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The Guy Tapped to Become Puerto Rico's Next Governor Is "Throwing More Gasoline on the Fire"

Protesters don’t want Pedro Pierluisi in the governor's mansion.

by Alex Lubben
Aug 1 2019, 5:14pm

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After Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned in the wake of nearly two weeks of sustained protests, the person next in line didn’t want the job. Now, protesters don’t seem to want the new nominee either.

Pedro Pierluisi, the former non-voting Puerto Rican representative to Congress, will seek confirmation from Puerto Rico’s House and Senate to take on the position of secretary of state before Rosselló officially resigns. If confirmed, he’ll step up as governor when Rosselló steps down on Friday.

But some Puerto Ricans already feel he’s not the guy for the job, particularly because of his cozy relationship with the unelected fiscal oversight board, known colloquially as “la junta,” that controls the island’s finances. Protesters have called for that body to be disbanded. “Ricky renuncia, y llévate a la junta,” went one popular chant during the protests that ultimately ousted Rosselló. In English: “Ricky, resign, and take the junta with you.”

In his first statement after being nominated, however, Pierluisi said he would “reestablish a productive relationship with the Oversight Board, based only on what is good for Puerto Rico and facilitates the end of its mandate.”

“Pierluisi represents as much politics as usual, as much as Rosselló does,” said Yarimar Bonilla, a Puerto Rican political anthropology professor at Hunter College who’s been in the streets these last few weeks. “This is definitely throwing more gasoline on the fire.”

More protests are planned for outside the governor’s mansion in San Juan on Friday.

Pierluisi’s profiting

Since President Obama appointed the finance board in 2016, its members have tried to manage the island’s more than $70 billion in debt, largely by slashing education and healthcare spending. And Pierluisi and his family helped them do it.

“This is definitely throwing more gasoline on the fire.”

Pierluisi represented Puerto Rico in Congress when the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, was passed, which created the finance board and allowed the island to declare a form of bankruptcy. Pierluisi’s brother-in-law then became the chair of the board, and Pierluisi, after leaving office, started to work for the law firm that does consulting for the board.

He resigned from his post at that law firm this week to take a role in government without a conflict of interest.

“We’re talking about the governor of Puerto Rico and the fiscal control board being one and the same,” Puerto Rican Rep. Manuel Natal Albelo told VICE News. “That does not represent the best interests of Puerto Rico. That represents the best interests of bondholders.”

While Puerto Rico was sinking deeper into its financial crisis, Pierluisi and his wife were also reaping huge profits. He introduced legislation that would benefit his wife’s financial consulting business. Their net worth increased 27-fold in the eight years after he took office, according to the New York Times.

“We’re sort of just waiting to see what happens,” said Aliana Bigio Alcoba, a 21-year-old retail worker in Puerto Rico. “It is a shitshow.”

If Pierluisi takes office, Natal thinks he'll seek to expand the purview of the fiscal control board. Puerto Ricans already feared that the board would try to exert more power on the island in the wake of the protests and power struggle.

Natal has called out corruption in the Rosselló administration since before the scandals broke and is popular among many of the protesters, but at just 33, he’s too young to be governor. In nearly 100 pages of leaked chats between Rosselló and his friends published by an independent journalist Wednesday, Natal was called a “terrorist” and “dog food.”

A “Trump-like” alternative

If the legislature doesn’t confirm Pierluisi, then the leader of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz, could likely wind up in the governor’s mansion. Several lawmakers have floated as a possible alternative. He took over as leader of New Progressive Party, which supports Puerto Rican statehood, after Rosselló gave up that role, and Schatz appears to be angling to take power.

“Schatz wants to be governor, but the reality is that the people do not want him,” said Joshua Manuel Bonet, 21, who has taken part in the protests against Rosselló. “He should listen to the people and stop playing politics.”

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A woman hold a sign that reads in Spanish "Resign" during a protest demanding the resignation of Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez outside the Department of Justice in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Brandon Cruz González)

“It’s a choice between putting a bullet in your brain or in your mouth,” Natal added of the choice between Pierluisi and Schatz. “We’re not going to accept that those are the only two options.”

Schatz helped pass laws that criminalize certain types of protest in Puerto Rico and awarded dozens of government contracts to his friends and family. He’s also been criticized for making homophobic remarks — not unlike the hundreds of leaked messages between Rosselló and his crones that set off nearly two straight weeks protests and ultimately forced Rosselló to resign.

Schatz also appears to ready to try to undercut Pierluisi’s chance of becoming governor: On Wednesday morning, Schatz called a popular radio host to say, on the air, that Pierluisi doesn’t have the votes he needs to be confirmed. He’s expected to try to block Pierluisi’s nomination.

“Schatz has a terrible personality,” Bigio said. “He’s Trump-like.”

Normally the next in line for the governorship would be the secretary of state, but that position is vacant. Luis Rivera Marín, the last person to hold the job, resigned over his role in the homophobic and sexist messages that set off the protests. That left the job to Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, but she didn’t want to be governor. Before she even took office, protesters had already called for her to resign. The protest movement saw her as being too close to Rosselló.

“Up until now, we’ve been talking about what we don’t want,” Bonilla said. “Spaces are emerging for people to talk about what they do want.”

Cover image: 31 de julio del 2019 San Juan, Puerto Rico Entrevista con Pedro Pieluisi durante una entrevista exclusiva con el Nuevo Día luego de su nominación como Secretario de Estado. teresa.canino@gfrmedia.com (GDA via AP Images)