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 Rossello steps down, no one knows who will take his place. Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, his constitutional successor, said Sunday that she didn’t want the job. The next in line would be Education Secretary Eligio Hernandez, a largely unknown bureaucrat with little political experience.
Rossello’s party says it wants him to nominate a successor before he steps down, but Rossello 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.
Rossello 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, protesters were to gather once again, but this time to demand that Vazquez not assume the governorship. Under normal circumstances, Rossello’s successor would be the territory’s secretary of state, but veteran politician Luis Rivera Marin resigned from that post on July 13 as part of the scandal that toppled the governor.
Next in line
Vazquez, 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 Rossello 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, Vazquez tweeted Sunday that she had no desire to succeed Rossello.
“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 Rossello resigns, Vazquez 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 Pares is 31 years old, and the constitution dictates a governor has to be at least 35. In that case, the governorship would go to Hernandez, 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 Hernandez 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.
‘Uncertainties are dangerous’
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 Rodriguez, 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.”
Hector 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.”
Puerto Ricans until recently had celebrated that Rossello 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 Rodriguez Aguilo, a member of Rossello’s New Progressive Party, which supports statehood, said in a telephone interview that legislators are waiting on Rossello to nominate a secretary of state, who would then become governor since Vazquez 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.”
‘Rethink the constitution’
Another option was recently raised by Jenniffer Gonzalez, 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 Rossello 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.”