Puerto Rico gov stepping down amid chat scandal
Weeks of fury and protests gave way to celebrations and fireworks as Puerto Rico’s embattled governor announced he’ll step down.
But the widespread jubilation was quickly tempered by a sobering reality: No one’s sure what’s next for the US territory.
And as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló prepares to announce his successor, some say the woman next in line — Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez — would be just as problematic.
“We don’t want her, either,” said Manuel Capella, a doctor from Arecibo. “We’d keep protesting.”
Protesters revel after bringing down their governor
Shortly after Rosselló announced his resignation, much of Puerto Rico turned into a massive block party. Festive music blared through the streets as fireworks lit up the sky.
Protesters have been frustrated for years over poverty and alleged government corruption.
But the final straw came this month, when Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published hundreds of leaked government chats showing Rosselló and members of his inner circle sharing profanity-laced, homophobic and misogynistic messages.
The targets included fellow politicians, members of the media and even victims of Hurricane Maria — which killed thousands of Puerto Ricans in 2017.
After days of defiance, Rosselló caved to protesters’ demands just as lawmakers were getting ready to start impeachment proceedings.
In a video posted Wednesday on Facebook, the governor said he will resign at 5 p.m. ET on August 2.
“During the past few days, many of you have been practicing your right of freedom of expression,” Rosselló said in his video. “The claims have been overwhelming, and I have received them with the highest degree of humility.”
He also used the video to tout accomplishments.
“Today we have the first positive economic growth in over a decade with 4.1% of growth, and the lowest unemployment in all our history, relieving thousands of fathers and mothers from the suffering of poverty,” Rosselló said.
“I wish peace and progress for our people. Transformation and progress are not the work of just one person; it’s the product of the work of the people.”
Who will be the next governor?
Puerto Rico’s secretary of state would normally be next in the line of succession. But that position is vacant after former Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera Marín — who was one of the participants in the leaked chat — resigned during this month’s protests.
Next up would be Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez. But she’s a longtime ally of Rosselló’s, and some Puerto Ricans say they don’t trust her.
“That would be terrible. That’s like taking out a cockroach and replacing (it) with another,” said Nora Morales, a retired business owner in Old San Juan.
Capella criticized the justice secretary’s handling of the chat message scandal. The Justice Department did not issue summonses for those involved in the chats until several days after the scandal was publicized, and also gave the participants a few days to turn over their cell phones for inspection.
“Why didn’t she ask for their phones earlier to investigate?” Capella said.
But Vázquez said she’s ready to take the helm.
“Once the resignation is official, if necessary, I will assume the historic mandate” as dictated in the Puerto Rican constitution, Vázquez said.
It’s possible the governor might try to appoint a new secretary of state in the coming week, before he formally steps down. That person would have to be approved by the legislature before he or she takes over as governor.
But Rosselló has hinted that Vázquez will likely be his successor.
“At this time, according to legal order, that person would be the current secretary of the Department of Justice, the attorney Wanda Vázquez,” Rosselló said in his video Wednesday.
The fight’s not over
Regardless of who succeeds Rosselló, the new governor faces tough challenges — including a tough economy, a difficult recovery from Hurricane Maria, and now an emboldened electorate.
“Before, people would sit and watch TV and complain or do nothing,” said García Coll, a member of a community organizing group made up mostly of artists and writers. “People are not sitting in front of their TVs anymore. That’s the difference. I call it a peaceful revolution.”
Cynthia García Coll, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, said the issues on the island go beyond the top leadership.
“Rosselló is a symptom of a much deeper problem,” she said.
Many Puerto Ricans have lost confidence in Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, which favors US statehood, and the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the current commonwealth status.
But even though Rosselló is on his way out, his party still controls both sides of the legislature.
Senate president Thomas Rivera Schatz, who’s also the new interim president of the New Progressive Party, said Rosselló’s resignation “puts an end to a very sad chapter in the history of Puerto Rico.”
“It was a difficult decision for him and his family, but it was the right one,” Rivera said.
“To the people of Puerto Rico, we assure you that our efforts to improve the quality of life here … will remain strong, and nothing will divert us from said goal.”
CNN’s Leyla Santiago, Ray Sanchez, Nicole Chavez, Rafy Rivera and Theresa Waldrop contributed to this report.