SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — After weeks of flag-waving, cowbell-clanging protests in the streets, Puerto Ricans on Thursday celebrated the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, even as they debated where the movement should go from here and how to root out the corruption and other chronic problems that fueled the unrest.
Some protesters immediately set their sights next on driving out Rosselló’s designated successor as governor, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez.
The governor’s unprecedented resignation, which came at nearly midnight on Wednesday after a series of huge demonstrations, was a big victory for the tens of thousands who took to the streets. To some, it seemed to open an endless array of possibilities on this U.S. island territory of 3.2 million people.
“It’s a new world,” said political expert Mario Negrón Portillo. “This can bring about change and consequences that we’ve never seen before.”
Rosselló was driven from office after a leak of vulgar and offensive chat messages between him and his close aides infuriated Puerto Ricans already tired of deep-seated corruption and mismanagement that have sent the island into a 13-year recession, a $70 billion debt crisis and the equivalent of bankruptcy.
Many, too, are resentful over the slow and fitful recovery from Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing thousands.
Some pledged to continue protesting against Vázquez, while others said they will no longer vote along party lines in the 2020 general elections.
The vast majority, however, were still savoring a historic event that many believe will permanently alter the course of an island long controlled by two main parties divided over what political status best favors Puerto Rico — statehood or territory.
“More than partisan politics, this is a social movement,” said Ana Olga González, a 62-year-old university professor of environmental science. “We have to keep pushing. Take over the streets if necessary. This is supposed to be the beginning.”
She joined hundreds of protesters who gathered on Thursday under the rain and sun for a final celebration of the upheaval that cut short Rosselló’s term by more than a year.
The crowd traced the same path as those who gathered for a massive demonstration on Monday that shut down one of the island’s main highways. Some held signs rejecting Vázquez as their next governor: “Wanda, don’t get dressed because you’re not going.”
Vázquez immediately found herself under fire, issuing a statement on Thursday condemning media reports that accused her of refusing to investigate certain cases, including the alleged mismanagement of supplies after the hurricane.
“During our career in public service, we have shown that we have worked in an integral and honest way for the benefit of the people,” she said.
Vázquez is expected to take over as governor after Rosselló steps down Aug. 2 unless a new secretary of state is named, in which case that person would be first in line, according to the island’s constitution.
Rosselló’s secretary of state, Luis Rivera Marín, took part in the leaked chat and was among more than a dozen officials who resigned in the resulting uproar. In the 889 leaked pages, the governor and 11 other men made insulting remarks about women and mocked their constituents, including victims of Maria.
Authorities issued search warrants this week for the men’s cellphones in an investigation into whether they illegally divulged confidential government information.
“The chat offended everyone equally. For the first time, all sectors felt targeted,” Negrón said, adding that the movement could be kept alive by federal corruption investigations as well as young people who spearheaded the protests, largely organized via social media. “We have to sit down, cross our fingers and see if that happens.”
He added: “This will give us the opportunity to rethink who we are and who we want to be.”
As more protesters arrived to celebrate what many called a historic achievement, 59-year-old economics professor Pedro Silva held a cowbell quietly and watched the crowd of mostly young people march past.
“My generation lost,” he said. “But the sons of the hurricane can’t take it anymore. They have changed the island. They will not turn the other cheek, and we can join them.”