The day after Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced he would resign following weeks of massive protests against his administration, the woman legally in line to be his successor, Wanda Vázquez Garced, was already trending on Twitter.
Activists who organized mass protests against Rosselló using #RickyRenuncia had their next hashtag ready: #WandaRenuncia.
Now Vázquez, Puerto Rico’s current justice secretary, says she doesn’t want to be governor at all. In a Sunday tweet, Vázquez said that she wants Rosselló to appoint a secretary of state — who, under the territory’s Constitution, would be next in line for the governorship — before he leaves office on August 2.
“I reiterate, I have no interest in occupying the position of governor,” Vázquez said Sunday. “It is a Constitutional dictate.”
Me reitero, no tengo interés en ocupar el puesto de Gobernadora. Es un dictamen Constitucional. Espero que el señor Gobernador identifique y someta un candidato para el puesto de Secretario/a de Estado antes del 2 de agosto y así se lo he manifestado.— Lcda Wanda Vázquez Garced (@wandavazquezg) July 28, 2019
The former secretary of state, Luis G. Rivera Marín, resigned his post soon after sexist, homophobic Telegram app chats that ridiculed those who died in Hurricane María and political rivals came to light in a massive scandal that involved himself, Rosselló, and top officials in Rosselló’s administration. That scandal, and another involving corruption, touched off the protests that led to the governor’s resignation. Rivera’s resignation left a vacancy in the line of succession that placed Vázquez next in line for the governorship.
Vázquez’s statement came minutes after Anthony Maceira, another of the officials featured in the chats, said he would resign as Rosselló’s press officer. Maceira, however, will keep his post as director of the Port Authority.
“I leave the position with my head held high because I gave the best of myself,” Maceira wrote in his resignation letter.
(1/3) Durante el día de hoy notifiqué al Gobernador de Puerto Rico, Hon. @ricardorossello mi decisión de renunciar al cargo de Secretario de Asuntos Públicos de @fortalezapr con efectividad inmediata. Copia de la misiva se encuentra disponible en mis redes sociales. pic.twitter.com/4qQUuzBIqz— Anthony O. Maceira Zayas (@AnthonyMaceira) July 28, 2019
The retreats from Vázquez and Maceira underscore the public’s distrust of the entire Rosselló administration and raise serious questions about who will lead the country.
Protesters, who had planned a Monday demonstration in front of the Puerto Rico Department of Justice to oust Vázquez, responded to the announcements by urging Vázquez to resign as justice secretary and Maceira to resign as Port Authority director.
“Politicians are realizing that the people won’t take it anymore,” wrote the Alianza for Progress, a political group based in Florida, on Twitter. “Work for the good of the people, or retire.”
Los político se están dando cuenta que el pueblo ya no se los va a aguantar más. Obren por el bien del pueblo, o retírense. #WandaRenuncia #PuertoRico https://t.co/0GhkBOwfQh— Alianza For Progress (@AlianzaProgress) July 28, 2019
Protesters want more than Rosselló’s resignation
The leaked Telegram chats led to mass protests in part because the Puerto Rican people had already suffered through more than a decade of economic decline and high unemployment. Rosselló and his deputies’ jokes about those who died during the hurricane and casual discussion of manipulating media coverage added insult to a long list of injuries.
Rosselló and Vázquez, along with the rest of the leadership of their New Progressive Party, were also tarnished by their association with ongoing corruption investigations into former Rosselló administration officials. This includes the arrest and subsequent indictment of former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and the former chief of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration, Ángela Ávila-Marrero, over their alleged funneling of $15.5 million in government contracts to unqualified firms with which they had personal ties.
After Rosselló announced he would step down, some protesters said they would continue to demonstrate, arguing that there were corrupt officials in office who need to be removed.
“Ricardo Rosselló was only one of the faces of the corruption scheme,” wrote the Intersectional Feminist Collective of the University of Puerto Rico, which helped lead many of the protests against the governor. “There are still many more in the Senate, House of Representatives and on government agencies. The call of the people is to clean the house, the fight doesn’t end here.”
Ricardo Rosselló was only one of the faces of the corruption scheme, there still many more in the Senate, House of Representatives and on government agencies. The call of the people is to clean the house, the fight doesn’t end here.— Cole. Feminista Interseccional (@ColectivaUPR) July 25, 2019
Feminist organizations like the Intersectional Feminist Collective have also been vocal in their criticism of Vázquez, arguing she has been a poor ally to the territory’s women, particularly when she served as the head of the Attorney’s Office for Women. They allege, for instance, that Vázquez improperly opened a domestic violence investigation to bring down a political candidate from a rival party.
The candidate, Héctor Ferrer Ríos, said Vázquez threatened his partner with taking away custody of her son and offered her a job in the Office for Women in exchange for her testimony.
Other feminist groups have accused Vázquez of cutting off funds to women’s shelters as retribution for criticism of her performance in office. And as justice secretary, Vázquez has faced criticism for choosing to not prosecute or investigate cases of alleged fraud within the Rosselló administration.
The secretary has also been criticized for refusing to investigate allegations of mismanagement on the part of the Rosselló administration after two pallets of hurricane relief supplies were left to rot in the sun.
A succession crisis could have serious consequences for Puerto Rico
Should Vázquez want to ensure she does not become Puerto Rico’s next governor, she would either have to resign as justice secretary or somehow make sure Rosselló appoints a new secretary of state who could be confirmed by legislators in the five days he has left in office. In either scenario, it’s not clear who would step in.
That confusion creates a problem not just for the executive branch but for all of the territory’s citizens. As Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell explained, the longer the political crisis in Puerto Rico goes on, the greater the likelihood that crucial recovery funds will continue to be withheld by the federal government:
It’s been nearly two years since Hurricane Maria flattened homes and left millions without power. While San Juan’s colonial buildings have been restored and repainted, most of Puerto Rico has yet to return to normal.
Jobs are scarcer than before. The storm wrecked the tourism industry, a critical source of income for the island, and unemployment is at 7.7 percent (nearly double the rate on the US mainland). About 30,000 families are still displaced or living in hurricane-damaged homes without proper roofs. Most of them are still waiting for disaster aid from the federal government.
Others need Congress to pass a budget that includes funding for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid health insurance program.
“We’re talking about $12 billion. If that’s not approved in the next two months, it would leave 600,000 people without health insurance,” Carmelo Ríos, Puerto Rico’s Senate majority leader, said Sunday on CNN en Español. “Then there’s the $30 billion to $40 billion that [Congress] promised to send to the island two years ago but still hasn’t arrived.”
The crisis in leadership also threatens what had been Rosselló’s greatest accomplishment: building momentum for Puerto Rico to become a state. Rosselló’s New Progressive Party has made becoming a state a key part of its platform and had made great gains toward achieving that goal. The fall from grace of its leaders may erode those efforts.
Whoever becomes Puerto Rico’s next governor will have to win back the public’s trust. The New Progressive Party isn’t alone in being seen as a harbor for corrupt politicians; the Popular Democratic Party, home to one of Rosselló’s chief rivals, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, has also run afoul of corruption scandals. And strong political divisions remain in Puerto Rico even as the public joined together, across political parties, to root Rosselló out of office.