Puerto Rico governor refuses to resign as island braces for big protest

By Andrew Hay
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Puerto Rico governor refuses to resign as island braces for big protest

People watch a television broadcast of Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rossello's speech at a bar in San Juan

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) - Puerto Rico's governor on Sunday said he would not seek re-election next year but refused to resign as the island braced for more protests by demonstrators demanding he step down over offensive chat messages.

A day before a planned general strike and massive street demonstrations in the bankrupt U.S. territory, Ricardo Rossello, 40, said he respected the wishes of Puerto Ricans and would not seek a second term in November 2020 elections.

He also said he would resign as head of his New Progressive Party (PNP) but would remain as governor until the end of his term in January, 2021.

"I know that apologising is not enough," Rossello said in a video posted on Facebook. "A significant sector of the population has been protesting for days. I'm aware of the dissatisfaction and discomfort they feel. Only my work will help restore the trust of these sectors."

His comments drew outrage from many Puerto Ricans, with social media videos showing San Juan residents leaning out of apartment windows banging pots and pans in a third day of so-called "cacerolazo" protests.

The July 13 publication of sexist and homophobic chat messages between Rossello and top aides unleashed simmering resentment over his handling of devastating 2017 hurricanes, alleged corruption in his administration and the island's bankruptcy process.

"'#Resign Ricky isn't just a call for him to resign from the party, but from his seat as the top official," tweeted Linda Michelle, an industrial engineer and Puerto Rico radio personality. "Whoever wasn't sure about going to the march tomorrow has now made up their mind to go."


"POWER OF THE PEOPLE"

Puerto Rico's non-voting representative to the U.S. Congress, as well as Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers have called for the governor to step aside after nine days of sometimes violent protests.

"Once again: Rosselló must resign," tweeted U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in response to his video.

But Puerto Rico's Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who may takeover leadership of the pro-statehood PNP, said Rossello's actions "put an end to part of the controversies and trauma hitting our people."

Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez, also of the PNP, appointed an independent panel on Friday to investigate whether the chats warranted impeachment.

"I welcome the process started by the legislative assembly, which I will confront with complete truth," Rossello said in the video.

The political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the U.S. territory's bankruptcy process as it tries to restructure around $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.

It has also raised concerns among U.S. lawmakers who are weighing the island's requests for billions of federal dollars for healthcare and work to recover from Hurricane Maria, which led to nearly 3,000 deaths.

Opposing Rossello are a raft of Puerto Rican celebrities ranging from singer Ricky Martin and rapper Bad Bunny to "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Martin, a target of the governor's chats, said he would march with protesters on Monday, when some businesses have said they will close after trade unions called a national strike.

"I want to feel the power of the people," Martin, 47, said in a Facebook video, urging legislative leaders to start the impeachment process.


(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing by Peter Cooney, Dan Grebler and Daniel Wallis)