SAN JUAN (Reuters) - Puerto Ricans danced among the brightly coloured houses of San Juan on Thursday after Governor Ricardo Rosselló capitulated to 12 days of protests and announced his resignation, but many in the crowd warned they would reject the person in line to succeed him.
Meanwhile, a former Puerto Rico representative to the U.S. Congress appeared as a possible successor who might be more acceptable to protesters, according to people familiar with the talks to replace the island’s governor.
The first term governor told the island just before midnight that he would resign effective Aug. 2, stepping down in the face of public anger over a corruption scandal and the release of profane chat messages.
The protests have drawn as many as 500,000 people onto the island capital’s streets and protesters were not enthused over Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez being next in line to succeed Rosselló, based on current Cabinet vacancies. One waved a sign reading “Wanda, we don’t want you either!” while another shouted, “Wanda, you’re next!”
Leaders of Rosselló’s pro-statehood party were scrambling on Thursday to negotiate another successor, according to three sources familiar with the talks who requested anonymity to discuss them.
During Rosselló’s term as governor, Puerto Rico endured back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed about 3,000 people just months after the U.S. territory filed for bankruptcy to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.
“I’m really, really, really, really happy, but I know we need to stay right here, screaming,” Julie Rivera, 21, said after Rosselló said he would step down. She added that she believed his designated successor, 59-year-old former district attorney Vázquez, was too close to the disgraced governor.
Vázquez rejected charges of improper past business ties levelled in Puerto Rican media.
“During our career in public service, we’ve showed that we’ve worked in a righteous and honest manner to benefit the public,” Vázquez said.
Vázquez was unlikely to actually become governor, said one of the three sources, a person familiar with Rosselló’s administration.
“Whoever it is, it can’t be someone in Ricky’s inner circle or close to his government,” that person said. “It has to be someone from the outside.”
That source, as well as a person familiar with Puerto Rico-related policymaking at the federal government and Puerto Rico Representative Luis Vega Ramos, a political rival of Rosselló, said a top candidate for the job is Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s former non-voting delegate in the U.S. Congress.
Pierluisi, a member of Rosselló’s party, ran against him in the gubernatorial election in 2016, losing in a primary.
He could be in position to become the commonwealth’s next governor if he is nominated and confirmed as secretary of state before Rosselló resigns. That post, currently vacant, is first in line to succeed the governor.
Pierluisi, who represented the island in Washington from 2013-16, has made clear to party leaders he would accept the job and commit to not running for the post in 2020 elections, leaving the door open to other possible candidates, according to another source familiar with the negotiations.
Vázquez spokesman Kelvin Carrasco acknowledged that a new secretary of state would take succession precedence if one were named.
Representative Jenniffer González, the island’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress, said she believes Vázquez would be the island’s next governor.
“The new governor, Wanda Vázquez, has all my support,” said González, a member of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party in Puerto Rico and affiliated with the Republican Party on the U.S. mainland.
Multiple Democrats in the U.S. Congress have urged their colleagues not to allow the political turmoil to limit federal funding for the disaster-rocked island or to block a plan to increase federal Medicare funding by $12 billion over four years.
The recent protests were in part triggered by public outrage over the July 10 arrests of two former administration officials charged by U.S. officials with pocketing federal money.
But the final straw came July 13 when Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of leaked chat messages between Rosselló and 11 close allies. The group made profane and sometimes menacing statements about female political opponents, gay pop singer Ricky Martin and ordinary Puerto Ricans.
In a sign investors saw Rosselló’s departure as a positive, some of Puerto Rico’s defaulted general obligation bonds traded at their highest prices in three months in the U.S. Municipal Market.
“This kind of helps to eliminate some of the rampant corruption that plagued the commonwealth for decades,” said Shaun Burgess, a portfolio manager at Cumberland Advisors, which holds about $145 million of insured Puerto Rico bonds.
But not all Puerto Ricans were delighted at Rosselló’s ouster.
“He’s taking the fall for a bunch of past governors that put us in this position,” said Ricky Shub, 33. While Shub agreed that it was time for Rosselló to go, he added, “everyone here is right to do what they’re doing, but they should have done it 20 years ago.”
Reporting by Nick Brown in San Juan, additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz and Marco Bello in San Juan and Karen Pierog in Chicago, writing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bernadette Baum and G Crosse