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Puerto Rico has had three governors in the span of a single week. And the island’s newest one might not keep her job for long.
After nearly two weeks of sustained pressure, former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló finally stepped down last Friday, just two days after naming his replacement, Pedro Pierluisi. But after just five days in office, the island’s Supreme Court declared Pierluisi’s governorship unconstitutional. Only the island’s House of Representatives, and not the Senate, had confirmed him.
The court’s ruling handed power over to former Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, who would have been next in line after Rosselló in the first place but said she didn’t want the job. But on Thursday, she said she’d stick around and lead the island for now — though she also said she won’t move into the governor’s mansion for the time being.
The island’s protest movement, however, won’t be thrilled to hear that news. Even before Rosselló resigned, Vázquez also faced calls to resign because she was part of the Rosselló administration and is implicated in some of its scandals. The person Vázquez taps for secretary of state could wind up in the governor’s mansion not long from now. That’s likely to be Jenniffer González, according to Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día. She’s currently serving as the sole, non-voting Puerto Rican representative in the U.S. Congress.
“The organizers and the protesters have made it clear that getting rid of Ricardo Rosselló, it’s not the end of the road,” Puerto Rican independent Rep. Manuel Natal Albelo previously told VICE News. “We’re here to put an end to corruption. Anyone, regardless of who they are, if they represent a continuation of that corruption, is going to face the resistance of the people of Puerto Rico.”
A game of musical chairs
The leader of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz (who was on the shortlist for governor) brought the lawsuit alleging that Pierluisi unconstitutionally took power because both houses of the Legislature hadn’t confirmed him. The commonwealth’s Supreme Court broke its recess this week to hear the case and ultimately sided with the Senate: Pierluisi was not constitutionally appointed as governor, the court ruled.
Even before that, the Puerto Rican government was already one big game of musical chairs.
"The news is shifting minute by minute."
Rosselló wouldn’t have had to nominate Pierluisi — or a successor at all — had there been a secretary of state. But the person who previously held that role, which is the next-in-line position for the governoship, resigned in the wake of his involvement in a homophobic and mysoginistic group message that leaked and kicked off the weeks of protests in Puerto Rico. Pierluisi had also already come under scrutiny for his coziness with the island’s unelected oversight board — known to those on the island as “la junta” — and his prior work as a coal lobbyist.
“The news is shifting minute by minute,” Yarimar Bonilla, a Puerto Rican professor of political anthropology who’s been part of the protests previously told VICE News. “It’s hard to articulate a coherent response to an incoherent news drop.”
The confirmation hearings for Pierluisi had been heated. One of the opposition lawmakers called him a “vulture governor,” according to Bloomberg. And Rivera Schatz strongly suggested that Pierluisi did not have the votes to be approved by the Senate.
Now that he’s out, both the House and the Senate will have to confirm Vázquez’s pick for secretary of state before Vázquez can hand power over. And there’s a possibility that the Senate, in particular, might not approve of her choice: Rivera Schatz and Vázquez are known not to be best buds, and he could nix whoever she does pick.
As he left office, Pierluisi called for Puerto Rican unity and consistent leadership to guide the island. Though the texting scandal ignited the protests against Rosselló, they also demanded attention for more deep-seated troubles in Puerto Rico: a $70 billion debt crisis and laggingHurricane Maria recovery efforts.
For the time being, protesters haven’t returned to the streets, where they spent nearly two weeks demanding that Rosselló resign. But several said that neither Pierluisi nor Vázquez nor River Schatz would represent the sort of change that they want.
Then again, they haven’t put forward a leader who could take power instead.
“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: San Juan, Puerto Rico, Agosto 7, 2019 - MCD - Viejo San Juan - Capitolio - FOTOS para ilustrar una historia relacionada a la Wanda Vázquez Garced juramentando como gobernadora como gobernadora de Puerto Rico luego que el Tribunal Supremo emitiera una decisión en contra a la gobernación de Pedro Pierluisi días después de la renuncia del gobernador Ricardo Rosselló debido a la controversia de su gobierno por asuntos de corrupción y el chat de Telegram. (GDA via AP Images)