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5 things to know about Wanda Vázquez, Puerto Rico’s latest governor

She’s a controversial figure, for one.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez waves as she arrives to the Supreme Court, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, August 7, 2019.
Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/AP

After a series of musical chairs, Puerto Rico has a governor that may stick around for more than a few days.

Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, who was next in the line of succession after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló stepped down last week, was sworn in Wednesday afternoon. Vázquez had said she didn’t want the position, which fueled speculation that she would resign too.

But Vázquez made clear on Thursday that she plans to stay as long as possible.

“At this moment, I don’t see myself resigning,” she told El Vocero newspaper. “I took this position to fulfill my obligations and to take the destiny of our people to 2020. That is my North Star.”

Vázquez moves into the governor’s mansion after a remarkable turn of events, which led Puerto Rico to have three governors in less than a week. It all came to a head Wednesday afternoon, when the US territory’s Supreme Court invalidated Friday’s swearing-in of Pedro Pierluisi, a lawyer and former politician whom Rosselló had nominated to replace him. Rosselló decided to resign after 12 days of anti-government protests over his administration’s role in corruption and social media scandals.

The court’s nine justices ruled that Pierluisi’s appointment was unconstitutional, as he was not confirmed by the Senate (he reportedly didn’t have enough votes there for confirmation). So the next person in the line of succession to replace Rosselló, per the constitution, was the justice secretary: Wanda Vázquez.

Vázquez is now the second female governor of Puerto Rico. But who is she? Here are five things to know about her.

1) She’s not a politician, she’s an attorney

Vázquez has more than 30 years of government experience, but she’s never held elected office. In 2017, Rosselló appointed her justice secretary, which is a similar role to a state attorney general.

Instead, the 59-year-old has worked most of her career as a prosecutor. As a district attorney, Vazquez prosecuted domestic violence and sexual abuse cases. In 2010, she was appointed as the head of Puerto Rico’s Office of Women’s Affairs, where she was in charge of enforcing civil rights laws.

However, some women’s groups opposed Vázquez during her seven years as the head of the island’s women’s affairs office (more on that in a bit). But it wasn’t until she became Puerto Rico’s top prosecutor that the real controversies began.

2) She has powerful political enemies

Vázquez is not a popular person, even within her own party, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. Part of that stems from her willingness to investigate corruption in Puerto Rico’s legislature. In particular, she has a strained relationship with Senate Majority Leader Thomas Rivera Schatz, a powerful politician who is now the head of their party.

Rivera Schatz has been fighting publicly with Vázquez for more than a year. He’s called for her to resign and has accused her of committing crimes and mishandling multiple investigations. More than anything, he was upset about a corruption investigation of his office. The probe led to a federal indictment against a key Senate official, who was accused this year of submitting fake invoices that benefited Rivera Schatz’s political allies.

So there’s a lot of bad blood between them. Not to mention, Rivera Schatz reportedly wanted to be governor.

On Thursday, he seemed resigned to the reality that Vázquez has no plans to resign, though.

“We don’t have the will to confront anyone,” he said during a press conference on Thursday, according to El Vocero. When reporters asked if he supported her as governor, he gave a less than enthusiastic endorsement: “Wanda Vázquez got there by order of the constitution, not by the support of anyone.”

3) Vazquez is involved in her own scandals

Vázquez made history as the first justice secretary in Puerto Rico to face a criminal investigation. In 2018, she temporarily stepped down in response to ethical complaints filed by the office of an independent special prosecutor. Vázquez was accused of abusing her power when she reportedly tried to meddle in a theft investigation at her daughter’s home. The prosecutor said there was not enough evidence to charge Vázquez of wrongdoing, but the publicity was bad for her.

One of the most upsetting issues to Puerto Ricans was the alleged corruption related to the Hurricane Maria recovery. The storm devastated the island in September 2017, and many neighborhoods have yet to return to normal. Puerto Ricans want to know what happened to all the federal money, and Vázquez showed little interest in investigating it. She also angered the public for reportedly refusing to investigate why tons of hurricane supplies were abandoned in fields and never distributed to survivors.

4) Puerto Rican feminists really don’t like her

Vázquez has a complicated history with women’s rights groups on the island. The relationship grew tense while Vázquez was the head of the government agency in charge of enforcing women’s civil rights — a position she held from 2010 to 2017, when she left to take over the justice department.

As head of the women’s rights division, Vázquez oversaw steep budget cuts to groups that provide services to battered women. She also instituted strict new requirements for those groups to receive federal funding.

“Many of these organizations were forced to close their doors and lay off staff,” wrote prominent feminist Josefina Pantoja back in 2016, in which she argued against Vázquez’s appointment to lead the justice department.

More recently, feminist groups grew frustrated with Vázquez because she ignored calls to declare a national emergency in response to a surge of violence against women after Hurricane Maria.

So it’s not surprising that women’s groups have been opposed to putting her in charge of everything.

“We believe in gender equality #NoCorrupt[men]NoCorrupt[women],” wrote Puerto Rico’s General Women’s Movement, a well-known women’s rights group, in a Twitter post last week.

5) Protesters are already calling for her to step down

But it’s not just feminists who want Vázquez gone. Many of the Puerto Ricans who took to the streets don’t have much faith in her, either. They’re worried that she represents more of the same.

Puerto Ricans have been patient through decades of government incompetence and corruption, and they’ve had enough. They’re bearing the burden of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy, the lingering economic recession, and the botched response to Hurricane Maria. But two recent scandals sent them over the edge.

In July, the FBI arrested two former cabinet officials in Rosselló’s government as part of a corruption probe over their handling of $15.5 million in post-hurricane contracts. The officials, former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and Ángela Ávila-Marrero (former chief of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration), are accused of funneling the government contracts to businesses they had personal ties to.

Though Vázquez wasn’t implicated in the crimes, some protestors believe that the entire administration is rotten.

When Vázquez arrived at the governor’s mansion on Wednesday, there were already protestors lining the street, demanding she step down. The hashtag #Wanda Renuncia (#WandaResign) was trending on Twitter.

However, the protests are nothing like the ones against the former governor, Rosselló. Nearly a million people took to the streets demanding him to resign in the wake of a corruption and social media scandal. So far, they are only a few hundred are out in the streets. That could change at any time, however.

Vázquez knows this, which is why she was begging the public on Thursday to give her a chance.

“I ask the people who don’t know me ... to not pre-judge my management,” she said in an interview with El Vocero. “I have 32 years of government experience and I have worked without ending up on trial, doing what is right. If we don’t stabilize the government, we won’t be able to recover. While I’m here, I will take on that responsibility. I took it on and I will complete it, but it’s important that you give me the chance.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of justices on Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court. There are nine.

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