iStock(NEW YORK) — Blowing whistles, waving red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags and demanding the immediate resignation of the governor, tens of thousands of protesters Monday morning showed their outrage by shutting down a major freeway in the U.S. territory’s capital and imploring those who feel the same to join an island-wide strike.
Some protesters spent the night at a baseball stadium in the capital of San Juan and were joined at daylight by a crowd that grew through the morning, fueled by anger that Gov. Ricardo Rossello has defiantly refused to step down.
“That’s not enough. We need him out. We need a good governor. We need leadership,” protester Daphne Lebron told ABC News.
Another protester, Angel Torres, told ABC News that demonstrators are fed up with Rossello and his inner circle.
“How can someone who belittles his own country represent us,” said Torres, who was born and raised on the Caribbean island.
“Gov. Rosello did a great job … uniting us,” Torres said facetiously.
Rossello appeared on Fox News on Monday afternoon and was pressed by the host to name one supporter. The governor named the mayor of San Sebastian, Javier Jimenez Perez, who later told ABC News that he does not support the governor.
A million protesters expected
Monday’s protest marked the 10th straight day of demonstrations in Puerto Rico and is expected to be the largest to unfold since the release of explosive text messages between the governor and his top aides and advisers. They are accused of making homophobic, misogynistic and sexist comments against opponents and critics and mocking victims of Hurricane Maria.
There was no evidence of violence from the protesters or police intervention on Monday.
As protesters filled the streets, Rossello appeared on Fox News to tout his record, saying he has overseen “the biggest recovery effort in the modern history of the United States.” He said he has no plans to resign and intends to serve out his term, which expires in 2020.
“I’ve seen the protests, I’ve heard the people talk, I’ve had a process of introspection and … I’ve made a decision that I’m got going to run, I’m not going to seek reelection. That way I can focus on the job at hand,” Rossello said.
He added that he has made policy changes that are significant for women, the LGBT community and for other sectors of the population that are recognized as some of the most vulnerable in Puerto Rico.
“Again, I used words that I have apologized for, but I’ve also taken significant action in the direction of helping vulnerable sectors of our population,” Rossello said.
He said he is also working with the federal government to secure more funds to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria.
“I’m not making light of the demonstration,” he said. “I’m establishing that we’ve established what we want to do, the efforts that are ongoing and we need in order to fix this problem. There is a problem. We started to fix it and we’ve already presented a plan.”
At the White House on Monday, President Donald Trump said, “The governor has done a terrible job.”
“The Congress of the United States handed him $92 billion, and that $92 billion is in the hand of incompetent people and very corrupt people,” Trump said.
But according to the Recovery Support Function Leadership Group, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Congress has allocated $42.5 billion to disaster relief for Puerto Rico. But the island had received less than $14 billion through May.
“I want to make sure that we can collaborate with the federal government, particularly with some of the federal resources that are coming over here,” Rossello said.
But protesters said they’ve had enough of Rossello.
Protesters held signs or wore T-shirts bearing the words, “Ricky resign.” Music blared from loudspeakers and demonstrators banged cowbells, shook tambourines and one woman even pounded on a colander she apparently brought from her kitchen. Cold beer was being sold throughout the massive crowd.
Torres echoed the sentiment of the demonstrators, saying they no longer trusted the Rossello administration, which has been criticized for mismanagement in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The governor’s former education secretary and the former head of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration were both indicted on fraud charges connected to federal funds.
“We want a government that really represents us, that is working there for the people of Puerto Rico and not for their own benefit and the benefit of their own friends,” protester Daphne Lebron told ABC News.
Lebron, who was also born and raised in Puerto Rico, said the leaked text messages of Rossello and his inner circle using offensive language to demean Puerto Rican citizens was just the last straw in a series of debacles and scandals.
She questioned where all the U.S. financial aid that supposedly poured into the island to help it recover from Hurricane Maria, which caused widespread damage and killed nearly 3,000 people, went in the end.
“Where did all those funds go, where did everything that we were supposed to get as a town as a country, that we needed at that time go to? We didn’t get it and they were having parties and enjoying the good life,” Lebron alleged of the Rossello administration.
Organizers are hoping that by the end of the day a million people will have participated in the demonstration, which comes just six days after police dressed in riot gear dispersed a massive crowd of protesters near the governor’s mansion in San Juan by deploying pepper spray.
Organizers claimed that 500,000 people, including singer Ricky Martin, participated in Wednesday’s protest.
“We are not afraid. We want [Rossello] out of there,” Lebron said.
Protesters seize freeway
By 10 a.m. Monday, the crowd had swelled to tens of thousands of protesters who began marching en masse from the Hiram Bithorn Stadium south of the San Juan business district to a major freeway nearby, where they stopped traffic — an attempt to cripple business in the downtown area.
The island’s tourism industry continued to take a hit as Royal Caribbean International announced it was canceling port calls of its Celebrity Equinox and MSC Seaside cruise ship to San Juan, saying in a statement to ABC News that “concern for the safety and well-being of our guests and crew members is our top priority.”
Since turmoil erupted in Puerto Rico, Royal Caribbean has scrapped port calls to San Juan. The Puerto Rico Tourism Co. said in a statement that each canceled port call is costing the island’s economy $311,000 to $439,000.
Organizers heralded the demonstration as the “Marcha del Pueblo,” or “The People’s March,” and called on all Puerto Rican citizens to go on an island-wide strike until the governor steps down.
Demonstrations are also expected to spread to New York City, where protesters are planning to gather in Columbus Circle in Manhattan on Monday afternoon to join the calls for Rossello’s resignation.
The governor, a Democrat, has faced mounting pressure to resign since private online chat messages on The Telegram app were leaked earlier this month.
Rossello, 40, the second youngest governor in Puerto Rican history and the son of former Gov. Pedro Rossello, was sworn in as governor of the U.S. territory on Jan. 2, 2017, amid turmoil over a debt crisis and 13 straight years of recession.
Just eight months after his election, Hurricane Maria hit the island and caused widespread death and destruction, sending Puerto Rico deeper into financial turmoil.
‘We will stand up’
Protester Kevin Morales said he found it “infuriating” to read the nearly 900 pages of text messages obtained and posted on July 13 by the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism. He said he and other Puerto Ricans have long been fuming over government corruption even before the text messages were made public.
On July 10, Rossello’s administration was plunged into a scandal when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested the governor’s former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and the former head of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration Angela Avila Marrero on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically-connected contractors.
Standing on the freeway amidst a sea of protesters as far as the eye could see, Morales, who is planning to go to college in Oxford, England, in the fall, said he was proud and inspired to see so many Puerto Ricans, particularly other young people, speaking out to demand better leadership.
“The people of Puerto Rico will not be defeated,” Morales told ABC News. “We will stand up. We will take what is ours — our island.”
He added that he plans to keep protesting as long as Rossello remains in office.
“If he resigns, we will end the protest,” Morales said.
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