Contentious protests have emerged in San Juan, New York, and other cities in response to explosive revelations that the embattled governor of Puerto Rico and his top aides made disparaging comments about women, LGBTQ people, journalists, and others in private chats.
The chats were exposed on July 13 by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and added to an already precarious political climate there just days after government officials were swept up in an FBI corruption probe. Combined, the scandals have sparked political unrest that has engulfed the island and brought parts of the tourism industry to a screeching halt.
In chats with his aides that took place between an unspecified date at the end of 2018 and January 20 of this year, Governor Ricardo Rosselló called both Puerto Rican journalist Benjamín Torres Gotay and Eduardo Bhatia, the minority leader of the Puerto Rican Senate, a “cocksucker” and described former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverto as a “whore.”
Christian Sobrino, who has since stepped down as Puerto Rico’s chief financial officer in the aftermath of the scandal, said in those chats that out gay actor Ricky Martin “is such a male chauvinist that he fucks men because women don’t measure up.”
In even more alarming messages, Sobrino, referring to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, said, “I’m dying to shoot her up.” Rosselló responded, saying, “You’d be doing me a big favor.”
Protesters took to the governor’s mansion in the following days to demand Rosselló’s resignation, but he has continued to resist those calls. He apologized and said in a statement on July 14 that he planned to make changes in the government and implement measures designed to stem corruption. But even before the chats were published, there were calls for him to step down after the feds busted six people from the island’s government on a slew of corruption charges, including illegally funneling more than $15 million in federal funds to political consultants.
In a sign of the rocky political climate on the island amid several days of demonstrations, the cruise ship line Royal Caribbean has canceled stops in the island’s capital city of San Juan.
Protests boiled over in San Juan on July 17 when demonstrators, led by Martin — who rushed back to the island after the chats surfaced — and other famous celebrities broke through a barricade at the governor’s mansion and folks clashed with riot police as tear gas was unleashed into the crowd. Cops fired rubber bullets and tossed flash bombs late into the night, according to NPR.
That same evening, Puerto Ricans in New York flocked to Union Square to demand Rosselló’s resignation. “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel-Miranda and Mark-Viverito were joined by elected officials including Bronx State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who grew up in Puerto Rico, and Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake.
A vibrant crowd of protestors waved Puerto Rican flags, held signs crossing out Rosselló’s face, chanted, and clanged cowbells. A woman named Ada Monica, who is from Puerto Rico, held a combination Puerto Rican and Rainbow Flag high in the air as she stood alongside others hoisting or draped in the Puerto Rican colors. She expressed disgust over the wide-ranging nature of the chats targeting so many marginalized groups.
“I’m here representing not just the LGBT community of Puerto Rico, but I’m here because I cannot be in Puerto Rico,” Monica said at the July 17 protest. “[Rosselló] needs to step down right now. Every minute that passes is a minute too long.”
Samy Nemir-Olivares, who hails from Puerto Rico and co-founded Queeramisú, a group dedicated to increasing representation of LGBTQ people of color in government and advocacy, said during the protest that he was outraged when he learned about the chats — but not surprised.
“It was a testament to the rhetoric of the government that was translated into policy and showed the government was run by homophobes and misogynists,” Nemir-Olivares said while citing the Puerto Rican government’s general rollbacks in LGBTQ policies and its refusal to declare a national emergency for the epidemic killing of women there.
Nemir-Olivares, like others, hopes to see Rosselló step down along with corrupt members of his cabinet, but he stressed that wider changes are also warranted to improve human rights and eradicate colonial influences. He noted that the Fiscal Control Board that was born out of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act — a 2016 federal law intended to assist the government in managing public finances during the debt crisis there — wields too much power.
“The Fiscal Control Board is still controlling the finances of Puerto Rico,” he said. “It’s a colonial body that uses imperialistic measures. We need autonomy for our own people.”
Elected officials in New York have added to the growing calls for Rosselló to step down, including Rivera and his Bronx State Senate colleague, Luis Sepúlveda, who has lived in Puerto Rico and whose parents were born there. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, both likely 2021 mayoral candidates, also said Rosselló should resign.