Puerto Ricans gathered for one of the biggest protests ever seen in the US territory, as irate islanders pledged to drive Gov. Rosselló from office. AP
Next month, Puerto Rico will commemorate the second anniversary of its devastating encounter with Hurricane Maria, which resulted in about 3,000 deaths, ravaged the island’s infrastructure and left an estimated $100 billion in damages.
This month, the U.S. territory is trying to withstand a political storm that has threatened to worsen its ongoing crisis.
The resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, driven out of office Aug. 2 by massive protests following corruption and text-message scandals, marked the beginning of a stretch when Puerto Rico had three governors in less than a week.
The demonstrations have tapered off, but it may be a while before political normalcy returns. It wasn’t until Wednesday that key members of the ruling New Progressive Party got behind the new leader.
Here are five questions addressing where things stand now:
Who’s the current governor?
Her name is Wanda Vazquez, and she’s the commonwealth’s second female governor, after Sila Calderon held the post from 2001-2005.
Vazquez, a former Justice Secretary and longtime public employee who was a Rosselló ally, did not take a straight path to the governor’s mansion.
Shortly before stepping down, Rosselló named former congressional representative Pedro Pierluisi as Secretary of State, which would make him next in the line of succession. Pierluisi was sworn in on Aug. 2 but lasted only five days, as Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz launched a challenge, arguing that Pierluisi’s elevation was invalid because he was only confirmed by the House, not the Senate.
Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court agreed, making way for Vazquez to take over Aug. 7.
Why indeed, many Puerto Ricans asked as Rosselló’s departure became imminent. After all, Vazquez has never been elected to public office, and she’s not particularly popular. News of Rosselló’s resignation was still fresh when marchers started calling for Vazquez to quit a post she had yet to assume, and the hashtag #WandaRenuncia began trending on Twitter.
Moreover, Vazquez had made it abundantly clear she didn’t want the job, and would only take it if constitutionally required. Because the secretary of state position was vacant following Luis Rivera Marin’s forced exit as part of the texting scandal, Vazquez was next in line.
She brings a fair amount of political baggage to the job of top executive. As Justice Secretary, Vazquez was accused of meddling in the investigation of a case involving her daughter, and also criticized for a failure to look into charges of governmental mishandling of hurricane-relief supplies.
In a previous position as head of the Office of Women’s Rights, Vazquez was assailed for not doing enough to address domestic violence.
What challenges await Vazquez?
A public debt of more than $70 billion and $55 billion in unfunded pensions top the list, which is extensive. Puerto Rico remains immersed in a 13-year recession, made all the worse by the considerable brain drain from the estimated 500,000 residents who have left in the last decade. The territory has a poverty rate of 44.4%.
Though Puerto Rico is getting a boost from some of the $41 billion allocated in federal recovery aid and may become prime terrain for investment, Vazquez’s ability to spur the economy will be limited by an oversight board put in place by Congress to address the island’s financial crisis.
She may also face opposition within her own party. Rivera Schatz, who championed another candidate and is thought to have gubernatorial aspirations, finally lent Vazquez his public support Wednesday. They have a well-known history of clashes, though, so that support doesn’t figure to be unconditional.
How long will she be in office?
Vazquez is completing Rosselló’s term, which runs until Jan. 2, 2021. Puerto Rico chooses its governor every four years on the same day as the U.S. presidential election, so her successor will be chosen at that time, unless she gets elected.
There was speculation Vazquez would take office only long enough to name a secretary of state, who would then replace her as she stepped down. But she has refuted that notion, telling a local radio station, “I took the responsibility bestowed on me by the constitution for the amount of time the gubernatorial term lasts.’’
Vazquez has to find a Secretary of State and a permanent Justice Secretary, all the while mending rifts in the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. She just moved to fill two other vacancies by naming new heads for the Bank of Economic Development and the Public Buildings Authority.
More important still will be establishing an improved working relationship with the financial oversight board, a source of much frustration and profanity-filled remarks for Rosselló. On Thursday, Vazquez met with board president Jose Carrion and both expressed a desire to maintain open communication.
If they can keep the swear words out of the way, that will be a step in the right direction.
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