Cruise passengers drifted through the streets of Old San Juan Thursday as shop owners took plywood down from store windows and painted over graffiti demanding Gov. Ricardo Rossello resign.
On a colonial plaza behind the governor’s mansion, a small group of men and women laid out the shoes of people who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, each decorated with a blue flower.
The shoes were first laid out on the steps of the U.S. territory’s capitol last year as a protest against government refusal to acknowledge the premature deaths of thousands of people due to the damage wrought by the September 2017 storm. On Thursday, less than 12 hours after the island’s largest public protest in years, the shoes became part of a far-flung effort to forge a sustainable protest movement to turn Rossello out of office.
The spark was the leak of hundreds of pages of online chats of the governor and his aides slinging vulgar jokes and insults about women, gays and even the dead from Hurricane Maria. But the kindling for this week’s two large protests against Rossello, participants say, was years of mismanagement, corruption and cutbacks, including the closure of hundreds of schools and the collapse of the electric grid after Maria.
“Rossello represents something, a corrupt system. A system that laughs at the living, that laughs at the dead,” said Kique Cubera Garcia, a 41-year-old documentary maker who was helping lay out shoes. “Ricardo Rossello is the straw that broke the camel’s back. We’re going to throw him out.”
Despite that assurance from Cubera and many other furious Puerto Ricans, it remained far from certain that the anti-Rossello forces would be able to forge a strong and long-lasting movement able to force the 40-year-old governor from power. Rossello’s pro-statehood party holds both houses of the territory’s legislature and officials have said they do not intend to start impeachment proceedings for now.
“I’m committed, more strongly than ever, to move ahead with the public policies that we’ve worked for so hard in all areas of the government,” Rossello said in a written statement Thursday morning. “I strongly believe that it’s possible to restore confidence and that we’ll be able to reconcile after this painful and sad process.”
By Thursday late afternoon, Rossello was significant weakened by calls to resign from two of the most important figures in his New Progressive Party – former Gov. Luis Fortuno and Ramon Luis Rivera Jr., mayor of the city of Bayamon.
“For yourself, your family, our ideals, and Puerto Rico, let someone else finish your term,” Fortuno wrote.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump weighed in on the upheaval in Puerto Rico, tweeted harsh words for the territory’s leadership a day after tens of thousands protested against the governor. Trump focused more on one of Rossello’s main antagonists than the governor himself, however.
“A lot of bad things are happening in Puerto Rico,” Trump tweeted, adding that “The Governor is under siege” and deriding San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a frequent critic of both the president and Rossello, as “a despicable and incompetent person who I wouldn’t trust under any circumstance.”
He alleged that much of relief funding approved by Congress after 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria “was squandered away or wasted, never to be seen again,” and said “much of (Puerto Rico’s) leadership is corrupt, & robbing the U.S. Government blind!”
The mayor responded on Facebook, saying “I understand you are unwilling and unable to understand DIGNITY when it hits you straight on. I also understand you cannot condemn corrupt, misogynistic, homophobic, and abusive behaviour. After all, if you did, you would be passing judgement (sic) on yourself.”
The U.S. island is struggling to emerge from a debt-driven financial failure and a recession that’s over a decade old. It also seeks more federal aid to recover from Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and from a months-long failure to provide care to the elderly and medically vulnerable.
Some of Puerto Rico’s best-known celebrities – performers Ricky Martin, Residente and Bad Bunny – joined Wednesday’s march through San Juan, some waving Puerto Rican flags printed in black and grey instead of the usual red, white and blue to express their discontent.
Prominent Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland such as Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame and Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora joined the chorus of voices calling call for resignation.
Smaller protests have taken place around the island, with some Puerto Ricans taking down portraits of Rossello from government offices.
“The country is starting to make its voice heard in new ways,” said artists Gloribel Delgado Esquilin, who was helping lay shoes on the Old San Juan plaza. “There’s no way of predicting what’s going to happen here.”
There were more menacing signs of unrest, as well: Puerto Rico’s police department said dozens of pistols and rifles were stolen from a police station in the town of Guayama Wednesday night.
Police Commissioner Henry Escalera Rivera said officers found that a storage room lock was forced 30 pistols, 18 rifles, and 4,000 rounds of ammunition were taken.
Escalera said a message threatening Gov. Ricardo Rossello was found on a wall of the storage room.
The island’s largest public employees’ unions called for a third march on Friday evening, saying they, too, are a confident that a new governor is only a matter of time.
“He will have to leave because the protests will just keep growing,” said Angel Figueroa Jaramillo, head of the union representing many of the employees of the island’s public power authority. Rossello has proposed privatizing the authority, which collapsed in the storm due to decades of poor maintenance and neglect.
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