Puerto Ricans Anxious for New Leader Amid Political Crisis

Jul 30, 2019
12:15 PM

People protest in front of the Department of Justice to demand the resignation of Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Brandon Cruz Gonz·lez)

By DÁNICA COTO, Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The unprecedented resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor after days of massive island-wide protests has thrown the U.S. territory into a full-blown political crisis.

Less than four days before Gov. Ricardo Rosselló steps down, no one knows who will take his place. Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, his constitutional successor, said Sunday that she didn’t want the job. The next in line would be Education Secretary Eligio Hernández, a largely unknown bureaucrat with little political experience.

Rosselló’s party says it wants him to nominate a successor before he steps down, but Rosselló has said nothing about his plans, time is running out and some on the island are even talking about the need for more federal control over a territory whose finances are already overseen from Washington.

Rosselló resigned following nearly two weeks of daily protests in which hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, mounted horses and jet skis, organized a twerkathon and came up with other creative ways to demand his ouster.

On Monday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Department of Justice building to demand that Vázquez resign before becoming the island’s next governor. Under normal circumstances, Rosselló’s successor would be the territory’s secretary of state, but veteran politician Luis Rivera Marín resigned from that post on July 13 as part of the scandal that toppled the governor.

People protest in front of the Department of Justice to demand the resignation of Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Brandon Cruz Gonz·lez)

The crowd marched in a large circle, banging pots and clutching Puerto Rican flags as they yelled, “You didn’t do your job, Wanda Vázquez, go to hell!”

Among the protesters was psychologist and yoga teacher Lourdes Soler Muñiz, who also protested almost every day before Rosselló resigned.

“The people have the power. They are our employees,” she said, referring to government officials. “We’re not going to stop. I am 56 years old and I’m not growing tired. Imagine what the young people are capable of.”

Vázquez, a 59-year-old prosecutor who worked as a district attorney and was later director of the Office for Women’s Rights, does not have widespread support among Puerto Ricans. Many have criticized her for not being aggressive enough in investigating cases involving members of the party that she and Rosselló belong to, and of not prioritizing gender violence as justice secretary. She also has been accused of not pursuing the alleged mismanagement of supplies for victims of Hurricane Maria.

Facing a new wave of protests, Vázquez tweeted Sunday that she had no desire to succeed Rosselló.

“I have no interest in the governor’s office,” she wrote. “I hope the governor nominates a secretary of state before Aug. 2.”

If a secretary of state is not nominated before Rosselló resigns, Vázquez would automatically become the new governor. She would then have the power to nominate a secretary of state, or she could also reject being governor, in which case the constitution states the treasury secretary would be next in line. However, Treasury Secretary Francisco Parés is 31 years old, and the constitution dictates a governor has to be at least 35. In that case, the governorship would go to Hernández, who replaced the former education secretary, Julia Keleher, who resigned in April and was arrested on July 10 on federal corruption charges. She has pleaded not guilty.

But Hernández has not been clear on whether he would accept becoming governor.

“At this time, this public servant is focused solely and exclusively on the work of the Department of Education,” he told Radio Isla 1320 AM on Monday. A spokesman for Hernandez did not return a message seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are growing anxious about what the lack of leadership could mean for the island’s political and economic future.

“It’s very important that the government have a certain degree of stability, said Luis Rodríguez, a 36-year-old accountant, adding that all political parties should be paying attention to what’s happening. “We’re tired of the various political parties that always climb to power and have let us down a bit and have taken the island to the point where it finds itself right now.”

Héctor Luis Acevedo, a university professor and former secretary of state, said both the governor’s party and the main opposition party that he supports, the Popular Democratic Party, have weakened in recent years. He added that new leadership needs to be found soon.

“These uncertainties are dangerous in a democracy because they tend to strengthen the extremes,” he said. “This vacuum is greatly harming the island.”

People protest in front of the Department of Justice to demand the resignation of Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Brandon Cruz González)

Puerto Ricans until recently had celebrated that Rosselló and more than a dozen other officials had resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they mocked women and the victims of Hurricane Maria, among others, in 889 pages leaked on July 13. But now, many are concerned that the government is not moving quickly enough to restore order and leadership to an island mired in a 13-year recession as it struggles to recover from the Category 4 storm and tries to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.

Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló, a member of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, which supports statehood, said in a telephone interview that legislators are waiting on Rosselló to nominate a secretary of state, who would then become governor since Vázquez has said she is not interested in the position.

“I hope that whoever is nominated is someone who respects people, who can give the people of Puerto Rico hope and has the capacity to rule,” he said. “We cannot rush into this. There must be sanity and restraint in this process.”

Another option was recently raised by Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress. Last week, she urged U.S. President Donald Trump to appoint a federal coordinator to oversee hurricane reconstruction and ensure the proper use of federal funds in the U.S. territory, a suggestion rejected by many on an island already under the direction of a federal control board overseeing its finances and debt restructuring process.

As legislators wait for Rosselló to nominate a secretary of state, they have started debating whether to amend the constitution to allow for a vice president or lieutenant governor, among other things.

The constitution currently does not allow the government to hold early elections, noted Yanira Reyes Gil, a university professor and constitutional attorney.

“We have to rethink the constitution,” she said, adding that there are holes in the current one, including that people are not allowed to participate in choosing a new governor if the previous one resigns.

Reyes also said people are worried that the House and Senate might rush to approve a new secretary of state without sufficient vetting.

“Given the short amount of time, people have doubts that the person will undergo a strict evaluation,” she said. “We’re in a situation where the people have lost faith in the government agencies, they have lost faith in their leaders.”