Puerto Rico leadership in turmoil amid calls for Ricardo Rosselló to resign

MIAMI — A political crisis engulfed Puerto Rico over the weekend, prompting the departure of two senior members of the government and threatening Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló, who found himself increasingly isolated in office and no longer supported by leaders of his own party.

Puerto Rico leadership in turmoil amid calls for Ricardo Rosselló to resign

Rosselló’s administration was rocked by the publication of a trove of derisive messages sent by the governor and some of his Cabinet members and top aides in a private chat on the messaging app Telegram. The messages mocked political foes and allies alike, often with profanity.

On Saturday, the governor tried to contain the fallout of the rapidly unfolding scandal by announcing that his chief financial officer and secretary of state had stepped down over their participation in the chat. But the high-profile exits proved insufficient to quell the widespread furor on the island that mushroomed in the hours after 889 pages of Telegram messages were published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.

Protesters gathered outside the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, in San Juan late into the night Saturday and demanded Rosselló’s resignation, less than 18 months before the end of his term.

“Ricky, ¡renuncia!” they chanted.

On Sunday, Rosselló attended services at an evangelical church in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and said he had sought forgiveness.

“I humble myself before you and before the Almighty for the faults I have committed,” he said, according to a report in the El Nuevo Día newspaper. Outside of the governor’s mansion, demonstrators used a previously planned march to insist on Rosselló’s resignation. The protests continued into the afternoon. The authorities deployed police officers in riot gear.

The governor’s office said in a statement Sunday that Rosselló was not resigning, in spite of the recent “difficulties,” and added that he had spent the day holding meetings with agency directors. He plans to announce a government reorganization and anti-corruption measures in the coming days, the statement said.

“We do not give up on the work underway, and today more than ever, many people are counting on my commitment to that work,” Rosselló said in a statement in Spanish.

The messages in the private chat, which Puerto Ricans dubbed #TelegramGate and #RickyLeaks, appeared to unleash anger over grievances against the Rosselló administration that had begun accumulating even before Hurricane Maria decimated the island in 2017.

Puerto Rico’s finances have been controlled by a federal oversight board since 2016, the year Rosselló was elected, limiting his ability to govern and simultaneously making him party to unpopular economic austerity policies. The bankrupt island has been in a recession for 12 years.

But it was Rosselló’s handling of the slow storm recovery, including what many Puerto Ricans viewed as his meek approach toward President Donald Trump, that put him under increased scrutiny. His government took nearly a year to acknowledge that thousands of people had died in Maria’s aftermath. A series of corruption scandals, including the arrests Wednesday of two former Cabinet members, further diminished Rosselló’s power. Still, he had been expected to run for re-election in 2020.

Some of Rosselló’s critics, including Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, a candidate for governor, said on Puerto Rican radio Saturday that the scandal surrounding the governor would only fuel more distrust from Washington, where Trump has made clear that he does not want to send the island more federal aid.

Cruz also said she had filed a police complaint against Rosselló and his former chief financial officer, Christian Sobrino, over a leaked message in which Sobrino had written in Spanish about Cruz: “I am salivating to shoot her.”

“You do me a favor,” Rosselló appeared to respond.

Radio and television stations on the island ran special coverage about the scandal over the weekend, extending their broadcasts into the night much as they had done during Hurricane Maria. Pundits opined that Rosselló’s departure would be imminent, whether he resigned or lawmakers convened to push him out.

Any intended transition was complicated by the departure Saturday of Luis Rivera Marín, Rosselló’s secretary of state and lieutenant governor, who would have assumed the governorship in the event Rosselló chose to resign. The next official in the line of succession is the secretary of justice, Wanda Vázquez Garced.

Rosselló, 40, apologized Thursday after an excerpt from the chat was first published by local media showing he had referred to Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former speaker of the New York City Council, who was born in Puerto Rico, using the Spanish word for “whore.” In English, he also used a profane expression in reference to the oversight board that controls Puerto Rico’s finances, followed by emojis of a raised middle finger.

In a news conference held shortly after he returned from cutting short a family vacation in France, Rosselló insisted late Thursday that he would remain in office.

But on Saturday morning, the Center for Investigative Journalism published the entirety of the leaked chat, which spanned from late 2018 to January and included Rosselló and 11 other men in his close political circle. The cache of messages showed that the governor and his current and former aides had also derided many others, including leaders of their New Progressive Party and the Puerto Rican celebrity Ricky Martin.

By Saturday afternoon, Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member in Congress and a member of the New Progressive Party, said that Rosselló should not seek reelection in 2020 and the governor should “immediately reflect on his role as governor.”

“I feel ashamed by everything being said in these private communications,” she said. “The people are disgusted, disappointed by this telenovela.”

Puerto Rico’s Senate president and House majority leader, both of whom are members of Rosselló’s party and had been mocked in the chat, also said they had lost faith in the governor. So did Martin, an actor and singer. The trap artist Bad Bunny urged Puerto Ricans to take to the streets.

Rosselló and the other participants also conducted public business on the chat, even though some of the men no longer worked in the administration and should not have been privy to some of the internal details under discussion.

In one exchange, Sobrino, the former chief financial officer who also was the governor’s representative to the oversight board, responded to a question about the budget for forensic pathologists by cracking a joke about the dead bodies accumulating during and after the hurricane at the understaffed morgue.

“Now that we are on the subject, don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” he wrote, apparently referring to the administration’s critics. “Clearly they need attention.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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