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 the 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.”
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 that 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
And 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:
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 towards achieving that goal. The fall from grace of its leaders may erode those efforts, however.
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 out Rosselló out of office.