Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s Governor, Resigns After Protests

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Ricardo Rosselló said Wednesday night that he would resign as governor of Puerto Rico, effective Aug. 2. The announcement came amid protests against his administration and looming impeachment proceedings. Puerto Ricans celebrated the news in the streets.CreditCredit...Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

SAN JUAN, P.R. — Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico announced his resignation on Wednesday night, conceding that he could no longer credibly remain in power after an extraordinary popular uprising and looming impeachment proceedings had derailed his administration.

In a statement posted online just before midnight, Mr. Rosselló, 40, said he would step down on Aug. 2.

He said his successor for the moment would be the secretary of justice, Wanda Vázquez, a former district attorney who once headed the island’s office of women’s affairs. Ms. Vázquez was next in line under the commonwealth’s Constitution because the secretary of state, who would have succeeded Mr. Rosselló as governor, resigned last week when he also was caught up in a chat scandal that enveloped the administration.

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But the governor appeared to leave open the possibility that a different successor could be in place by the time he steps down.

His ouster by popular demand meant more to Puerto Ricans than a rejection of Mr. Rosselló’s administration. It amounted to a resounding repudiation of decades of mismanagement and decline that everyday people blamed on politicians in San Juan and Washington.

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Mr. Rosselló began his announcement by citing some of the accomplishments of his administration, including passing a balanced budget with no layoffs of public employees, fighting corruption, establishing positive economic growth and lowering taxes. “We raised the salary of teachers in the middle of a bankruptcy,” he said.


“I was willing to face any challenge, fully understanding that I would prevail against any accusation or process,” Mr. Rosselló said. But he said he had “heard the demand of the people,” and was convinced that continuing as governor “would endanger the successes we have achieved.”

He added: “I hope this decision serves as a call to citizen reconciliation.”

Hundreds of protesters outside La Fortaleza, the governor’s official residence, went suddenly silent on Wednesday night when Mr. Rosselló’s message began to air after hours of delay, with groups huddled around cellphones to listen. The crowd, shouting, grew restless as the 14-minute statement dragged on, but it burst into thunderous applause the moment he announced he would resign. Puerto Rican flags shot into the air and the drumbeats began, to chants of “¡Oé! ¡Oé ¡Oé!”

“I’m overjoyed. We did it, we did it,” said Meralys Lebrón, 28, as she danced with friends to the beat of the drums. “This matters to everyone in Puerto Rico. He showed us he was not the leader we need right now.”

“This is historic. Absolutely historic,” Aixa González, 28, said. “I have never seen anything like this and I can’t even put it into words. This is what he gets, this is justice.”

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In a statement, Ms. Vázquez said the governor had “made the right decision, for the good of both his family and for Puerto Rico.”

She said she would be working with Mr. Rosselló on a transition process, and appeared to leave open the possibility that someone else could eventually be named governor. She said she would be ready to assume the post once Mr. Rosselló steps down on Aug. 2, “if necessary.”

Appointment and confirmation of a new secretary of state could mean that person might also be tapped to succeed Mr. Rosselló.

Credit...Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

The governor’s announcement came only hours after the leader of the Puerto Rico House, Carlos J. Méndez Núñez, said lawmakers were planning to convene impeachment proceedings on Thursday. He said there were sufficient votes to oust the governor.

Mr. Rosselló is the first chief executive to step down during a term since Puerto Ricans started electing their governors in 1947. Until earlier this week, he had been expected to seek re-election in 2020.

Mr. Rosselló’s remarkable downfall followed more than a week of fervent public protests demanding his exit and a day of anxious anticipation on Wednesday. He had been expected to step down in the morning, but the announcement dragged on for hours amid a frenzy of rumors and speculation.

The demonstrations were touched off by a leaked private group chat on the messaging app Telegram that revealed crude conversations among Mr. Rosselló and his closest advisers — and pointed to possible wrongdoing within their circle. Coupled with the recent arrests of six people, including two former top officials, on federal corruption charges, the hundreds of leaked pages ignited public outrage against the governor, whom protesters derided in rhythmic chants as “Ricky.”

Even as the governor dug in his heels, it became increasingly difficult for him to hang on. Both his chief of staff and the person in charge of the island’s Federal Affairs Administration in Washington resigned on Tuesday. The chief of staff said he could no longer take threats directed at his family, and the Washington representative said the latest developments were contrary to his principles.

Hours later, a top donor to the party posted a letter on Twitter asking Mr. Rosselló to resign.

