The resignation of embattled Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló last week was never a question of if, but when. Late last Wednesday, after dragging out the inevitable for hours — at one point even having the assembled media wait endlessly for a statement that never came — a recorded social media message confirmed the news, and thousands of Puerto Ricans celebrated in the streets of San Juan. On Aug. 2, the pro-statehood Democrat will no longer be the island’s governor.
Two weeks of popular protests took us from #RickyRenuncia (Ricky Resign) to #RickyRenunció (Ricky Resigned). The movement was organic, multigenerational and not aligned with a political party. Now, as the most dramatic political story in Puerto Rico’s history keeps unfolding, where will it go next?
In his resignation message on Wednesday, which was followed on Thursday by an actual resignation letter made public because Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, Puerto Rico’s House speaker and another member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, threatened to begin impeachment proceedings against Rosselló for alleged crimes discovered in the now infamous Telegram group chat, Rosselló named Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced as the person who would take over the governor’s office.
Vázquez is next in the line of succession in Puerto Rico because the slot of the official who is supposed to take over, Puerto Rico’s secretary of state, is vacant. The reason? Luis Rivera Marín, the man who occupied the office, was part of the Telegram group chat. He announced his resignation on July 13, hours after the full 889 pages of the chat were published by the Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. Since then, Rosselló has not nominated a new secretary of state, but it is quite possible that Rosselló could nominate someone for the position before Aug. 2. That nominee could then be confirmed by lawmakers only if a special session were announced, because the Legislature is scheduled to be in recess.
It means that Vázquez is currently next in line, but says she doesn’t want to the job. In a tweet on Sunday, Vázquez said that she wants Rosselló to appoint a secretary of state. Many Puerto Ricans don’t want her to take the job, either. She is facing accusations of corruption herself in the awarding of government contracts. Vázquez has denied any wrongdoing, but a new hashtag has emerged: #WandaRenuncia. There are protests against Vázquez already planned.
The lack of acceptable choices to replace Rosselló illustrates the deeper crisis of accountability and governability for many Puerto Ricans. People are demanding transparency, honesty, action and representation. However, most of the political leadership represents more of the same.
Then there’s the Fiscal Control Board, formed in 2016 when the bipartisan PROMESA bill passed and was later signed by President Barack Obama. The federal board, which oversees the U.S. territory’s finances, has been mostly quiet the last few weeks. It has issued a few statements promising to help Puerto Rico tackle its debt problem through austerity measures — but that ignores a part of the protesters’ demands: “¡Ricky, renuncia, y llévate a la Junta!” (“Ricky, resign and take the Board with you!”).
It’s clear that Puerto Ricans are ready for an honest discussion about their colonial status. The junta has removed their autonomy. Political leaders are seen as accomplices in an unfair system. But the push to decolonize society has nothing to do with territorial status options — it’s about confronting the island’s passive consent. Frustration and desperation, especially after the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, have now erupted into resilience and indignation.
Progressive voices continue their calls to audit the debt and even possibly cancel some of it — positions that Democratic presidential candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) support.
Could protesters turn their focus on the fiscal board next? It’s too early to tell, especially since the board has supporters among the island’s conservative politicians — and many people doing consulting and legal work for the board are also making millions off the people of Puerto Rico.
If the protest movement begins to fracture along ideological lines — or it gets co-opted by the island’s political establishment — it is quite possible that what people witnessed over the past few weeks in Puerto Rico would evaporate as quickly as it occurred.
But there’s never been a political moment like this. Hundreds of thousands recognize that it’s time to put their priorities over a political system that has failed them for decades. The colonial conversation could get messy, but Rosselló’s resignation seems like a fitting start.
We could all be witnessing the beginning of a new era in Puerto Rico. There might not be a plan right now that is easy to make out, but there is a movement and political will.