SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Cruise passengers drifted through the streets of Old San Juan Thursday as shop owners took plywood down from store windows and painted over graffiti demanding Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resign.
On a colonial plaza behind the governor’s mansion, a small group of men and women laid out the shoes of people who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, each decorated with a blue flower.
The shoes were first laid out on the steps of the U.S. territory’s capitol last year as a protest against government refusal to acknowledge the premature deaths of thousands of people due to the damage wrought by the September 2017 storm. On Thursday, less than 12 hours after the island’s largest public protest in years, the shoes became part of a far-flung effort to forge a sustainable protest movement to turn Rosselló out of office.
The spark was the leak of hundreds of pages of online chats of the governor and his aides slinging vulgar jokes and insults about women, gays and even the dead from Hurricane Maria. But the kindling for this week’s two large protests against Rosselló, participants say, was years of mismanagement, corruption and cutbacks, including the closure of hundreds of schools and the collapse of the electric grid after Maria.
“Rosselló represents something, a corrupt system. A system that laughs at the living, that laughs at the dead,” said Kique Cubera Garcia, a 41-year-old documentary maker who was helping lay out shoes.
Despite that assurance from Cubera and many other furious Puerto Ricans, it remained uncertain that the anti-Rosselló forces would be able to forge a strong and long-lasting movement able to force the 40-year-old governor from power. Rosselló’s pro-statehood party holds both houses of the territory’s legislature and officials have said they do not intend to start impeachment proceedings for now.
“I’m committed, more strongly than ever, to move ahead with the public policies that we’ve worked for so hard in all areas of the government,” Rosselló said in a written statement Thursday morning. “I strongly believe that it’s possible to restore confidence and that we’ll be able to reconcile after this painful and sad process.”
By Thursday late afternoon, Rosselló was significantly weakened by calls to resign from two of the most important figures in his New Progressive Party — former Gov. Luis Fortuño and Ramón Luis Rivera Jr., mayor of the city of Bayamón.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump weighed in on the upheaval in Puerto Rico, tweeting harsh words for the territory’s leadership. Trump focused more on one of Rosselló’s main antagonists than the governor himself, however.
“A lot of bad things are happening in Puerto Rico,” Trump tweeted, adding that “The Governor is under siege” and deriding San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a frequent critic of both the president and Rosselló, as “a despicable and incompetent person who I wouldn’t trust under any circumstance.”
He alleged that much of relief funding approved by Congress after 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria “was squandered away or wasted, never to be seen again.”
The mayor responded on Facebook, saying “I understand you are unwilling and unable to understand DIGNITY when it hits you straight on. I also understand you cannot condemn corrupt, misogynistic, homophobic, and abusive behavior. After all, if you did, you would be passing judgement (sic) on yourself.”
The U.S. island is struggling to emerge from a debt-driven financial failure and a recession that’s over a decade old. It also seeks more federal aid to recover from Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and from a months-long failure to provide care to the elderly and medically vulnerable.