No one knows who will be in charge of Puerto Rico

A man walks past graffiti that reads “Down with the government of the rich” in Spanish on the street leading to the Governor’s mansion on July 16, 2019, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A man walks past graffiti that reads ‘Down with the government of the rich’ on the street leading to the Governor’s mansion on July 16, 2019 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

Puerto Rico is experiencing a constitutional crisis. No one knows who will replace Gov. Ricardo Rosselló when he steps down Friday in response to a wave of massive anti-government protests.

The Puerto Rican Senate leader said he could not get enough votes Thursday to approve Rosselló’s pick for the position: Pedro Pierluisi, a 60-year-old Puerto Rican lawyer and Washington insider. So the Senate leader ended up delaying the vote until next week and will host a public confirmation hearing for Pierluisi on Monday.

That leaves everything up in the air.

Rosselló had just chosen Pierluisi to fill the secretary of state position in his administration, which was left vacant in July after a chat message scandal forced his predecessor to resign. If the legislature could confirm Pierluisi for the secretary of state position, that would place him first in the line of succession to the governorship when Rosselló leaves office Friday at 5 pm ET.

But many lawmakers from Rosselló’s party are uneasy about Pierluisi. He’s spent the last few years working for a Washington, DC, law firm that provides legal counsel to the federal oversight board monitoring Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy. Many Puerto Ricans hate the oversight board, which has inflicted severe austerity measures on the island. Pierluisi has stepped down from that job, but Puerto Ricans are suspicious that he will still support the board’s demands to slash pensions and pay for teachers and other public-sector workers.

Without Pierluisi’s Senate confirmation, the job of governor would fall to Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, as the Puerto Rican constitution dictates. But she has already said she doesn’t want the job, and protestors have threatened to kick her out, too.

In short, Puerto Rico doesn’t have a pool of great job candidates and time is running out.

The state of affairs

On Friday, the Puerto Rican House of Representatives is expected to vote on Pierluisi’s confirmation to the position of secretary of state. If both chambers of Congress approve, he would then become governor at 5 pm when Rosselló leaves office. The problem is that the Senate has pushed back the vote until next week, and it’s still unclear whether he has enough confirmation votes in either chamber.

On the surface, Pierluisi seems like the perfect person for the position. He has tons of political experience and deep connections to US members of Congress. He served as Puerto Rico’s attorney general and was elected in 2008 as Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives. His relationship with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders is considered an asset as Puerto Rico fights for Congress to release more hurricane relief aide to the island.

But, like every other person whose name was floated to replace Rosselló, he has political baggage. Ten years ago, when he represented Puerto Rico in the US House of Representatives, the New York Times reported that he was pushing legislation that would benefit his wife’s clients on Wall Street. He was never charged with corruption, but the story raised questions about his ethics.

Another person jockeying for Rosselló’s seat is Puerto Rican Senate majority leader Thomas Rivera Schatz. But Rosselló discarded that idea after news surfaced that Schatz had reportedly steered government contracts to his relatives’ businesses. The editorial board of El Nuevo Día, the largest newspaper in Puerto Rico, has accused him of holding up the vote to confirm Pierluisi because he wants the job himself.

Then there’s Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, who is next in the line of succession if Congress doesn’t fill the secretary of state role. She has baggage, too. Vázquez angered the public for reportedly refusing to investigate the reason why tons of hurricane supplies were abandoned in fields and never distributed to survivors. She also ignored public demands to investigate a recent spike in violence against women. So protestors have threatened to drive her out of office the same way they drove out Rosselló.

Puerto Ricans want real change

Whoever does end up in the governor’s mansion has a lot of work ahead.

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.

Earlier this month, 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.

Then, three days later, investigative reporters on the island published leaked Telegram app messages that showed Rosselló and his inner circle joking about casualties from Hurricane Maria and ridiculing political rivals with violent, homophobic, and sexist language. Two government officials who were part of the chat — the secretary of state and a government representative on the bankruptcy oversight board — have since resigned, leaving two key positions unfilled.

The incidents triggered the largest government protests in modern Puerto Rican history, surfacing decades of pent-up public anger at the island’s two main political parties. Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party and its rival, the anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party, both bear much blame for driving the US territory’s economy into the ground while doing little to ease widespread poverty.

All the corruption allegations are taking a toll on the public, too. Elected officials in Puerto Rico have been involved in so many corruption scandals that they’re hard to keep track of. Countless government leaders have pleaded guilty to charges accusing them of accepting bribes and giving government contracts to businesses they favor. For example, the last time the anti-statehood party was in power in 2008, the FBI arrested a dozen government officials on charges of money laundering and campaign finance violations. The governor at the time, Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, was arrested, too (though he was acquitted during trial).

Frustrated voters kicked the party out of office in 2009, but the pro-statehood party has its own corruption problems now. And unlike last time, voters weren’t willing to wait until the next election to show their frustration.

Last week, after 12 days of massive anti-government protests calling for Rosselló to step down, the governor did. Demanding Rosselló’s resignation was, in a sense, a demand for respect and ethical government.

But what comes next is anyone’s guess.