SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - Puerto Ricans braced for more political turmoil Thursday as the third governor in a week took charge of this U.S. territory still divided over who should lead the economically struggling island of 3.2 million people.
The swearing in of Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez as governor was expected to spur renewed protests since many Puerto Ricans see her as an extension of Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned the governorship after weeks of street demonstrations demanding his removal.
Vázquez sought to calm the anger in a televised statement late Wednesday, saying she feels the pain Puerto Ricans have experienced in recent weeks and vowing to unify the island and bring much needed stability.
“We have all felt the anxiety provoked by the instability and uncertainty,” she said. “Faced with this enormous challenge and with God ahead, I take a step forward with no interest other than serving the people as I have done my whole life.”
Vázquez, who has worked in the government for more than 30 years, stepped into the position Wednesday when Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court declared that Rosselló’s pick, Pedro Pierluisi, had been placed in office unconstitutionally.
“Puerto Rico is living its most important juncture of its democratic history,” Supreme Court President Maite Oronoz wrote in her opinion. “The summer of 2019 will be remembered as the moment without precedent in which Puerto Ricans — of all ages, ideologies, backgrounds and creeds — threw themselves into the streets to demand more from their government.”
Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz has said publicly that he backs Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González — Puerto Rico’s representative to the U.S. Congress — to become governor. For that to happen, she would have to be nominated as secretary of state and confirmed and then Vázquez would have to resign, though the new governor gave no indication she would step aside despite saying previously she didn’t want the job.
Puerto Rico’s political establishment was knocked off balance by huge street protests that were spawned by anger over corruption, mismanagement of funds and a leaked obscenity-laced chat in which Rosselló and several top aides disparaged women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria, among others.
On July 10, Rosselló’s former education secretary, former Health Insurance Administration chief and three others were arrested on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors. Islanders are also angry over the territory’s protracted economic woes and slow recovery from 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria.
Vázquez, a 59-year-old former prosecutor, is the second woman to be governor and is to serve out the remainder of Rosselló’s term until elections in November 2020, but at least some of those involving in the anti-Rosselló protests are calling for her ouster, too.
Critics of Vázquez say that she was not aggressive enough as justice secretary in pursuing corruption investigations involving members of her New Progressive Party and that she did not prioritize gender violence cases. She’s also been accused of ignoring investigations into alleged mismanagement of hurricane aid.
Appointed justice secretary in January 2017, Vázquez previously worked as a district attorney for two decades at Puerto Rico’s justice department, handling domestic and sexual abuse cases. In 2010, she was appointed director of the Office for Women’s Rights.
The new governor did not speak to reporters after she was sworn in at a ceremony accompanied by her daughter and her husband, Judge Jorge Díaz. But in her televised statement, Vázquez said she would be working for all Puerto Ricans.
“History has brought me here without any political aspirations,” she said. “I recognize that I was not chosen by the people for this position ... But I came from those same people. I am a product of public schools ... I know what it is to come from nothing. I know what hard work is.”
A small group of protesters gathered earlier outside the governor’s mansion in San Juan’s colonial district calling for Vázquez to resign and yelling: “There’ll be no peace as long as there’s impunity!” The crowd remained calm as onlookers including tourists took pictures and video of them.
Carmen Santiago, a homemaker from San Juan participating in the protest, said Puerto Ricans have enough energy left to organize more protests.
“Especially the young people,” she said. “It should be the people who choose the governor, not the party.”
Those who oppose the new governor also mention how the Office of Government Ethics received a complaint in November about possible ethical violations by Vázquez, who was accused of intervening in a case involving a suspect charged with stealing government property at a home where her daughter lived. She appeared in court to face charges including two violations of a government ethics law, but a judge ruled in December there was no evidence for her arrest.
Pierluisi briefly acted as governor after he was appointed by Rosselló to fill the vacant secretary of state position while legislators were in recess. On Friday, the House approved his nomination to the job, which is first in line to replace a governor who leaves office, and he was sworn in as governor after Rosselló formally resigned. But Puerto Rico’s Senate then sued to challenge Pierluisi’s legitimacy as governor, arguing that its approval was also necessary. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Senate.
Yanira Gil, a professor at Puerto Rico’s Interamerican University’s law school, said the Supreme Court’s ruling was overwhelming in its unanimity.
“We’re going to be including it in our courses,” she said. “This is definitely a decision for the ages.”