Puerto Rico Braces for Clashes Over Island’s Next Leader

Jul 31, 2019
4:02 PM

In this July 19, 2019 file photo, a demonstrator bangs on a pot that has a cartoon drawing of Governor Ricardo Rosselló as people gather to protest in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/ Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo, File)

By DÁNICA COTO, Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s political crisis appeared to deepen on Wednesday as the island’s outgoing governor and legislators —including those from his own party— clashed over who should be the next leader of a U.S. territory unbalanced by massive protests.

The upheaval has raised fears that a government in chaos will have trouble negotiating for more federal funding for recovery from Hurricane Maria and coping with the island’s grave economic woes.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced that he had chosen Puerto Rico’s former non-voting representative to Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, as his secretary of state—a post that would put Pierluisi in line to be governor when Rosselló steps down on Friday.

But he’s unlikely to be approved by legislators, several of whom proposed instead naming Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, a declared candidate for the 2020 governor’s election.

Some lawmakers complained about Pierluisi’s work for a law firm that represents the federal control board that was created to oversee Puerto Rico’s finances before the territory, saddled with more than $70 billion in public debt, declared a sort of bankruptcy. Pierluisi’s brother-in-law also heads the board, which has clashed repeatedly with Rosselló and other elected officials over demands for austerity measures.

“That’s a serious conflict of interest,” Rep. José Enrique Meléndez told The Associated Press.

Rep. Milagros Charbonier and House of Representatives President Johnny Méndez also said they would vote against Pierluisi and urged Rosselló to instead nominate Rivera Schatz. All three legislators are members of Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party.

Méndez has said Pierluisi does not have the votes needed in the House of Representatives.

“The situation could not be more complicated,” said Sen. José Antonio Vargas Vidot, who ran for Senate as an independent. “This is absurd, what we’re going through. We never thought something like this could happen. In an extraordinary crisis, we have to take extraordinary measures.”

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia bitterly accused Rivera Schatz of trying to maneuver himself into the top job.

“This attitude of (Rivera Schatz) taking the island hostage is very dangerous,” Bhatia tweeted. “‘It’s him or no one’ is in keeping with what has been a life silencing and destroying democracy.”

Rosselló has said he will resign on Friday, bowing to the demands of massive street protests by Puerto Ricans frustrated with corruption, mismanagement and an obscenity-laced chat that was leaked in which Rosselló and 11 other men made fun of women, gay people and victims of Hurricane María.

More than a dozen officials have resigned in the wake of the chat, including former Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín.

By law, the secretary of state would take over if the governor resigns, but if someone is not named by Friday, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez would be next in line. She has said she doesn’t want the job, however, and has not said what she’d do if it falls to her anyway.

Meanwhile, Rivera Schatz, whose spokeswoman said he was not granting interviews, said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that all problems have solutions and that Puerto Rico should be focused on finding them.

“We should promote unity, not discord,” he wrote.

In this July 25, 2019 photo, a young woman takes part in the festivities to celebrate the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo)

Legislators were expected to meet on Thursday to debate Pierluisi’s nomination, which must be approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Political analyst Annabelle Colberg Toro said Pierluisi has proven to be a conciliatory leader in the past and warned that Puerto Rico needs stability soon.

“People want a return to normalcy,” she said. “We are experiencing a paralysis in which no one knows what’s going to happen next.”

Pierluisi, who took a leave of absence from the law firm, said in a statement Wednesday that much work remains to be done to recover the trust of federal authorities, U.S. Congress and the people of Puerto Rico as it also struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.

“My goal is now to transform the energy shown by our people in constructive actions that help Puerto Rico go forward,” he said. “Puerto Rico is facing times never before seen and we all have to be part of the path to progress.”

Pierluisi represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009-2017 and then ran against Rosselló in the 2016 primaries and lost. He also previously served as justice secretary under Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, when he was governor.