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Thousands of protesters calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló have brought Puerto Rico almost to a standstill. Public outrage was prompted by his texts mocking victims of the devastating 2017 hurricane, Maria.
Protesters were joined by a number of high-profile Puerto Rican celebrities, including Latin pop singer Ricky Martin and rapper René Pérez Joglar, also known by his stage name ‘Residente.’ Many businesses, including the Plaza Las Américas mall in San Juan, closed throughout the day in anticipation of the demonstration.
A major expressway –Highway 18– was completely blocked by protesters.
Some held signs and banners directly calling on Rosselló to resign.
The leader of the US territory has been embroiled in controversy following a leak of hundreds of communications in which he made a series of offensive remarks. The leaks amount to almost 900 pages of messages sent to current and former aides and officials. They contain sexist, homophobic and often profanity-laced comments as well as crude and flippant remarks about subjects like death following Hurricane Maria.
In addition to causing great offense, a member of the Puerto Rican legislature has identified 18 cases of potential crimes and introduced a resolution to begin impeachment proceedings against Rosselló. Both island and federal authorities have also launched investigations into possible corruption or conflicts of interest stemming from information contained in the leaks.
On Sunday, Rossello said that he would not resign, but will step down as leader of the New Progressive party, the major pro-Puerto Rican statehood party, and would not seek re-election in the upcoming 2020 gubernatorial vote. However, many figures from across the political spectrum – and both on the island and from the US mainland – are calling for nothing short of his resignation, arguing that his position in untenable in light of the leaks.
The Caribbean island nation is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The natural disaster caused billions of dollars in damage, destroyed about 80% of the country’s crop value and left several thousand residents dead. In the months following the storm, over 100,000 Puerto Ricans fled the island for the US mainland. Earlier that year, Puerto Rico became the first US territory to become bankrupt in what has been described as the “biggest government financial collapse in United States history.”
The US government’s response to the crisis was controversial. The Senate initially voted 90-10 to approve a multi-billion dollar aid relief program, but Democrats expressed concern that the spending didn’t go far enough. Congress eventually allocated just over $40 billion to the relief effort, which came from various sources including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Trump made a number of controversial remarks about both this amount and the response of local politicians. He falsely claimed that $92 billion had been spent on the recovery effort, describing the amount as “squandered and wasted and stolen.” He also made a number of disparaging remarks about elected officials in Puerto Rico, describing the governor as “terrible” and the mayor of San Juan as a “horror show.” He also frequently boasted about his own purported role in the recovery effort, describing himself as “the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico.”
This latest controversy might lead to a further need to prop up the troubled island. If Rosselló goes, a new administration will have to take its place. If he stays, his government will turn into a lame duck until the next gubernatorial elections, which are over a year away. Either way, as a US territory for which Washington has ultimate responsibility, the burden will fall on the federal government to help ensure good governance.