By Andrew Hay
(Reuters) – Several U.S. Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers on Friday demanded Puerto Rico’s governor step down over offensive chat messages, as thousands on the Caribbean island staged a seventh day of protests to seek his resignation.
Banging pots and pans and chanting “Ricky Resign!,” Puerto Ricans streamed into San Juan’s old city on Friday night and called on Ricardo Rossello to quit over the misogynistic and homophobic messages.
The chats, from a Telegram message group and referring mainly to politicians and officials, were published on Saturday.
The leak, running to 889 pages, added to Rossello’s woes after two former officials were arrested by the FBI last week as part of a federal corruption probe in the U.S. territory.
The protests have also tapped into simmering resentment over Rossello’s handling of devastating hurricanes in 2017 and alleged corruption as Puerto Rico’s fragile economy struggles to recover from the island’s bankruptcy.
U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard joined the protests in San Juan, saying she wanted to “stand up to corruption,” as other Democratic presidential candidates including Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren also called for Rossello to quit.
“We must stand with la isla. Rossello must resign,” tweeted U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, whose mother was born in Puerto Rico.
The island’s nonvoting representative in the U.S. Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, earlier called for his resignation, while Rossello’s press secretary Dennise Perez resigned, saying she could no longer hold the position after she was called corrupt in front of her son.
“It’s your turn, Ricky,” protesters chanted on the street after word spread that Perez had stepped aside.
Rossello, who is affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party, has refused to step down but said he would hold an emergency meeting with leaders of Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party, which he leads.
Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez on Friday announced the creation of an independent committee to determine whether the centre-right politician engaged in illegal activity in the chats. The group has ten days to deliver its findings.
The island’s bar association published a report citing clear grounds to impeach the 40-year-old former scientist, based on the “depravity” of his messages.
The chats, revealed by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, showed how Rossello and allies exchanged vulgar memes and comments as well as privileged information.
While opposition legislators back impeachment, the process has yet to gain critical support from lawmakers in Rossello’s ruling party.
But politicians like Gonzalez are increasingly concerned about Puerto Rico’s “anarchic” image after clashes in San Juan this week and allegations the two administration officials arrested by the FBI stole government funds.
The violence and political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the U.S. territory’s bankruptcy process. It has also raised concerns with U.S. lawmakers who are weighing the island’s requests for billions of federal dollars for healthcare and hurricane recovery efforts.
“The island cannot afford to lose already approved federal resources, nor the ones we are working to obtain,” Gonzalez said in her letter to Rossello urging him to step aside.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, and Karen Pierog and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan; Editing by Richard Chang and John Stonestreet)