The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Puerto Rico governor says he will resign amid intense political pressure, sweeping protests

After weeks of unprecedented protests in Puerto Rico, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) announced his resignation on July 24. Here’s what you need to know. (Video: The Washington Post)

The governor of Puerto Rico announced late Wednesday that he will resign effective Aug. 2, amid intense pressure from inside and outside his government, after a series of leaked chat messages denigrating his opponents and Hurricane Maria victims triggered outrage from frustrated citizens who had taken to the streets for 13 consecutive days of protests.

Ricardo Rosselló had defied calls for his resignation as the island descended into upheaval. He lost support from nearly everyone in his ruling statehood party, and more than a dozen members of his administration had stepped down in recent days, including his chief of staff on Tuesday.

On Wednesday afternoon, the leader of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, Carlos J. Méndez Nuñez, said that an impeachment inquiry by three attorneys concluded that there were legal grounds to begin the process to remove Rosselló. Méndez said that the process would start if the governor did not resign and put “a final point on all this.”

Méndez’s challenge suggested the lawmaker had the necessary votes to obtain a two-thirds majority in his chamber and send the case to the Puerto Rico Senate. Puerto Ricans waited for hours for an answer from their embattled governor as the uncertainty ratcheted up and speculation about his potential successor abounded.

Puerto Ricans celebrated in San Juan July 25 after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) announced his intention to resign in a televised public address late July 24. (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced, who is also the target of intense criticism from Puerto Rico residents, will succeed the governor as the constitutional next-in-line. Ordinarily, the secretary of state would succeed the governor, but Rosselló failed to name a new secretary after the previous one resigned for his role in the group text messages.

“We will be working together to have a responsible and transparent transition process,” Vázquez said in a written statement. “Once the resignation is official, if necessary, I will assume the historic mandate that the Constitution of Puerto Rico commends.”

A former district attorney in Puerto Rico, Vázquez has been criticized for delaying or mishandling prosecutions of members of her own party. She came into direct conflict with the powerful Senate leader Thomas Rivera Schatz over the indictments of two contractors and one of his staffers in an alleged fraud scheme.

She is expected to be sworn into the office and finish out Rosselló’s term, which expires in 2020 when new elections will be held.

“Vázquez is compromised,” said lawyer Mayra Lopez Mulero before Rosselló’s announcement Wednesday. “The public would perceive her as an illegitimate leader because of her office’s slow response to the chat scandal.”

The leaked profanity-laced text messages, written on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, showed Rosselló and 11 of his closest aides using sexist and homophobic language to demean female politicians, as well as journalists and Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin, and make light of Hurricane Maria’s victims.

For nearly two weeks, Rosselló asked for forgiveness while insisting he would remain in power to finish the work he had started. He promised not to run for reelection and resigned as head of the New Progressive Party, which holds majorities in both the Puerto Rico House of Representatives and Senate.

But what he thought were concessions only inflamed passions and intensified protests across the archipelago. Puerto Ricans of all political ideologies, classes and ages converged for a massive march on Monday that captured international attention as one of the largest mobilizations in the territory’s history.

Protesters shut down the main expressway in San Juan as the euphoric demonstration spread across more than eight lanes of highway. They called in unison for the governor to resign — “Ricky Renuncia!” — using the diminutive form of his name, Ricardo.

As news of his imminent departure spread late Tuesday, the number of demonstrators outside the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan, La Fortaleza — ground zero for the protests — swelled. Mobile alerts from local news outlets tipping off the impending resignation triggered deafening cheers and incessant clanging of pots and pans late into the night.

The announcement of Rosselló’s resignation brought joyous relief to the U.S. territory of more than 3 million American citizens anxious, sleepless and enraptured by the turmoil gripping the Caribbean island. The drama of the past 13 days has paralyzed civil society, and the question of Rosselló’s political fate has dominated conversations islandwide since the FBI arrested two top members of his administration on public corruption charges this month and 889 pages of the encrypted group chat were unveiled.

Protester Christopher De Jesús, 26, had attended the demonstrations in San Juan each of the past 11 days. He watched the governor’s resignation address live on Facebook with a group of fellow protesters, crouched in the street around a mobile phone screen.

Puerto Rican protesters reacted in San Juan to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's (D) video message July 24 where he announced his intention to resign. (Video: AP)

The hours of raucous, festive protesting ceased as people strained and waited to hear Rosselló say the word “renuncio” — “I resign.”

“This is history,” De Jesus said. “We made history, and it’s going to be in the books that we as a people said ‘no’ to corruption.”

