Puerto Rico governor’s chief of staff quits amid scandal probe

Demonstrators clash with the police during a protest calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 23, 2019. (Reuters pic) 

SAN JUAN: The chief of staff for Puerto Rico’s governor resigned on Tuesday as prosecutors investigated a scandal in his administration that has sparked 11 days of protests demanding the Caribbean island’s leader step down.

The sometimes-violent demonstrations, which drew an estimated 500,000 people to the streets of San Juan on Monday, are the latest crisis to rock the bankrupt US territory as it struggles to recover from a hurricane two years ago that killed some 3,000 people.

The publication on July 13 of chat messages in which Governor Ricardo Rosselló and aides used profane language to describe female politicians and openly-gay Puerto Ricans like Ricky Martin unleashed simmering resentment over his handling of 2017’s hurricane Maria, alleged corruption in his administration and the island’s bankruptcy process.

A string of Rosselló’s closest aides have stepped down over the scandal, and his chief of staff Ricardo Llerandi was the latest to hand in his resignation on Tuesday.

“At this historical juncture it is up to me to put the welfare of my family beyond any other consideration,” Llerandi said in a letter. “The threats received I can tolerate as an individual, but I will never allow them to affect my home.”

Puerto Rican officials on Tuesday executed search warrants for the mobile phones of Rosselló and 11 top officials involved in the leaked Telegram message group chats.

Puerto Rico’s Justice Department first requested the phones last Wednesday as part of its investigation into the chat scandal, nicknamed “Rickyleaks.”

Only Llerandi has so far said publicly he has handed in his phone.

Mariana Cobian, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to say whether the governor had surrendered his mobile.

The protests have united Puerto Ricans of different political parties, social backgrounds and ages.

Helena Yordan, 65, is one of many Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland who has returned to the island to march alongside family and friends.

“I have five nephews protesting, do you think that I’m going to let them be alone,” said Yordan, as she arrived in San Juan on Tuesday from New York, where she has lived for 25 years. “It’s brought generations together.”

Puerto Ricans have found creative ways to protest, demonstrating on horseback, yoga mats and riding jet skis.

On Tuesday night hundreds of cyclists pedalled into San Juan’s old city which has become the hub of daily rallies near the governor’s colonial mansion, known as “The Fortress.”

Police broke up protests in the area on Monday night by firing tear gas into the largely peaceful crowds.

Calls for resignation

A first-term governor in his first elected office, the 40-year-old Rosselló has resisted calls to step down as leader of the US territory and its 3.2 million residents, though he has vowed not to seek re-election in 2020.

“The people are talking and I have to listen,” Rosselló said in a statement on Tuesday.

He has apologised for the chats on several occasions and asked Puerto Ricans to give him another chance.

The island’s leading newspaper, prominent Democratic officials and Republican President Donald Trump have all called on Rosselló to step down.

The federally created board overseeing the island’s bankruptcy, disliked by many Puerto Ricans for its fiscal austerity proposals, said it had “admiration” for those taking to the streets.

“Elected officials and government employees must understand and accept that their job is to serve the people of Puerto Rico, not insiders, special interests or their own political careers,” the board said in a statement on Tuesday.

The protests have begun to hit the island’s economy, with tourism officials estimating five cruise ships that cancelled stops in San Juan cost local shops, restaurants and other businesses some US$3.25 million in sales.