Organizers hope to draw a million people to the main protest.
SAN JUAN, P.R. — Thousands of Puerto Ricans shut down traffic on a major highway in San Juan early on Monday, assembling for what is expected to be one of the largest protests the island has ever seen against Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló, who has resisted persistent calls for his resignation.
People arrived by the busload hours before the demonstration was scheduled to begin, carrying Puerto Rican flags, protest signs and whistles. They broke into chants demanding the ouster of Mr. Rosselló, who said on Sunday that he will not seek re-election in 2020 but will remain in office — and face possible impeachment.
Monday’s protest is part of an island-wide strike that could paralyze Puerto Rico beyond San Juan. Organizers hope to draw a million people — about a third of the island’s population — to the highway, Expreso Las Américas. That would eclipse the massive crowd that marched from the Capitol to the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, last Wednesday, culminating in clashes with the police.
A series of scandalous text messages touched off the demonstrations.
Protests against Mr. Rosselló began more than a week ago, after the publication of 889 pages of a leaked group chat between the governor and his closest aides. Besides being offensive, the messages revealed a cozy relationship between the governor and former staff members who now represent special interests.
The crude messages were the final straw for Puerto Ricans who have suffered for years because of economic austerity measures and the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
The capital’s biggest mall won’t open and cruise ships are being turned away.
Mr. Rosselló’s defiance and decision to remain in office has only fueled protesters to stay in the streets longer. Late on Sunday, demonstrators trapped a group of mayors and lawmakers who had met with the governor, blocking them from leaving until the police intervened. The spontaneous protest took place in the upscale municipality of Guaynabo, a place typically supportive of the governor, signaling that he has few places on the island left on his side.
Ahead of Monday’s march, the biggest shopping mall in San Juan, Plaza Las Américas, announced that it would not open for the day. Some banks also were closed, and university classes were canceled.
And cruise ships will again be diverted from calling at the port on Monday, keeping thousands of tourists away from small businesses in Old San Juan that depend on them.
On Monday morning, El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, published a rare front-page editorial. “Governor, it’s time to listen to the people,” read the above-the-fold headline. “You must resign.”
The protests are drawing people from all walks of life.
Attending the march on Monday were Puerto Ricans not only from municipalities across the island but also from the vast Puerto Rican diaspora, returning to the island to join the protests.
There were retirees, college students, waiters, electricians, truckers — groups that sometimes protest separately but rarely, if ever, together. Some marchers shared sandwiches to keep their energy up under the blazing sun. The heat index was forecast to exceed 100 degrees.
Ruth Vélez, a 62-year-old retiree at the march, said Hurricane Maria destroyed her house in the municipality of Bayamón, and the government’s reconstruction program turned her down for help.
“I lived in that house for 30 years,” she said. “Now I’m on the street.”
Outside of Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the main gathering point for the protest in the San Juan neighborhood of Hato Rey, demonstrators arrived to music and kiosks selling anti-Rosselló memorabilia. The artists Ricky Martin and Residente were again expected to join the crowd.
“Wanted: A governor for Puerto Rico, because Puerto Rico doesn’t have a governor,” Residente wrote on Twitter on Monday.
Near the front of the march, protesters held a white banner with black letters that spelled out “#RickyRenuncia” and “#NiCorruptosNiCobardes” — Neither the corrupt nor the cowardly.
Marchers yelled, “Ricky, ¡renuncia, el pueblo te repudia!” — Ricky, resign, the people reject you.
Mismanagement, a recession and a botched response to Hurricane Maria are at the heart of the crisis.
The protests amount to a rejection of decades of mismanagement by leaders who always seemed to benefit while ordinary Puerto Ricans suffered. Grievances have been building up over 12 years of economic recession, a debt crisis that has prompted layoffs and cutbacks in public services and the botched response to Hurricane Maria.
The chat messages and the arrests this month of six people with ties to the Rosselló government were too much for many Puerto Ricans, who said they could no longer tolerate mocking, profanity and corruption, real or perceived, by leaders who were supposed to be fighting on their behalf in Washington and San Juan.
What do the protesters want?
They want to be rid of both Mr. Rosselló and another target of their ire, the unelected oversight board created by Congress to manage the finances of the island’s government, which owes far more than it can pay to its creditors. Thousands of government workers have been laid off, services have been cut, tuition raised and schools closed as Puerto Rico has struggled to resolve the debt crisis; none of that has been popular.
Mr. Rosselló has tried at times to push back against “la junta,” as the board is known. But many Puerto Ricans lump the two together in their frustration and fury. The protesters have taken to chanting “Ricky, renuncia, y llévate a la junta” — Ricky, resign, and take the board with you.
Frances Robles and Alejandra Rosa reported from San Juan, and Patricia Mazzei from Miami.