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Puerto Rico governor poised to quit after protests, papers say

Michael Deibert and Ezra Fieser, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello is poised to resign after two weeks of protests drew tens of thousands to the streets of San Juan, according to two of the island's largest newspapers. His departure would plunge the bankrupt island deeper into political chaos as it struggles to revive a recession-scarred economy and rebuild from 2017's devastating Hurricane Maria.

The decision reported by El Nuevo Dia and Vocero would be an abrupt about-face for a beleaguered governor who vowed to remain in office despite a public furor set off by the disclosure of scandalous text messages. It would complicate Puerto Rico's fitful recovery from the storm and its ability to finish cutting crippling debts in the record-setting collapse that's cast a shadow over the U.S. territory for the past two years. Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez would be next in the line of succession, as there is no confirmed secretary of state.

The outcry was set off by a massive leak of chats among Rossello and his aides in which they disparaged his political opponents in profane, sexist language and appeared callous to the struggles of ordinary Puerto Ricans. That came on the heels of the arrest of two of his former top aides and four others on federal charges of theft, money laundering and wire fraud. The officials were charged with steering contracts to favored companies, which reinforced protesters feelings that the government is rife with patronage and corruption.

Over the past week, Rossello became increasingly unable to govern as tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of San Juan's colonial quarter for evening protests, where they chanted, banged drums and vented at a chief executive, depicted as a prisoner, mobster or goat on demonstrators' placards. On July 21, they celebrated a partial victory when Rossello stepped down as head of his New Progressive Party and said he wouldn't seek a second four-year term in the 2020 election.

But that failed to contain the outrage, and Rossello's ability to govern was further weakened by the resignation of key staff members. The parade of departures threatened to strengthen the hand of a congressionally mandated fiscal oversight board that wields sweeping power to impose austerity measures on Puerto Rico. While Rossello has clashed with the board over the budget, such conflicts only underscored Puerto Ricans' feelings of powerlessness and contempt for politicians whose profligacy drove the territory into ruin.

The hundreds of text messages between Rossello and his aides triggered fury that Rossello's contrite statements couldn't dampen. In one, his former chief financial adviser joked about dead bodies piling up in morgues after Hurricane Maria, the storm that crippled the power system for weeks.

But the broader anger stemmed from years of mismanagement, corruption and cutbacks, including the closing of hundreds of schools, as well as the halting recovery from the hurricane. The bankruptcy has left much of the power over the island's recovery in the hands of the federal court, where the oversight board is planning to soon file a plan for cutting the central government's debt. Retired government workers are also in limbo, uncertain about how their pension checks will be cut because Puerto Rico's retirement system has run out of cash.

 

The lurid texts were released days after the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictments of Rossello's former education secretary and health insurance administration director over government contract awards.

Rossello's Treasury Secretary Raul Maldonado was fired last month after disclosing in a radio interview a federal investigation into influence peddling, issuance of fake licenses, destruction of documents and accessing privileged taxpayer records.

(Michelle Kaske contributed to this report)

(c)2019 Bloomberg News

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