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Turmoil Calms as Puerto Rico Governor Turns to Policy

Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez is sworn in as governor of Puerto Rico by Supreme Court Justice Maite Oronoz, in San Juan, Aug. 7, 2019. Vazquez was joined by her daughter Beatriz Diaz Vazquez and her husband Judge Jorge Diaz.

Puerto Rico's political turmoil seemed to be at least temporarily easing on Monday with attention shifting to policy rather than protests following the replacement governor's move to suspend a hurricane recovery contract.

In one of her first moves as governor, Wanda Vazquez announced late Sunday that she was scrutinizing a pending $450,000 contract that is part of the program to rebuild and strengthen the island's power grid, which was destroyed by Hurricane Maria nearly two years ago.

“There is no room in this administration for unreasonable expenses,” said Vazquez, who on Wednesday became Puerto Rico's third governor in a week following popular protests that resulted in political turmoil.

Immediate pressure on the new governor appeared to be easing somewhat. There have been no large protests since she was sworn in and none appeared on the horizon.

Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority, which is more than $9 billion in debt, had been expected to sign the contract with Stantec, a consulting firm based in Canada. Vazquez did not explain why she was suspending the deal, saying only that transparency is a priority for her administration.

However, a power company spokesman emailed a statement to The Associated Press saying that PREPA executive director Jose Ortiz planned to meet with Vazquez on Monday to explain why it was important to sign the contract. Ortiz said the contract has to be submitted before Oct. 6 so the U.S. territory can obtain federal hurricane recovery funds.

A Stantec official based in Puerto Rico did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear whether Vazquez's move will delay efforts to rebuild and bolster the power grid, which remains fragile and is prone to outages that have exasperated many of the island's 3.2 million people. Power company spokesman Jorge Burgos said that he had no further details and that more information would be released after Monday's meeting.

Puerto Rico's power company has awarded several multimillion-dollar contracts since the Category 4 storm hit on Sept. 20, 2017, and many of those deals have come under intense scrutiny, with some being cancelled. Currently, Mammoth Energy Services' subsidiary Cobra Acquisitions, which has some $1.8 billion in contracts with the power company, is facing a federal investigation.

Economist Jose Caraballo said he hopes Vazquez's announcement is the first of more changes to come.

“I hope this isn't a smoke screen and that there's a real audit,” he said in a phone interview. “That's what all these people who have lost trust in the government expect.”

Puerto Rico has been mired in political turmoil, with former Gov. Ricardo Rossello resigning Aug. 2 following large protests. The island's Supreme Court then ruled that his replacement was illegally sworn in, which left Vazquez, the justice secretary, next in line to become governor. The U.S. territory also is struggling to emerge from a 13-year recession and trying to restructure some of its more than $70 billion public debt load.