Leaked messages throw Puerto Rico’s governor into major crisis

Demonstrations calling for Ricardo Rossello’s resignation continue for a third day as backlash over group chat grows.

Puerto Rico
Police block protesters from advancing to La Fortaleza governor's residence in San Juan on Sunday [Carlos Giusti/AP]

Thousands of people have taken to the streets for a third consecutive day in Puerto Rico demanding the immediate resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello. 

The protests in the US territory began after a group chat on the Telegram messaging app between Rosello and nine other members of his administration was leaked on Thursday. The hundreds of pages of messages revealed obscene, sexist and homophobic remarks about women, political opponents, journalists and others, according to the Puerto Rico Centre for Investigative Journalism.

“Ricky resign,” “You have to go,” and “We are not afraid” were some of the slogans shouted by the protesters in San Juan as they gathered on Monday outside the governor’s residence, which was protected by barricades. 

Later on Monday, police used pepper spray to disperse the demonstrators.

Henry Escalera, police commissioner, told reporters that some protesters had thrown bottles and tear gas at the governor’s residence during the standoff. 

Rossello on Monday released a statement saying he respected the protests.

“Unfortunately, despite responsible calls for peaceful demonstrations by many participants, a few others decided to damage public property and assault public officials who tried to preserve order and defend the security and rights of all,” he said.

Leaked messages 

According to local reports, the governor had joked about shooting San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz in the leaked messages.

Rosello also heavily insulted former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“A person who uses that language against a woman, whether a public figure or not, should not govern Puerto Rico … this type of behaviour is completely unacceptable,” Mark-Viverito said on Twitter. 

Rossello was also reported as using obscene language when discussing the federal oversight group working on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin was also mentioned in a homophobic remark. 

“This is not the government that was promised to us in the political campaign,” Martin wrote on Twitter.

“You are not living up to our expectations, that is the biggest disappointment,” he added. “Governor your insults and  your jokes show us who you really are.” 

After the leak, Rossello released a statement in which he apologised for the comments, saying he had been under a great deal of pressure, working 18-hour days, and had just been releasing tension. He also said he would let go members of his administration who participated in the group chat.

“Aware that the current environment cannot be maintained, I have communicated to all the other public officials involved in the chat that I will have to dispense with their services and/or their advice,” he said.

“This is a very painful situation for me, as governor, as a human being and as a Puerto Rican,” added Rossello.

“But I recognise there is no other way out and there is no worthwhile forgiveness on my part that does not include corrections and clear signs of intent to change.”

Puerto Rico
 Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello is at a crossroads after recent leaked messages [File: Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

Internal corruption 

“Chatgate” or “Rickyleaks”, as commentators have labelled the scandal, erupted a day after Rosello’s former secretary of education and five other people were arrested on charges of steering federal money to unqualified contractors. 

The Justice Department accused Julia Keleher, the former education secretary, and Angela Avila Marrero, the former executive director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration, of unlawfully steering about $15.5m in federal contracts to politically connected consultants. 

Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez on Saturday announced she was appointing a special task force to determine whether any laws were broken regarding the comments made in the chat.

The turmoil comes as Puerto Rico battles a 13-year recession, a debt crisis and is working to recover from devastating hurricanes in 2017, including Hurricane Maria, one of the US’s worst-ever disasters.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies