Demonstrators calling for Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló‘s resignation gathered in streets outside the governor’s mansion again Saturday afternoon, chanting and banging pots and pans in the latest of several days of protests on the US territory.
The protests are sparked in part by last weekend’s leaks of offensive private chat messages between the governor and his inner circle. But demonstrators also have railed against alleged government corruption, even as the island battles high poverty rates, crushing debt and a painful recovery from 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria.
Saturday, scores of demonstrators stood at least a block from the governor’s residence, known as La Fortaleza, facing a line of security officers who kept the crowd from approaching the building any closer.
Two kilometers to the east, about a couple dozen people gathered around a covered table set up outside the Capitol building, listening to a protester read the chat messages that served as the boiling point for this week’s unrest.
One of those gathered there, Carla Claudio, said the chat messages formed “a ridiculous document, but a historic one.”
“It’s important to read this, do it collectively,” Claudio, 32, of San Juan, said. “It’s been the catalyst for the protest and everything that’s happened.”
Rosselló’s aides have said he does not intend to step down. He has not responded to CNN’s interview requests.
The chaos in Puerto Rico follows the Center for Investigative Journalism’s publication of nearly 900 pages of leaked chats from the governor’s private Telegram Messenger group in which he and 11 top aides and Cabinet members exchanged profanity-laced,homophobic and misogynistic messages about fellow politicians, members of the media and celebrities.
In one, the former chief financial officer appeared to joke about those who died in Maria.
The leak came the same week that two former officials from Rosselló’s administration were arrested by the FBI as part of a federal corruption investigation.
While Rosselló has refused to step down, two Cabinet members who participated in the chats resigned July 13. And Friday, one of his aides — press secretary Dennise Peréz — also stepped down, saying she was upset that a citizen had called her corrupt in front of her son.
Governor denies new accusation
Saturday, Rosselló denied an accusation, reported by news outlet NotiCel, that he was paid by the island’s legislature for access to his father, a former governor, and kept up to a million dollars in bank accounts.
Rosselló said on Twitter that was “totally false.”
“It is truly lamentable and disappointing that a person which I considered a friend would make such ill-intentioned and false comments. I don’t know his intentions and ask myself what is behind such similar falsities,” the governor tweeted.
The accusation comes from Rosselló’s longtime family friend and business partner, Yosem E. Companys. Companys told NotiCel he was discussing a business investment with Rosselló.
“Ricky told me he had all the money we needed. I asked him if it was family money,” Companys told NotiCel.
“No, I have it,” Rosselló reportedly told him. “He told me, ‘I have a million in bank accounts.’
“To which I asked, ‘From where?’
“He told me, ‘Don’t say anything, but basically I get paid around $100,000 to $200,000 as adviser to the legislature and I don’t have to do anything. The only thing I have to do is when they want to contact my dad, I give them access,” Companys said.
Companys asked him whether he thought it was unethical, according to the report, and Rosselló reportedly told him, “I am on their payroll; that’s how things function in Puerto Rico.”
The exchange occurred between 2006 and 2007, Companys said.
New committee checks possible impeachable offenses
Friday, the president of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives created a special committee to advise him on whether the governor committed impeachable offenses.
The impeachment research committee includes three attorneys who will have 10 days to provide a detailed report to Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, according to a news release from the House leader’s spokesman, Raúl Colón.
The committee will evaluate the content of the leaked messages between Rosselló and Cabinet members and determine whether there’s proof Rosselló committed a crime, Méndez said.
“We are here to order this evaluation, one that will be transparent and responsible,” he said. “I thank this group of lawyers for giving a step forward in this historic moment for Puerto Rico. We will thoroughly evaluate the conclusions of this committee so we can proceed.”
‘You left us to die’
Thousands of protesters gathered Friday night in the capital, San Juan, calling for Rosselló’s resignation.
Layzne Alvez told CNN the territory’s government had been “left to run wild with our economy, with our money, with all the federal funds the government (is) sending here.” She added that Puerto Ricans weren’t a violent people so they did not plan to bring Rosselló down by force.
“We are going to stay here no matter what,” Alvez said. “We are going to force our local leaders, representatives, senators, whoever we need to, to get him out. We are going to stay here.”
“Unfortunately, there is always corruption in the government,” said Pamela Calderón, the owner of a small restaurant on Calle San Jose. “But with the publication of the chats, people in Puerto Rico saw how the corruption affected the response to the hurricane. There’s a sense of, ‘You left us to die.'”
“There are still people without electricity or a roof,” she added. “There is a perception of being abandoned by the government, a lack of planning and the inept way government managed the crisis.”
The scandal made people snap out of their complacency, a restaurant manager in Old San Juan said.
“We usually wait for things to take their course,” Jose Ramos said. “But this will not get resolved without pressure.”
The protests have forced some businesses along Calle Fortaleza, which leads to the governor’s mansion, to close temporarily or adjust their hours. Some are even boarded up or outfitted with hurricane shutters.
Protesters have been joined by some of Puerto Rico’s biggest stars, including reggaeton star Bad Bunny, rapper René Pérez Joglar and singer and actor Ricky Martin, one of the targets of leaked homophobic messages. And similar demonstrations have taken place on the US mainland in cities such as Miami and Orlando.
Governor not considering resigning
Puerto Rico’s Justice Department has issued summonses for everyone involved in the private chat group. They will be ordered to appear before Justice Department officials to have their phones inspected, department spokeswoman Mariana Cobian said.
Through it all, Rosselló has refused to step down, and Friday his official Instagram account shared images of the governor at work, as if it were a typical day for his administration.
Rosselló “is not considering resignation,” Public Affairs Secretary Anthony Maceira said Friday morning.
In a statement posted to Twitter, Rosselló said he would continue to work toward regaining the Puerto Rican people’s trust.
“I recognize the challenge that I have before me because of the recent controversies, but I firmly believe that it is possible to restore confidence and that we will be able, after this painful process, to achieve reconciliation,” he said.