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Puerto Rico's governor resists calls to resign following mass protests

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Posted at 2:52 PM, Jul 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-22 15:58:26-04

Twelve days of simmering protests boiled over Monday as thousands of Puerto Ricans blocked a major highway and launched an island-wide strike to demand their governor's resignation.

"This has never happened in Puerto Rico before," said Angel Rosa, a political science professor at the University of Puerto Rico.

The massive protest was spurred in part by leaked chat messages between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and members of his inner circle.

The nearly 900 pages of messages included profanity-laced, homophobic and misogynistic comments that "offended almost every group on the island," Rosa said.

But protesters say that scandal is just the latest reason why Puerto Rico's leadership needs to go.

"I am fed up with the thieving government," said Maristella Gross, one of the protesters in San Juan. "I am fed up with corruption. I am fed up with lack of integrity."

Rosselló offers concessions, but they're not good enough

The governor announced he won't run for re-election next year and is resigning as the president of the New Progressive Party.

"I leave aside any personal interest by not running for re-election to the governorship next year," Rosselló said Sunday.

But that did nothing to calm angry protesters, who say they won't rest until Rosselló resigns.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said the governor's refusal to step down has "added fuel to the fire."

"We are prepared here at City Hall with a makeshift emergency unit with medics and doctors and nurses to take in anybody that receives tear gas or has a cut in their body or potentially been shot," she said.

While protesters stand their ground, Rosselló's New Progressive Party is quickly making changes.

Thomas Rivera Schatz, the president of Puerto Rico's Senate, announced Monday that he will be the party's new president.

"To the Puerto Ricans who were offended, I reiterate that our party rejects this behavior, censures these expressions and is in solidarity with you," Rivera Schatz posted on Facebook.

Defiance and calls for impeachment

Rosselló, who is a little over halfway into his four-year term, said he'll keep serving as governor until he can hand the work "over to my democratically elected successor."

"I have made mistakes, and I have apologized," he said. "I am a good man who has a great love for my island and for everyone."

But because Rosselló refuses to step down, there are growing calls for impeachment.

Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin -- one of the people targeted in Rosselló's messages -- joined protesters Monday and urged officials to start the process of impeachment.

"The only thing you (Rosselló) just did is mess with the mental health of Puerto Ricans," Martin tweeted. "If he doesn't want to leave, (impeachment) is the only option we have."

The president of Puerto Rico's House of Representatives, Carlos "Johnny" Méndez, created a special committee Friday to advise him on whether the governor committed impeachable offenses.

The impeachment research committee includes three attorneys who will have 10 days to provide Méndez with a detailed report, said his spokesman, Raúl Colón.

The committee will evaluate the content of the leaked messages between Rosselló and Cabinet members and determine if there's proof Rosselló committed a crime, Méndez said.

If officials discover the governor did commit impeachable acts, and a vote to impeach passes the House, the issue would go to the Senate. A trial would be presided over by the head of the Supreme Court, with the senators as jurors.

A two-thirds vote is needed in both chambers for an impeachment to be carried out.

Not everyone wants the governor to resign

Former Senate Vice President Orlando Parga said what Rosselló wrote in those leaked chats is derogatory and deeply offensive.

But he said matters of character should be judged at the polls next year.

Parga said if the governor is found to be involved in corruption, "he should step down immediately.

"But for what has been revealed up to now, I don't think ... this is sufficient to force him out of power."

'We are going to stay here no matter what'

Protesters say they're not backing down because they're fed up with corruption, high poverty rates, crushing debt and a painful recovery from 2017's devastating Hurricane Maria.

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 are sending here."

But Puerto Ricans aren't a violent people, she said, so they don't want 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."