The governor and his wife tried furiously through the week to give the impression that it was business as usual: The first lady posted online photographs of her visit to a women’s shelter on Monday, only to have the shelter directors come out publicly the next day and ask her to take the pictures down. The governor posted photos of staff meetings as protesters rallied angrily in the streets.

The scandal took on potential criminal overtones on Tuesday when the Puerto Rico Department of Justice confirmed that search warrants had been executed, seizing the cellphones of several people who participated in the chat.

Credit...Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

The Puerto Rico Bar Association issued a report suggesting that seven potential crimes had been revealed in the chat, including an implied threat against the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, as well as possible instances of diversion of funds, conspiracy, disclosure of private information and intention to terminate employment based on political beliefs.

But the clamor in the streets went deeper than the chat: Puerto Ricans said they had had enough after years of financial mismanagement and the poor government response to Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico, a United States commonwealth, nine months after Mr. Rosselló took office in 2017. The government initially downplayed the death toll but was later forced to admit that an estimated 3,000 people had died.

In the chat, one of Mr. Rosselló’s aides joked about using the overflow of bodies at the island’s morgues as bait for the administration’s foes: “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?”

Anger at such tone-deaf exchanges united Puerto Ricans of all stripes, including many who had never protested before. Popular musicians rallied millions of fans on social media. The artists known as Residente, iLe and Bad Bunny produced a protest song, “Afilando los Cuchillos” (“Sharpening the Knives”), that became a street anthem. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans escalated the uprising on Monday by shutting down a major highway in San Juan.

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“We’re sick of the corruption, of the abuse,” said Misael Correa Robles, 26, a college student from Carolina, P.R., who attended the protests. “It’s been decades of this.”

On Wednesday morning, the walls of Calle Fortaleza, the street leading to the governor’s residence, were blanketed with political graffiti that read like a wish list: “The Day After the Resignation: Celebrate! End the Junta. Total Transparency. Investigate the Criminals.”

Protesters had gathered on Tuesday night outside the mansion to listen to a public reading of the Puerto Rican Constitution, cheering, chanting and dancing to the steady beat of snare drums. Those who did not have drums banged on pots and pans.

Credit...Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Alejandro Santiago Calderón, 30, said the release of the text exchanges confirmed what many Puerto Ricans had suspected about the governor and his political allies — that they held disdain for the public. Like many others, he said the governor’s resignation would not be enough to quell his sense that the island’s political establishment needed to be shaken up.

“This has to change, and it has to change from the top all the way to the bottom,” he said.

The stunning events that led to Mr. Rosselló’s ouster felt like a turning point after Puerto Ricans had endured years of economic pain. A recession on the island has lasted more than a decade. Hundreds of thousands of people have left. A debt crisis has bankrupted the government. Congress placed Puerto Rico’s finances under the control of a federal oversight board. Then came the hurricane. Some people were without electricity for almost a year afterward.

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When the protests erupted, both in San Juan and in mainland cities that are home to members of the vast Puerto Rican diaspora, the governor resisted relinquishing his position. He said he had acted inappropriately but not unlawfully in the group chat, and vowed to finish his term, which runs through 2020.

But as crowds continued to gather outside his official residence and as the unrest spread to other parts of the island, leaders from San Juan to Washington abandoned Mr. Rosselló. He was left to choose between resigning and facing a lengthy and embarrassing impeachment, orchestrated by his own New Progressive Party to force him out.

Mr. Rosselló tried to buy time by announcing on Sunday that he would not seek re-election, and that he would step down as president of his party. All that did, however, was intensify the resolve of the people on the streets, who insisted that only his resignation would suffice.

Calls for the governor’s resignation came from all corners of the island and from Washington, where Republican and Democratic lawmakers said Mr. Rosselló had lost so much credibility that Congress might be less likely to disburse important federal aid to Puerto Rico.

(Puerto Rico’s political parties do not neatly align with those on the mainland. Mr. Rosselló is a Democrat in national politics, though many members of the island’s New Progressive Party are Republicans.)

On Monday, El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, ran a front-page editorial with the headline, “Governor, it’s time to listen to the people: You must resign.”

Mr. Rosselló’s departure appeared to end a political dynasty in Puerto Rico. His father, Pedro J. Rosselló, was governor from 1993 through 2000. Corruption scandals plagued the elder Mr. Rosselló’s administration. The scandals did not force him to resign, but they did appear to keep him from winning a third term. The elder Mr. Rosselló resigned from the New Progressive Party two days before his son resigned his post.