Puerto Ricans celebrate after governor says he will resign

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San Juan (AFP) - Puerto Ricans waved flags and danced to thumping drum beats Thursday as they celebrated the resignation of the US territory's governor, who is embroiled in a scandal over homophobic and misogynistic messages he and his aides exchanged.

After staying up to welcome Ricardo Rossello's midnight announcement on Facebook that he would step down on August 2, hundreds headed into the streets of San Juan to express their jubilation.

The announcement -- which Rossello put into writing Thursday -- capped two weeks of popular anger against the 40-year old leader.

Rossello is to be replaced by justice secretary Wanda Vazquez, who is considered close to the governor.

While many in the Caribbean territory of more than three million people now want completely new leadership, saying those with close ties to Rossello are tainted, for now the protesters are celebrating.

"We've rescued our island," said singer Ricky Martin, who is gay, Puerto Rican and one of those ridiculed in the hundreds of pages of leaked Rossello chats.

"We demanded respect and we were heard. And we did it in peace. With no guns, like Gandhi," Martin, who has been a leader of the protest movement, said in a video he posted on Instagram.

Martin urged Puerto Ricans to "go and celebrate" but warned them to "not drop the ball" and to keep their eyes "wide open from now on."

"It is now we need to work more than ever. We succeeded today because we were united," Martin said.

This is the first time a leader of Puerto Rico has pledged to step down before the end of his term.

- Last straw -

The rallies started on July 13, when the Center for Investigative Journalism released 889 pages of text chats on the encrypted messaging app Telegram in which Rossello and 11 other male administration members made fun of women, gays, victims of Hurricane Maria in 2017, journalists and other politicians.

This was widely seen as the last straw for people fed up with years of economic stagnation, corruption, government mismanagement and a slow and sloppy recovery effort after Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 people and forced some to go months without running water or electricity.

Three days before the release of those chats, prosecutors charged six former government officials with embezzling $15 million in hurricane reconstruction money.

The island was already a financial mess; it was under bankruptcy protection, with billions in debt, when the hurricane hit with devastating effect, the second in a matter of days.

As the recent protests grew in strength, Rossello apologized and said he would not run for re-election next year but initially refused to resign.

But as pressure against him mounted, and he received word from congress that he would be impeached, he finally gave in late Wednesday.

Marilyn Negron, a 36-year-old waitress, agreed that a new leadership team must take over.

"People have had enough. It's time for politicians to get scared, to understand that people cannot take any more and need someone honest to come in and represent Puerto Rico," said Negron.

The speaker of the lower house of the Puerto Rican congress, Carlos Mendez, said he did not trust Rossello and wanted to see an actual resignation letter, which he got on Thursday.

"People do not trust him, so we have to be sure," Mendez told Radio Isla.

- Post-hurricane exodus -

Mendez said the legislature had commissioned a panel of three lawyers to study the chat exchange and assess whether Rossello may have committed any crimes.

The attorneys came back and said as many as five offenses might have been committed, Mendez said.

These include ethics violations and evidence of embezzlement, Mendez said, adding that he had warned Rossello that an impeachment drive was effectively under way.

"I did it in person, looking him right in the eye. I spoke to him clearly. I told him the impeachment process had begun," Mendez told another radio station, NotiUno.

More than a dozen other government officials have already resigned in the wake of the scandal.

Prior to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico suffered a serious fiscal crisis that forced the government to file for bankruptcy in May 2017.

Budget cuts prompted many Puerto Ricans to flee. Combined with the post-hurricane exodus, Puerto Rico lost four percent of its population.