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Tens of thousands of protesters shut down freeway in Puerto Rico; demand governor's resignation

July 22, 2019 - 11:10 am
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(NEW YORK) -- Blowing whistles, waving red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags and demanding the immediate resignation of the governor, tens of thousands of protesters Monday morning showed their outrage by shutting down a major freeway in the U.S. territory's capital and imploring those who feel the same to join an island-wide strike.

Some protesters spent the night at a baseball stadium in the capital of San Juan and were joined at daylight by a crowd that grew through the morning, fueled by anger that Gov. Ricardo Rossello has defiantly refused to step down.

"That's not enough. We need him out. We need a good governor. We need leadership," protester Daphne Lebron told ABC News.

"How can someone who belittles his own country represent us," said Torres, who was born and raised on the Caribbean island.

Monday's protest is expected to be the largest to unfold since the release of explosive text messages between the governor and his top aides and advisers in which they allegedly made homophobic, misogynistic and sexist comments against opponents and critics, and mocked victims of Hurricane Maria.

Torres echoed the sentiment of the demonstrators, saying they no longer trust the Rossello administration, which has been criticized for mismanagement in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The governor's former education secretary and the former head of Puerto Rico's Health Insurance Administration were both indicted on fraud charges connected to federal funds.

"We want a government that really represents us, that is working there for the people of Puerto Rico and not for their own benefit and the benefit of their own friends," protester Daphne Lebron told ABC News.

Lebron, who was also born and raised in Puerto Rico, said the leaked text messages of Rossello and his inner circle using offensive language to demean Puerto Rican citizens was just the last straw in a series of debacles and scandals.

She questioned where all the U.S. financial aid that supposedly poured into the island to help it recover from Hurricane Maria, which caused widespread damage and killed nearly 3,000 people, went in the end.

"Where did all those funds go, where did everything that we were supposed to get as a town as a country, that we needed at that time go to? We didn't get it and they were having parties and enjoying the good life," Lebron alleged of the Rossello administration.

Organizers are hoping that by the end of the day a million people will have participated in the demonstration, which comes just six days after police dressed in riot gear dispersed a massive crowd of protesters near the governor's mansion in San Juan by deploying pepper spray.

Organizers claimed that 500,000 people, including singer Ricky Martin, participated in Wednesday's protest.

By 10 a.m. Monday, the crowd had swelled to tens of thousands of protesters who began marching en masse from the Hiram Bithorn Stadium south of the San Juan business district to a major freeway nearby, where they stopped traffic -- an attempt to cripple business in the downtown area.

Organizers heralded the demonstration as the "Marcha del Pueblo," or "the People's March," and called on all Puerto Rican citizens to go on an island-wide strike until the governor steps down.

In a Facebook Live statement Sunday evening, the embattled Rossello announced that he will not seek reelection in November 2020 but will not resign.

Rossello said he will step down as the president of the New Progressive Party. He said he will serve out his term as governor and allow for his successor to be democratically elected.

"Apologizing is not enough," Rossello said in the Facebook Live announcement, adding that he is prepared to take on the process that could lead to his impeachment.

“I announce that I will not seek reelection as governor next year. Additionally, I am resigning as president of the New Progressive Party. Finally, I should be respectful of the constitutional order and I welcome the process by the legislative assembly which I will confront with all the truth, strength and in a responsible manner,” Rossello said. "To every Puerto Rican: I have heard you, and I hear you today. I have committed errors and I have apologized. I am a good man that has a grand love for my island and for all."

The governor has faced mounting pressure to resign since private online chat messages on the Telegram app were leaked earlier this month.

Rossello, 40, the second youngest governor in Puerto Rican history and the son of former Gov. Pedro Rossello, was sworn in as governor of the U.S. territory on Jan. 2, 2017, amid turmoil over a debt crisis and 13 straight years of recession.

Just eight months after his election, Hurricane Maria hit the island and caused widespread death and destruction, sending Puerto Rico deeper into financial turmoil.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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