Rosselló and his closest advisers — and pointed to possible wrongdoing within their circle. Coupled with the recent arrests of six people, including two former top officials, on federal corruption charges, the hundreds of leaked pages ignited public outrage against the governor, whom protesters derided in rhythmic chants as “Ricky.”
Even as the governor dug in his heels, it became increasingly difficult for him to hang on. Both his chief of staff and the person in charge of the island’s Federal Affairs Administration in Washington resigned on Tuesday. The chief of staff said he could no longer take threats directed at his family, and the Washington representative said the latest developments were contrary to his principles.
Hours later, a top donor to the party posted a letter on Twitter asking Mr. Rosselló to resign.
After weeks of scandals, corruption allegations and massive protests that weakened his administration and undermined his leadership, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares announced his resignation as governor of Puerto Rico effective August 2.
Faced with the demands from a large segment of the island’s population —which on Monday carried out the largest mass gathering in Puerto Rico’s history with upwards of 500,000 people marching in San Juan— Rosselló is stepping down after barely two and a half years in power, becoming the first Puerto Rico governor to leave before completing a first term.
Since Tuesday night, reports began to circulate indicating that the governor was preparing his exit and that his resignation was imminent.
In this manner, Rosselló leaves his post essentially alone and cornered, his reputation tarnished by a stream of corruption scandals and the leak of a private chat that uncovered intimate and controversial aspects of his character, an event that ultimately delivered a stake to the heart of his gubernatorial mandate.
Rosselló’s exit comes after a turbulent three weeks, during which private texts between him and close aides made through the messaging app Telegram got leaked revealing sexist and homophobic insults aimed at politicians and journalists, as well as conspiracies to discredit opposition leaders. The explosive 889-page also contains several instances of possible criminal activity, according to legal experts.
The Telegram scandal closely followed the arrests of top members in Rosselló’s cabinet —among them former Education secretary Julia Keleher and former executive director of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration, Ángela Ávila Marrero— by the FBI on corruption charges involving three separate schemes in which $15 million in federal and state funds were diverted to private entities and individuals.
The scandals sparked a wave of protests from a sizable segment of the island, made up mostly of young demonstrators, that did not show signs of stopping after eleven days. The daily protests in front of the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, have received the support of Puerto Rican celebrities such as Ricky martin, Bad Bunny, Residente and Molusco, among others, who helped to spread the message on social media and actively participated in various marches throughout the sectors of Old San Juan and Hato Rey in the island’s capital.
In the Telegram chat document, various topics of a partisan and public policy nature were discussed, among them orders to damage reputations and persecute members of the political opposition, as well as federally appointed officials. The conversations, which took place between November 2018 to January 2019, were also rife with insensitive comments and mockery about the death of figures such as pro-independence leaders Carlos Gallisá and Marta Font, as well as the management crisis at the state-run forensic sciences facility, after the island was hit by hurricane Maria in September 2017.
The private chat group consisted of twelve people, all male. Apart from Rosselló, there was his former gubernatorial campaign manager, Elías Sánchez; the now former government chief financial officer and representative to the FOB, Christian Sobrino, and former Public Affairs secretary Ramón Rosario. The group also included now former chief of staff Ricardo Llerandi; Edwin Miranda, a publicist and owner of KOI, a local advertising firm; Alfonso Orona, a former legal advisor to the governor, and public relations advisors Carlos Bermúdez and Rafael Cerame. Former Department of State secretary Luis Rivera Marín and former Treasury secretary Raúl Maldonado were also part of the chat, as well as current Fortaleza Public Affairs secretary Anthony Maceira.
While it was the social media chats that set the spark for the past three weeks of protest, it seemed clear from the start that in many respects they were merely the final straw that broke the back of public opinion and inspiring tens of thousands of people to take to the streets of San Juan demanding the resignation of the Governor and other top officials. The island Commonwealth has been dealing of late with years of problems that go back to financial issues that led to bankruptcy filings by significant municipal entities as well as the impact of Hurricane Maria and what many residents see as the inept and incompetent response of the government to the crisis that created.
While Rosselló attempted to quell the public furor in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of the offending chats, it was clear that the public had had enough and would not be placated that easily. The opposition to Rosselló dug in even further when it became clear that the chats themselves included significant evidence that crimes had been committed either by the Governor himself or by those acting pursuant to his orders. Indeed, as noted above, a legislative committee and other authorities had concluded prior to Rosselló’s resignation that the chats themselves held evidence of at least five separate crimes that may have been committed by the Governor and his associates. As a result of this, the legislature was moving toward impeachment and removal from office, a fight that Rosselló most likely would have lost given the political circumstances.
As I am not an expert on Puerto Rican politics, I won’t testify on what all of this means for the future. However, it seems clear that the public as a whole will be paying close attention to what follows in the wake of Rosselló ‘s resignation. If they feel that things are moving too slowly, they’ll be back in the streets. The people have learned that their voice matters and can have an impact, and they’re likely to use that tool in the future.