SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Mildred Breton joined the thousands of Puerto Ricans in the streets of San Juan on Thursday reveling in a triumphant two weeks of peaceful protest that culminated with the ouster of their embattled governor.
But her dissatisfaction with the island territory’s governance doesn’t end with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s announcement Wednesday that he would step down on Aug. 2, after his leaked text messages with aides showed offensive remarks about his political opponents and Hurricane Maria victims.
Rosselló’s successor, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced, is already drawing the ire of many Puerto Ricans. Just as quickly as the Twitter hashtags endorsing Rosselló’s ouster appeared, a new one has quickly trended after his resignation: #WandaRenuncia.
Fresh spray paint in Old San Juan obscured the “Resign Ricky!” graffiti with new messages saying “We are here, Wanda!” and “Not Wanda.”
“Wanda Vázquez is a necessary evil,” said Breton, 47 . “But the expectation is that she remains in office the least amount of time possible. She is part of the problem and not a solution.”
Under Puerto Rico’s constitution, the secretary of state succeeds the governor, but that position is vacant after Luis Gerardo Rivera Marín resigned earlier this month because of his participation in the group chat with Rosselló. The justice secretary is next in line.
Vázquez Garced is deeply distrusted, dogged by accusations that she has mishandled prosecution of members of her own party, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
She faced fresh allegations of misdeeds from Puerto Rican news outlets on Thursday.
“The interpretation given to these issues is false and defamatory,” she said in a statement.
But Vázquez Garced’s history as the only secretary of justice to be charged with — and later cleared of — criminal activity, along with her public spats with party leaders, delegitimize her authority, said public transportation worker Cesar Garcia, as he left a gathering in San Juan where thousands of residents were banging pots and singing in celebration of Rosselló’s resignation.
“We are celebrating that for the first time, a united people removed a governor, giving us hope that we can have a new Puerto Rico,” said Garcia, 42. “Wanda is just more of the same.”
The justice secretary said she was ready to assume the governance “if necessary.”
With a week remaining in office, Rosselló has time to negotiate the appointment of a secretary of state with the leaders and factions of his New Progressive Party, which controls both legislative chambers.
Speculation about the names of potential candidates is less important than the criteria the governor and lawmakers set for a successor, political analysts say. The island needs a leader who can be confirmed by Puerto Rico’s House and Senate and is willing to tackle one of the worst fiscal and political crises in Puerto Rico’s history for the next 18 months, the time remaining in Rosselló’s term.
“Puerto Rico’s financial problems are very complicated,” said Mike Soto, founder of the Center for a New Economy, a San Juan-based think tank.
That person also must know how to navigate Washington with enough integrity to restore trust from Congress and among private investors. And they need enough popular consent to avoid a second or third round of large protests.
“That’s no easy task,” said Edgardo Román, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association. “The parties have to readjust and realize that the message from the protesters was also for them. The paradigm has shifted.”
The political jockeying taking place behind closed doors has spawned speculation on Puerto Rico talk radio and political news shows about who could replace Vazquez as the successor. Commentators and journalists batted around possible scenarios, but details about the transition are few.
“It is an exciting and terrifying moment,” said former U.S. ambassador Gabriel Guerra-Mondragón, whose father worked with and was a disciple of Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín. “And it’s an incredibly dangerous time.”
Puerto Rico is in the throes of a controversial bankruptcy process involving billions of dollars in debt that, once negotiated, would mean the cash-strapped government will have to start making payments. Congress is considering stricter oversight measures for federal disbursements, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday that it is asking the central government to seek approval and provide supporting documents to draw down any grant money.
Meanwhile, the protesters — and young people, in particular — are vowing to hit the streets again if Puerto Rican elected officials install a governor they disapprove of. Drawn out instability, local leaders fear, could bring unwanted federal intervention.
“You have a population that has discovered they have a power they didn’t think they had,” said former governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá. “Politicians have to be ready to be accountable and transparent because there is strong distrust for the traditional institutions.”
Throughout the past two weeks, Old San Juan business owners covered their windows with plywood ahead of the nightly demonstrations, sometimes encouraging the protesters to express themselves on the boards instead of on their buildings.
On one set of window coverings, demonstrators had scratched a list of demands:
“The end of La Junta.” (The federal oversight board managing Puerto Rico’s finances)
The author signed the list with a new hashtag: #ElDiaDespues. The day after.