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Puerto Rico Gov. Quiet Amid Protests   07/20 09:10

   SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- In the Spanish colonial fortress that serves 
as his official residence, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossell is under siege.

   Motorcyclists, celebrities, horse enthusiasts and hundreds of thousands of 
ordinary Puerto Ricans have swarmed outside La Fortaleza (The Fort) in Old San 
Juan this week, demanding Rossell resign over a series of leaked online chats 
insulting women, political opponents and even victims of Hurricane Maria.

   Rossell, the telegenic 40-year-old son of a former governor, has dropped 
his normally intense rhythm of public appearances and gone into relatively long 
periods of near-media silence, intensifying questions about his future.

   For much of his 2 1/2 years in office, Rossell has given three or four 
lengthy news conferences a week, comfortably fielding question after question 
in Spanish and English from the local and international press. And that's on 
top of public appearances, one-on-one interviews and televised meetings with 
visiting politicians and members of his administration.

   But since July 11, when Rossell cut short a family vacation in France and 
returned home to face the first signs of what has become an island-wide 
movement to oust him, the governor has made four appearances, all but one in 
highly controlled situations.

   New protests began Friday afternoon, with unionized workers organizing a 
march to La Fortaleza from the nearby waterfront. Horseback riders joined them 
with a self-declared cavalry march, while hundreds of other people came from 
around the city and surrounding areas.  A string of smaller events was on the 
agenda across the island over the weekend, followed by what many expected to be 
a massive protest on Monday.

   The chorus calling for Rossell's resignation was joined Friday by Puerto 
Rico's non-voting member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez; U.S. Sen. Rick Scott 
of Florida; and New York congresswomen Nydia Velzquez and Alexandra 
Ocasio-Cortez.

   The crisis has even cut back Rossell's affable online presence. The 
governor normally started every day by tweeting "Good morning!" to his 
followers around 5 a.m. The last such bright-and-early message came on July 8. 
The tweets from his account have dwindled to a trickle since then, and each one 
is met by a flood of often-abusive responses from Puerto Ricans demanding he 
resign.

   Rossell's secretary of public affairs, Anthony Maceira, told reporters 
Friday that the governor was in La Fortaleza working on signing laws and 
filling posts emptied by the resignations of fellow members of the leaked chat 
group.

   The head of Rossell's pro-statehood political party said a meeting of its 
directors had been convened for coming days, although the agenda was not 
disclosed beyond "addressing every one of the complaints of our colleagues."

   Rossell offered a press conference on July 11 to address the arrest of two 
of his former department heads on federal corruption charges. He also asked the 
people of Puerto Rico to forgive him for a profanity-laced and at times 
misogynistic online chat with nine other male members of his administration, 
short selections of which had leaked to local media. Two days later, at least 
889 pages of the chat were published by Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative 
Journalism, and things got much, much worse for Rossell.

   In the chats on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, Rossell calls one New 
York female politician of Puerto Rican background a "whore," describes another 
as a "daughter of a bitch" and makes fun of an obese man he posed with in a 
photo. The chat also contains vulgar references to Puerto Rican star Ricky 
Martin's homosexuality and a series of emojis of a raised middle finger 
directed at a federal control board overseeing the island's finances.

   The next day, Sunday, Rossell appeared in a San Juan church and asked the 
congregation for forgiveness, without informing the press. The church 
broadcasts its services online, however, and his remarks became public. On 
Monday, July 15, Rossell gave a notably non-confrontational interview to a 
salsa music radio station. The governor's spokesman said the questions had been 
"negotiated" between Rossell's press team and the station. That night, 
thousands swarmed Old San Juan to demand his resignation.

   On July 16, Rossell held a press conference and faced aggressive 
questioning about the chat scandal and the corruption arrests. Later that day, 
an ally tweeted a photo of Rossell embracing Wilfredo Santiago, an obese man 
whom the governor had mocked in one of the most infamous sections of the chat.

   Since then, it's been silence. There has been a handful of tweets, press 
releases and statements, some saying he won't resign but mostly about 
purportedly routine meetings of administration officials.

   His official spokespeople aren't answering many questions, and even his 
whereabouts are mostly unknown.

   The governor's press secretary, Dennise Prez, announced Friday night that 
she was resigning because she could no longer stand the insults and personal 
abuse directed at her this week by fellow Puerto Ricans.

   Rossell was raised in the public eye, as the youngest son of Pedro 
Rossell, who served as governor from 1993 to 2001. One of Puerto Rico's most 
charismatic and controversial governors, the elder Rossell launched a string 
of large-scale infrastructure projects that swelled the public debt and ensuing 
bankruptcy that his son has inherited.

   Known widely as Ricky, the younger Rossell started his political career in 
his father's pro-statehood New Progressive Party. Trained in biomechanical 
engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of 
Michigan and Duke, he launched his campaign for governor in 2015 with little 
previous history of public service.

   Deflecting questions about whether he owed his success to his connections, 
Rossell portrayed himself as an affable technocrat with solutions to Puerto 
Rico's debt and crumbling infrastructure, and by less than 3% of the total 
votes cast defeated David Bernier of Popular Democratic Party, which advocates 
greater Puerto Rican autonomy from the mainland United States.

   Until now, Rossell's greatest challenge was Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 
storm that struck the Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, destroying the island's 
power and communications systems. Rossell came under heavy criticism for 
mismanaging the crisis, particularly for understating the deaths from the 
storm. While some of his deputies were vilified, Rossell seemed to emerge 
relatively unscathed, perhaps due to his friendly and non-confrontational 
manner with critics, opponents and journalists alike.

   The father of two young children, he often posts their photos online, along 
with images of his wife and their two rescue dogs, a Siberian Husky and a 
Yorkshire Terrier. Rossell once halted a press conference to help local 
journalists move their equipment out of the rain.

   Among the greatest shocks of the leaked chats for many Puerto Ricans was the 
puncturing of that image of low-key charm by the misogyny of online 
conversations.

   "He was making an effort, carrying out his governor's role," said Jessica 
Castro, a 38-year-old San Juan resident attending a Friday evening protest with 
her family. "He was mocking everyone behind their backs, the people who 
believed in him. People are really disillusioned. He's got to go."


(KR)

 
 
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