SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets Monday in one of the largest protests in the island’s history to demand that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resign.
The protests in San Juan stretched late into the night. Riot police fired tear gas into the crowd around 11p.m. ET, after giving the remaining demonstrators a 10 minute warning to completely clear the area.
As the protest swelled Monday afternoon, Rosselló again said he would not resign. “I’ve seen the protests, I’ve heard the people talk, I’ve had a process of introspection. And I did, I made a decision, I’m not going to run, I’m not going to seek reelection. That way I can focus on the work at hand,” he said, in an interview with Fox News — the first he’s given since protests began.
While Rosselló spoke on cable news, thousands of Puerto Ricans marched down a major San Juan expressway, chanting “Ricky, resign!” dancing through heavy rain, and blasting “Afilando Los Cuchillos” (Sharpening the Knives), a protest anthem released by Puerto Rican artists Resident, iLe, and Bad Bunny last week.
“He’s throwing fuel on the flames,” said Jaimille Santana, 28, of Rosselló’s refusal to resign. “He knows the people don’t want him.”
The march during the day Monday retraced the route of a historic protest against the US Navy’s presence on the island of Vieques in 2000.
The protest marked the 10th day of demonstrations against the governor after more than 800 pages of leaked chats between Rosselló and his closest advisers showed him using misogynistic language to refer to prominent women in politics, making anti-gay jokes, and making jokes at the expense of both the press and the Puerto Rican public.
In the days after the leak, Rosselló has repeatedly said he will not resign, but that he wants to “ask for forgiveness” from Puerto Ricans and said that he still has a “duty” to stay in office. Last week, he livestreamed himself at a church service asking for forgiveness.
On Sunday night, under mounting pressure from both protesters and legislators on the island and in Washington, Rosselló said he will not seek reelection in 2020 and will step down from the leadership of his party, the New Progressive Party.
During Monday’s march, it was clear that was not enough for Puerto Ricans calling for him to step down. “Ricky says he has a duty to the people. Ricky, these aren’t your people any more,” one sign at the protest read.
“We’ve seen his true face, what he really thinks of the people, in the chat,” said Marta Colón, 62. “He thinks Puerto Ricans have short memories. We don’t have short memories.”
Another protester, Guillermo Gumieny, said he made up his mind that Rosselló had to go last Sunday when he saw the livestream from the church.
“It was a way to manipulate the people, to take advantage of people who aren’t as aware of what’s happening,” said Gumieny. “That bothered me a lot.”
“I think he needs to be more open-minded about the damage he’s doing to the Puerto Rican people” by not resigning, Samuel Rosado Agosto, 18, said.
Aracelis Amador, 48, runs a nonprofit called Nuestra Familia LGBTT and voted for the governor in the last election. She is a supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico like Rosselló. But on Monday, she said, “We feel disappointed with the governor. We didn’t think he saw people this way.”
She said she was hurt by the way he targeted people for being “fat, women, LGBTQ,” in the leaked chats. “He behaved badly. He doesn’t have human sensitivity.”
Protesters said that the immediate goal is for Rosselló to resign, but that people turned out in such force because they were also protesting the basis of the political system in Puerto Rico, which they see as an extension of the colonial treatment of Puerto Rico by US authorities.
In particular, many said they were protesting the austerity measures imposed by the federally appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, which included cuts to education and pension funds.
“I’m marching because I have a son in college, and I think we need to make Puerto Rico better for our grandchildren and children,” said Marta Colón. “He’s thinking of emigrating when he graduates, because there’s no work here for the youth.”
Others talked specifically about the governor’s conduct in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when millions were without electricity and clean water for months on end, and Rosselló’s administration did not accurately count how many people were dying and how they were dying.
“Many people in addition to the lack of services, died because of the lack of supplies,” said Tania Luisano, 31, who lost an aunt during the hurricane; she carried a sign commemorating the estimated 4,645 Puerto Ricans who died as a result of the storm, according to a Harvard study.
For some Puerto Ricans, the protests mark what they hope is a turning point for holding government officials accountable for corruption and ineptitude.
“Between outrage and disbelief, we just feel we have nothing left to lose. Before, anyone would think twice before calling out a politician for being corrupt,” said Everlyan Crespo.
But, she said, because people now know Rosselló and his officials joked about the hardships Puerto Ricans had to endure in the aftermath of the storm while they themselves went home to air conditioning, running water, and other comforts, “the line had been drawn. We deserve better.”
As protesters retraced the route of the 2000 march, truck drivers joined the rally, stopping their vehicles and tooting their horns in solidarity. Thousands of protesters continued the march, taking it to Old San Juan, outside the governor’s mansion, where protests have been held for the past 10 days consecutively.
Several members of Rosselló’s Cabinet have resigned in the past week. High-profile members of his own party, members of Congress in Washington, DC, Democratic presidential candidates, and Puerto Rico’s most popular newspaper, El Nuevo Día, have called for his resignation.
Asked on Fox News on Monday if he could name one specific legislator who continues to support him, Rosselló mentioned the mayor of San Sebastián, Javier Jiménez. Soon after, Jiménez told local paper El Nuevo Día he doesn’t support Rosselló, and instead had expressed that he believes in the impeachment process.
“I am in a position to apologize to everybody, to make an effort for reconciliation, and now, disconnected of the political whims, my focus is to ensure that the policy that we have enacted moves forward,” Rosselló said on Fox News.