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In San Juan, a ‘wide swath’ of Puerto Ricans takes to the streets to demand Rossello resign

Massive protests filled San Juan's streets Monday, even as the heat index topped 100 degrees. Demonstrations have been growing for nearly two weeks since the release of damaging chat messages exchanged by Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello and his inner circle. NPR’s Adrian Florido talks to Amna Nawaz about the roiling political crisis, the territory's economic struggles and Rosello's response.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Massive protests filled the streets and highways around San Juan, Puerto Rico, today. The marches have grown for almost two weeks now. Even as the heat index topped 100 degrees there today, crowds effectively shut down major portions of the city.

    And they prevented cruise boats, which bring crucial tourist business, from docking. As of this hour, the island's governor is refusing to resign, triggering a political crisis on top of an economic one.

    Demonstrations across Puerto Rico today swelled into the hundreds of thousands, one of the largest protests the island has ever seen. Their immediate target? Governor Ricardo Rossello.

  • Ernesto Marin (through translator):

    I decided to come to be with the people, because we are tired. The people are tired. It's been years and years, and the people have awoken.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's the latest in a series of protests calling for Rossello to step down. At times, there's been sporadic violence with riot police, but no known deaths.

    Rossello tried to address the unrest in a Facebook video yesterday, saying he would give up his role as president of his party and wouldn't seek reelection next year. But he stopped short of resigning.

  • Gov. Ricardo Rossello (through translator):

    I recognize that apologizing is not enough. Only my work will help to restore the trust of these sectors and forge a path toward reconciliation. In the face of this scenario, I am announcing that I will not seek reelection as governor next year.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Protesters said he had not gone far enough.

  • Rafael Morales Mol (through translator):

    It's one more demonstration of the arrogance of the governor, that he doesn't want to recognize the failure of what's taking place and the demonstration of the people who are demanding his resignation.

    We have been asking for his resignation for 12 days already, and he is trying to give a candy to those in his party, offering to give up the presidency and the candidature in 2020, so that they allow him to remain through the year-and-a-half he has left. That's not acceptable.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This afternoon, Rossello was asked about the protests by FOX News' Shepard Smith.

  • Shepard Smith:

    Today, the largest demonstration potentially in the history of the island, and you stand with firm resolve and talk about accomplishments. Do you hear them?

  • Gov. Ricardo Rossello:

    I hear them, and it's part of my introspection, and I will continue to hear them. I will continue to make my decisions and work with the people of Puerto Rico.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The public outrage was set off by a leak of offensive online chat messages between Rossello and his aides. The nearly 900-page document published by Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism exposed private messages mocking women, gay people, and even hurricane victims.

    The targets also included political opponents and the island's financial oversight board. The scandal broke as federal corruption charges were leveled against six members of his administration, and it has since led to the resignation of others.

    President Trump, who has frequently criticized the U.S. territory's government, weighed in today.

  • President Donald Trump:

    You have incompetent, totally, grossly incompetent leadership at the top of Puerto Rico. The money is squandered and wasted and stolen.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That criticism has been at the heart of the crisis. Protests have tapped into resentment over the governor's handling of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the years of economic austerity measures the bankrupt island has faced.

    To talk about what's behind the protests and where things stand this evening, I spoke a short time ago with Adrian Florido of NPR, who was out with the protesters all day in San Juan.

    Adrian Florido, thanks for being with us.

    So, give us a sense. You were out there with the protesters today. Who is out there on the streets exactly, and how did the governor's announcement that he will not resign go over?

  • Adrian Florido:

    There is a wide swathe of Puerto Ricans out on the streets, a lot of people who have been protesters around social issues here in Puerto Rico a long time, but even more people who have never engaged in protests at all.

    And that's one of the things that's been so fascinating about these protests that have just surged in the last week, is that a lot of the forces come from these large sectors of society that have never been engaged in politics or political protests at all.

    When the governor announced yesterday that he wasn't going to resign, people seemed to get even more angry, even more motivated to come out into the streets. I think that's a big part of why we saw these massive numbers coming out today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, give us a sense of what you're hearing on the ground now. What would it take, do you think, for the governor to step down? The economy is in trouble. Tourism is taking a big hit. Obviously, the protesters aren't going anywhere.

    Do you get the sense that he thinks he can ride this out?

  • Adrian Florido:

    Well, I think he has the sense that he thinks he can ride this out.

    But it's really hard to understand to — it's really hard to understand how he has come to that conclusion, because he's lost almost all of his political support. There's really no one in Puerto Rico who supports him publicly.

    Unclear whether people support him privately, but, at least publicly, no one is coming out. Obviously, a big part of governing is having allies within the government, because you don't govern via dictate. You govern through legislation. And no one in the legislature seems to be willing to stand up behind him.

    So, a big question is whether he's going to be able to regain that credibility, and all indications are that he's not.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, when you talk to people on the ground who have taken to the streets, are protesting, are calling for him to step down, what are they telling you? What specific grievances do they have that led them out to the streets today?

  • Adrian Florido:

    There are so — the reasons for all the discontent in Puerto Rico are really complex. They're nuanced. And they go back for many years, many decades really.

    But some of the more recent things are obviously the economic crisis that Puerto Rico has been in since 2006, when it descended into a recession that it still hasn't recovered from, the billions of dollars of debt that Puerto Rico faces, austerity measures that have been imposed by a federal oversight board.

    They're leading to the slashing of all kinds of public services that have made it really hard for Puerto Ricans to really just get by, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to leave for the United States over the last decade, and then, of course, the bungled response to Hurricane Maria, which inflicted a lot of damage, trauma on Puerto Ricans they still haven't recovered from.

    All of those things are things that people feel like they're — the traumas around those things, people have been sort of trying to suppress and hold things together and just sort of live, get — move forward day by day, and they feel like they can't do it anymore. And that's why people are fed up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Adrian, you mentioned that oversight board. Very briefly explain to us, what's their role, and are members of that board vulnerable now as well.

  • Adrian Florido:

    So the federal oversight board, which Puerto Ricans call the fiscal control board, was this body that the U.S. Congress appointed a couple of years ago to take control of Puerto Rico's finances and try to get it out of debt.

    It's been imposing all kinds of austerity measures that have driven Puerto Ricans out into the streets for the last three years for a May Day protest every 1st of May.

    Right now, a lot of the focus is on the governor, in part because of these chats and what they revealed and people feeling like he's out of touch and he needs to go. But, in the streets, you do hear people also — they're continuing to point out that the fiscal oversight board is also largely responsible for a lot of the austerity that is making life a little more difficult for Puerto Ricans here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Adrian, as you mentioned, the economic troubles of the island predate even the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

    Is there any sense that a new governor or a new government could step in and write that ship right now?

  • Adrian Florido:

    That is a very complicated task here in Puerto Rico, in part because the Puerto Rican government only has — the governor only has so much power, especially right now. This oversight board has a lot of the control of the purse strings.

    And so, in many instances, any governor of Puerto Rico has to get permission from this federally appointed non-elected board to implement public policy. So it's a very sort of complicated question. But it's one that Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out very soon.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Adrian Florido of NPR, joining us from San Juan, Puerto Rico, thank you very much.

  • Adrian Florido:

    Thanks for having me.

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