Waving flags, chanting and banging pots and pans, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans jammed a highway on Monday to demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in a crisis triggered by the leak of offensive, obscenity-laden chat messages between him and his advisers.
Thousands more filled other streets in the capital city, San Juan, chanting “Ricky, resign!” as the US territory deals with the latest scandal to hit the bankrupt island struggling to recover from deadly 2017 hurricanes.
Rossello’s announcement on Sunday that he would not seek re-election next year and would step down as head of the New Progressive Party seemed to have little effect on the crowds, who called for him to immediately surrender the governorship. The island’s largest newspaper on Monday called on the first-term governor to leave office.
“They can’t deny it: The power is in the street,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz wrote in a Twitter message on Monday.
“These governments are corrupt governments,” said Martin Gonzalez, who joined Monday’s march.
“The people must make themselves be respected. And we take to the streets to be respected,” he told Reuters News Agency.
Rossello, 40, asked for forgiveness and said he respected the wishes of Puerto Ricans in a message broadcast online on Sunday.
“I know that apologising is not enough,” Rossello said in a video posted on Facebook. “A significant sector of the population has been protesting for days. I’m aware of the dissatisfaction and discomfort they feel. Only my work will help restore the trust of these sectors.”
The publication on July 13 of sexist and homophobic chat messages between Rossello and top aides unleashed simmering resentment over his handling of devastating hurricanes in 2017, alleged corruption in his administration, and the island’s bankruptcy process.
The protests were also sparked by US authorities’ announcement of a federal indictment involving six people, including two former high-ranking Puerto Rico government officials, charged with conspiracy and other crimes in connection with millions of dollars in federal Medicaid and education funds.
“The people have awakened after so much outrage,” said 69-year-old retired nurse Benedicta Villegas. “There are still people without roofs and highways without lights. The chat was the tip of the iceberg,” she told Al Jazeera.
Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, called on Rossello to resign in an editorial published on Monday.
“Puerto Rico has spoken up, not only as a strong, broad and united voice but as the right voice,” the editorial said. “With a gesture of nobility and humility, governor, it is time to listen to the people. You have to resign.”
The crowd surged along the American Expressway despite the punishing heat – toddlers, teenagers, professionals and the elderly, all dripping in sweat and smiling as they waved Puerto Rico flags large and small and hoisted signs. Protesters remained defiant as they faced rain showers in the day.
One group dragged a portable karaoke machine and chanted, “Ricky, resign!”
“This is to show that the people respect themselves,” said Ana Carrasquillo, 26. “We’ve put up with corruption for so many years.”
US President Donald Trump, who feuded with Rossello in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, blasted the governor at the White House on Monday.
“He’s a terrible governor,” Trump said. “You have totally grossly incompetent leadership at the top of Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative to the US Congress, as well as Democratic presidential candidates and politicians have called for the governor to step aside.
Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez, part of Rossello’s New Progressive Party, appointed an independent panel on Friday to investigate whether the chats warranted impeachment.
The political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the island’s bankruptcy process as it tries to restructure some $120bn in debt and pension obligations.
It has also raised concerns among US politicians who are weighing the island’s requests for billions of federal dollars for healthcare and work to recover from Hurricane Maria, which led to nearly 3,000 deaths.
Puerto Rican celebrities including pop singer Ricky Martin, a target of the governor’s chats, merengue singer Olga Tanon and rapper Bad Bunny joined the protest crowds.
“I want to feel the power of the people,” Martin, 47, said in a Facebook video, urging legislative leaders to start an impeachment process.