Puerto Rico crisis deepens ahead of governor's resignation

Hours before Ricardo Rossello is expected to leave office, Puerto Ricans still have no idea who will replace him.

    Puerto Rico crisis deepens ahead of governor's resignation
    Rosello's resignation comes in the wake of a scandal over leaked messages that sparked mass protests [File:Rivera Pichardo)/AP]

    Less than 24 hours before Ricardo Rossello is due to step down as Puerto Rico's governor, the choice of his successor remains unclear amid a deepening political crisis in the US territory.

    Rossello is set to leave office at 5pm local time (21:00 GMT) on Friday, his resignation coming in the wake of a scandal over leaked messages that sparked mass protests.

    On Wednesday, Rosello nominated lawyer Pedro Pierluisi to be secretary of state - a post which would have made him first in line to succeed the outgoing governor.

    Pierluisi, a corporate lawyer with Washington law firm O'Neill & Borges, has faced intense public criticism as he works for a company that represents La Junta, the US federal control board created by the US Congress in 2016 to oversee Puerto Rico's finances, which has long advocated for painful austerity measures. 

    Protesters have accused him of serving the interests of the board, and not the Puerto Rican public.

    Thomas Rivera Schatz, president of Puerto Rico's Senate who has expressed interest in the governorship, told a Senate session on Thursday that he did not believe Pierluisi had the votes needed to be confirmed as secretary of state.

    While the Senate did not vote on Pierluisi's nomination on Thursday, a session to hear from him will be held on Monday, three days after Rosello's resignation is expected.

    Meanwhile, the House is scheduled to vote on his nomination on Friday, creating a situation where, as some legislators argue, Pierluisi may be able to assume the governorship anyway if the House approves him.

    Opponents insist he also requires Senate approval and have threatened to start legal proceedings if he attempts to become governor without that.

    "All of this will be legally analysed," Pierluisi said as he confirmed on Thursday that he will attend Monday's hearing.

    "I'll have the opportunity to express myself and answer all questions," he said. "I offered to take a step forward for Puerto Rico at this moment given my love for my country. ... My only loyalty as governor if I have the support of legislators is to the people of Puerto Rico."

    The situation, however, is further complicated by the fact that if Rossello resigns on Friday and no secretary of state has been named, Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, who is second in line for the governorship, could take office.

    Vazquez, who previously said she did not want the position, said on Thursday that if the time came and there was no candidate for the position, she would be ready to assume the governorship.

    "My resignation has not been contemplated," Vazquez said on Twitter. "If the time comes, I'll be ready to assume my responsibility and follow the law and Constitution," she added.

    Carlos Lugo, an independent researcher and scholar, told Al Jazeera that "under the current circumstances, it seems that Puerto Rico will not have a definitive governor after the official resignation of Rosello takes place [on Friday]."

    Puerto Rico
    Pedro Pierluisi is surrounded by the media during a special session of the Legislative Assembly [Gabriella N. Baez/Reuters]

    Amid the uncertainty, some protesters rejected both potential choices for a governor. 

    "We are seeking a radical change in this country," demonstrator Gabriel Cazar Nasario told Al Jazeera on Thursday. 

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    "I, and many like me, think we should call for elections immediately ... so that we are allowed to choose, fairly."

    "We've been in front of these protests, and we will finish what we already started, we will definitely remove all these corrupt people from power."

    "We are also protesting against the influence of the United States, during the protests you could see all those resistance black flags in place, we are independentist, and we are against the fiscal structures the US has imposed on us, that has only stolen from us and impoverish us further," he added.

    Lugo, who is a member of the Working Group on Critical Legal Thought of the Latin American Council of Social Studies, said the crisis would continue if Pierluisi became governor.

    "With him in that position, we will see a massive cut to all our pensions, a further cut to the salaries of public functionaries, and that will just ignite further protests."

    The political turmoil comes as Puerto Rico battles a 13-year recession, a debt crisis and is working to recover from devastating hurricanes in 2017, including Hurricane Maria, one of the US's worst-ever disasters.

    Additional reporting by Elizabeth Melimopoulos.

    Thomas Rivera Schatz
    Thomas Rivera Schatz, President of the Senate, gives a speech expressing his opposition to Pedro Pierluisi [Gabriella N. Baez /Reuters]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies