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Explainer: Why are thousands of protesters calling for Puerto Rico's governor to resign?

Messages from a leaked Telegram group revealed alleged homophobic and sexist messages from Governor Ricardo Rossello.

Thousands take to the streets in the island's capital.
Thousands take to the streets in the island's capital.
Image: Miami Herald/TNS/ABACA

PUERTO RICO HAS experienced more than its fair share of storms in recent years but the one brewing now is of a political nature.

The former Spanish colony, now a territory of the United States was devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria, which made landfall in September 2017. 

Parts of the island lost power for months and thousands are reported to have lost their lives during – and in the immediate aftermath of – the storms. 

In recent weeks, however, a political storm has rocked the three million people living on the island, after “sexist” and “homophobic” texts from its governor Ricardo Rosselló in a private messaging group, came to light.

Thousands have taken to the streets, with politicians, and figures including popstar Ricky Martin, who was mentioned in the texts, calling for the governor to resign. 

It has also sparked renewed criticism from the White House over the government’s response to Hurricane Maria, the aid funding it received at the time, and the pace at which it tried to rebuild communities.

So today at TheJournal.ie, we’re looking at how the chaos has unfolded on a small island off the south-east coast of Miami. 

Who is Ricardo Rosselló?

Rosselló has governed Puerto Rico since 2017, when he won 42% of the vote in the general election as a candidate of the New Progressive Party – a political party which believes Puerto Rico should become an enshrined state of the US. 

As it stands Puerto Rico is an unincorporated dependent territory of the US, with its own right to self-government. 

Before his election, Rosselló, son of former governor Pedro Rosselló, founded an advocacy group which was calling for a change to the political status of the island. 

Why is he at the centre of controversy now? 

At the very core of the protests taking place on the streets of the capital San Juan, as well as smaller towns and villages, is public outrage at the comments he and his colleagues made in a private messaging group. 

Puerto Rico’s Centre for Investigative Journalism obtained 889 pages of messages from a private chat on the Telegram messaging app, which revealed sexist and homophobic comments, as well as apparent jokes about killing other public figures. 

CNN reports that the chief fiscal officer at that time and Rosselló’s representative on the board for managing Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, Christian Sobrino Vega spoke of how he wanted to shoot San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. 

“I am salivating to shoot her,” he wrote, to which Rosselló replied “you’d be doing me a grand favor”. 

Rosselló then adds that she is “off her meds” for considering a run against him in the general election. 

CNN also reports Sobrino Vega made homophobic remarks about Ricky Martin’s sexuality during the conversations. 

“Nothing says patriarchal oppression like Ricky Martin… such a male chauvinist that he f**** men because women don’t measure up. Pure patriarchy.”

Sobrino Vega later resigned follow the publication of the comments but Rosselló has refused to follow the same course.

Rosselló himself reportedly used the Spanish word for ‘whore’ to refer to Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former speaker of the New York City council, while also making light of the number of people who died during Hurricane Maria. 

How has the public responded to the revelations?

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital San Juan on Monday calling for his resignation which he has so far refused to do. 

Ricky Martin, along with several opposition politicians joined the calls for the governor’s resignation. 

Some cruise liners will not be docking on the island in the wake of the controversy, at a huge cost to the local economy, and cars have been repeatedly forced off the roads as protesters take over the streets. 

US president Donald Trump, who has a fraught relationship with Puerto Rico’s government over the distribution of relief aid, also weighed in on it saying Rosselló was a “terrible governor”. 

But in a speech delivered in Spanish via a Facebook Live post on Monday, Rosselló apologized for his comments, adding he would not seek re-election but insisting he would see out the rest of his four-year term. 

This has drawn further criticism with some lawmakers in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives considering impeachment proceedings. 

Are the messages the only headache for Rosselló?

No, this appears to be just the tipping point.

The messaging scandal came in the same week that two Puerto Rican officials – Angela Avila-Marrero and Julia Kelleher – were indicted by federal authorities on charges concerning the bidding process of public contracts. 

As well as this, the emergency response to the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria has also been a sore subject for the Puerto Rican government since Rosselló took charge, with allegations that it mismanaged relief funds coming from the White House.  

Republicans and Democrats ended months of political infighting when they passed a disaster relief bill last month worth $19 billion – with almost $1 billion of aid earmarked for Puerto Rico. 

Following the latest controversy, Trump tweeted: “The governor is under siege, the mayor of San Juan is a despicable and incompetent person who I wouldn’t trust… much of their leadership is corrupt and robbing the US Government blind”. 

In reference to hurricane relief earlier this year, Trump also tweeted: “Puerto Rico got far more money than Texas & Florida combined, yet their government can’t do anything right, the place is a mess”.

So what happens now?

Rosselló has insisted he will not step down and impeachment proceedings, if they happen, would not be a quick process. 

The next general election on the island will occur next year and Rosselló has already confirmed he won’t be putting his hat in the ring this time round. 

The protests are gathering steam and show no signs of dispersing yet, thought late last night it emerged police had used tear gas as a deterrent. 

Rosselló remains resolute that he will not step down, while protestors insist he needs to be removed from office – the coming days will be crucial in deciding the fate of the island for its three million residents. 

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