Paloma Sanfiorenzo flew in from Ohio, where she had recently moved, to be a part of the protests in her homeland. She had decided to move because of Puerto Rico’s poor economy, but when she saw the growing conflict over Rosselló’s leadership unfolding on social media, she said she felt Puerto Rico needed her to come back.

“If we can remove a governor, than we can remove anyone who thinks they can take advantage of our Puerto Rico,” said Sanfiorenzo, who said she expects protesters will not be satisfied with Vasquez as the successor. “After so much pain, it’s time for us to start anew. This is the starting point.”

San Juan resident Yamil Filiberti, like many Puerto Ricans, noted that Rosselló isn’t responsible for all of the grievances about corruption that Puerto Ricans have lodged against with their government. And the island’s economic struggles long predate his election. But, he added, Rosselló violated the people’s trust and perpetuated those ills.

“We are a small island and we are often underestimated,” Filiberti said. “But today, we showed our leaders and the world that we have the power.”

In the days before his resignation, there were signs that Rosselló’s governorship was unraveling. On Tuesday, his chief of staff, Ricardo Llerandi, resigned, citing threats against his family. The interim director of the Puerto Rico government’s federal office in Washington also stepped down, saying the revelations of the chat contradict his values and ethics.

Then, a Puerto Rico judge issued search warrants for the cellphones of the government officials involved in the private group text. It is unclear whether the devices have been turned over to authorities.

Some of the governor’s mayoral allies became the latest to ask for Rosselló’s resignation. Guaynabo Mayor Angel Pérez Otero spoke to the governor and explained that the government’s paralysis would have grave consequences for the island economy.

“I indicated to the governor that it was time,” said Otero, a member of Rosselló’s party. “For his family and the peace of the people, it was time to leave and allow a peaceful transition so Puerto Rico can get back to normal.”

Before Rosselló’s announcement, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González said her colleagues in Congress were concerned that the high-level departures in Rosselló’s government would delay and paralyze pending hurricane recovery efforts, projects and federal fund distribution.

“This has been not just a distraction, it’s been incredibly worrisome,” said González, who endorsed a plan to appoint a federal coordinator to oversee and assure disaster aid is distributed where it’s needed most, similar to what was done in New Orleans and New York during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. “We need to get out of this morass because the people of Puerto Rico have endured too much.”

The Federal Oversight and Management Board, which is restructuring the island’s estimated $74 billion debt and has control of its finances, had avoided comment on the political crisis. But on Tuesday afternoon, the board issued a statement that said it hoped the political process “swiftly resolves the current governance crisis” and that elected officials have a “responsibility to restore integrity and efficiency.”

The board continued to say that, “for far too long government in Puerto Rico has failed to treat the island’s residents with the respect that they deserve” and “elected officials and government employees must understand and accept that their job is to serve the people of Puerto Rico, not insiders, special interests or their own political careers.”

Later on Tuesday, the governor appeared on Fox News Channel for the second day in a row, saying that, “I will always do what’s in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.”

In a statement that day, he said, “When the people are speaking, it’s my job to listen.”

But with each rumor that his resignation was imminent, Rosselló’s delay frustrated the people of Pureto Rico. On Wednesday, the governor called a hasty news conference, but kept the press corps waiting for hours for news that the resignation was coming. His public affairs secretary — one of the last men standing in Rossello’s corner — said that afternoon that the governor would speak directly to the people before the end of the day, but no time was given and the content of the message remained unknown.

And as the night dragged on and the promised pronouncement did not come, thousands of protesters grew louder and police reinforcements went into formation. At about 11:40 p.m., Rosselló’s recorded resignation video was released on Facebook.

The son of a former governor, Rosselló is a member of a ruling elite and moneyed political class that has long wielded power in Puerto Rico and supports making the territory the 51st U.S. state. He attended private school in Guaynabo, a posh San Juan suburb know for its gated communities and influential residents, and studied biomedical engineering at MIT and earned a doctorate from the University of Michigan.

He swept into the 2016 election, promising statehood and offering himself as the antidote to Puerto Rico’s persistent economic and political afflictions. He captured little more than 40 percent of the vote in an election with one the lowest participation rates in the island’s history, evidence of an unusually disenchanted electorate, historians said.

Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee that oversees U.S. territories, said the resignation was “long overdue.”

“The people of Puerto Rico have shown the world what can happen when a united public demands justice and accountability with a clear voice,” he said in a statement. “Now they must choose what comes next, and Congress must listen.”