Thousands of Puerto Rican flags fluttered in the morning breeze on Monday as demonstrators arrived from across the island for what is expected to be one of the biggest protests ever seen in the US territory, as residents pledging to drive Governor Ricardo Rossello from office.
Hundreds of thousands of people were expected to take over one of the island’s busiest highways to press demands for the resignation of Rossello over an obscenity-laced leaked online chat the governor had with allies as well as federal corruption charges levelled against his administration.
The demonstration in the capital of San Juan comes a day after Rossello announced that he would not quit, but sought to calm the unrest by promising not to seek re-election or continue as head of his pro-statehood political party. That only further angered his critics, who have mounted street demonstrations for more than a week.
“The people are not going to go away,” said Johanna Soto, of the northeastern city of Carolina. “That’s what he’s hoping for, but we outnumber him.”
The territory’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, added to the pressure with a front-page headline reading: “Governor, it’s time to listen to the people: You have to resign.”
Organisers labelled the planned road shutdown “660,510 + 1”, which represents the number of people who voted for Rossello plus one more to reject his argument that he is not resigning because he was chosen by the people.
It will be the 10th consecutive day of protests, and more were being called for later in the week.
In a video posted on Sunday night on Facebook, Rossello said he welcomed people’s freedom to express themselves. He also said he was looking forward to defending himself against the process of impeachment, whose initial stages are being explored by Puerto Rico’s legislature.
“I hear you,” he said in the brief video. “I have made mistakes and I have apologised.”
The 889 pages of chat on the encrypted app Telegram between the governor and 11 close allies and members of his administration, all men, showed the governor and his advisers insulting women and mocking constituents, including the victims of Hurricane Maria.
Hours after Rossello spoke on Sunday, another top government official submitted his resignation. “Unfortunately the events in recent weeks, including the attitudes reflected in the comments of officials and advisers of the current administration, do not match my values and principles,” wrote Gerardo Portela, principal investment officer, president of Puerto Rico’s Economic Development Bank and executive director of the Housing Finance Authority.
Since the chat leaked on July 13, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have marched to Rossello’s official residence in the largest protest movement on the island since Puerto Ricans successfully demonstrated to bring an end to US Navy military training on the island of Vieques more than 15 years ago.
Ramphis Castro of Guayama arrived in San Juan late on Sunday after more than an hour-long drive to prepare for Monday’s march. He said he was incensed after Rossello’s announcement on Sunday.
“When is he going to say that he’s resigning,” Castro told the Associated Press news agency. “This makes people even more angry.”
The protests have also expanded to include calls to address other issues facing the island, including a deepening economic crisis and what Puerto Ricans call years of neglect by the US government.
The upheaval comes as the US territory is struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria and trying to restructure part of $70bn in debt amid a 13-year recession in this territory of more than three million American citizens who do not have full representation in Congress or a vote for president.
Normally, a governor who resigns is replaced by Puerto Rico’s secretary of state, but Luis Rivera Marin quit that job amid the uproar over the chat, so the next in line would be the justice secretary, Wanda Vazquez.
Pressure on Rossello to step down has intensified as the chorus calling for his resignation grew to include Puerto Rico music superstars Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny and Residente and a string of US politicians including Congress members from both parties, several Democratic presidential candidates and Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress.
Rossello was elected governor in November 2016 with nearly 50 percent of the vote, and he had already announced his intention to seek a second term. A graduate of MIT with a doctorate in genetics, he is the son of former Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Rossello, who flew to the island to marshal support after the chat was made public.
The governor belongs to the New Progressive Party, which seeks statehood for the island, and he is also a Democrat. Most of his time has been spent seeking federal funds since Hurricane Maria devastated the island on September 20, 2017, and battling austerity measures implemented by a federal control board that Congress set up to oversee the island government’s finances.
The upheaval against Rossello prompted at least four cruise ships to cancel visits to Puerto Rico, and many officials worry about the effects a resignation would have on the already fragile economy as the island rebuilds from Maria, a Category 4 storm that caused more than an estimated $100bn in damage.
Another concern is the recent string of arrests involving federal corruption charges targeting Puerto Rico officials, among them two former agency heads, including former education secretary Julia Keleher.