Puerto Ricans have been hit by a hurricane, corruption and a leader’s crude insults. They’re fighting back

Updated 11:49 AM EDT, Tue July 23, 2019
(CNN) —  

Erica Diaz’s 6-year-old daughter convinced her to join the burgeoning protest movement against Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. The 40-year-old stay-at-home mom had never attended a protest.

“She said, ‘Mami, you taught me to respect all people. We shouldn’t make fun of people. Why aren’t we out there with the people?’” Diaz said. Her daughter, Valerie, had just finished first grade. “She’s the reason I’m here,” Diaz said.

Valerie held a sign with a hand-drawn Puerto Rican flag and the message, “Don’t close our schools” – one in a litany of complaints against the governor. They stood in the shade on the side of a highway in the capital of San Juan as hundreds of thousands of marchers shut down traffic Monday in a series of island-wide protests.

“We want a better country when I grow up,” Valerie said.

A year and a half after Hurricane Maria devastated the US territory, political unrest has taken hold of the island.

A broad cross-section of society turned out on Monday for what many residents said was the largest demonstration they could remember.

First-time marchers were there alongside retired teachers and social workers, union members and longtime political activists, pro-statehood residents and supporters of independence. (The US acquired Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War of 1898, and it’s been a territory since 1952. Rosselló is pro-statehood.)

Leaked messages expose simmering grievances

They took to the streets after a series of crude, sexist and homophobic chat messages between the embattled governor and his closest aides were made public earlier this month.

In one fell swoop, Rosselló and members of his inner circle offended nearly every one of the island’s 3 million residents, taking aim at women, gay people, overweight people, a revered independence movement leader who died of cancer, and the thousands of victims of the devastating 2017 hurricane.

The chat messages lit the fire – but the tinder had been building for some time.

“Rosselló and his chat messages put into words what we have been feeling as people for a long time,” Cynthia García Coll, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, said at an anti-Rosselló street concert the night before the big march.

“That we are nothing. They can take our pensions. They can lower our salaries. They can take away our vacation time. They can take away our Christmas bonuses.”

Cynthia Garcia Coll, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, attends an anti-Rosselló street concert.
PHOTO: Mohammed Elshamy/CNN
Cynthia Garcia Coll, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, attends an anti-Rosselló street concert.

Rosselló becomes face of longstanding political and economic woes

Earlier this month, days before the leaked chats, FBI agents arrested two ranking Rosselló officials for allegedly directing contracts worth millions to politically connected firms.

Long before this popular wave of rage and indignation, generations of Puerto Ricans endured epic levels of corruption and mismanagement at the hands of the political class, many demonstrators said.

Many lived through the scandal-plagued tenure of the governor’s father, Pedro Rosselló, who served as governor in the 1990s.

Now Rosselló and his government have given a name and face to long-festering political and economic wounds, according to many demonstrators.

“Ricky, renuncia!” (“Ricky, resign!”) has become the mantra of the nightly gatherings of boisterous demonstrators on the cobblestone streets one block from governor’s mansion, a historic 16th-century structure known as La Fortaleza.

“This is a historic moment,” Elba Nazario, 63, who retired after working 30 years as a teacher, said near the governor’s mansion Sunday night. “There is no turning back. It’s very emotional. I’ve sat on this street and cried from seeing so many people, young and old, come out.”

Elba Nazario, a retired teacher, protests near the governor
PHOTO: Mohammed Elshamy/CNN
Elba Nazario, a retired teacher, protests near the governor's mansion.

“We march for all Puerto Ricans,” said Mariana Rivera, 77, as four of her teenage grandchildren pushed her wheelchair under a blistering sun along Las Americas expressway. “What will we leave for our children?”

Governor admits ‘mistakes’ but won’t to step down

A 12-year economic recession and Puerto Rico’s ballooning debt crisis resulted in shuttered schools, cuts in government services, layoffs and university tuition hikes. In 2016, the US Congress created a board to oversee the island’s finances – a body that has become a target of the protesters.

On Sunday night, Rosselló said he would not seek reelection in 2020, but would stay in office for the year and a half that remains of his term.

“I am aware of the dissatisfaction and discomfort you have,” he said on Facebook Live. “I have heard you, and I hear you today. I have made mistakes, and I have apologized.”

During a tense interview with Fox News Monday, Rosselló said he’s “not making light of the demonstrations.”

’This is the beginning of a revolution,’ protester says

Still, the protesters vow to continue until he steps down, accusing the governor of exacerbating the crisis.

“It hurts to see my people going through so much,” said Alfredo Ruiz, 47, tears in his eyes as he drove away from massive march along the San Juan expressway. “This government laughs at us. They have no heart.”

On a humid Monday evening, hundreds of flag- and sign-waving demonstrators packed the narrow streets of Old San Juan in a mostly festive gathering, featuring drums and the music of the island. It grew increasingly tense after 8 p.m.

“Our generation awakened this longing to rebel against politics,” said Nayelez Andino, 18, from the town of Bayamon.

“Our parents, our grandparents for a long time sided with one party or the another. But we’re fighting for our future. That’s at risk. What will our children grow up to?”

Standing with a friend among the hundreds of protesters near the governor’s mansion, she added, “This doesn’t end. This is the beginning of a revolution.”

On the other side of a barrier, a phalanx of riot police cut off access to La Fortaleza. Dozens of reinforcements arrived.

Chants of “Ricky, renuncia! Ricky, renuncia!” turned to “Somos mas y no tenemos miedo!” – “We are more and we are not afraid!”