Bloomberg — Puerto Rico’s chaotic leadership fight, a constitutional crisis that could reorder the bankrupt island’s politics, is moving from the streets to the courts with Pedro Pierluisi’s right to be governor at stake.
Pedro Pierluisi, who says he’s the rightful governor, may have to abandon the executive mansion if a suit filed Sunday by the island’s Senate succeeds. The body wants to force Pierluisi to “cease and desist occupying and exercising the functions of the Puerto Rican governorship.” The Senate also requested a ruling on the line of succession, which could permanently undermine any remaining claim Pierluisi might have to the office.
The case, which likely will be decided by the U.S. commonwealth’s supreme court, is the latest salvo in a battle that began when Ricardo Rossello was forced from the governorship after chats leaked in which he disparaged average Puerto Ricans. Pierluisi, his chosen successor, was nominated to the No. 2 role — secretary of state — just days before Rossello’s resignation and was confirmed only by the local House of Representatives, not the Senate. Nonetheless, Pierluisi assumed the office of governor Friday, taking the oath in a private ceremony at his sister’s home seconds after Rossello officially stepped down.
After first saying he would respect the Senate’s decision, Pierluisi later reversed course, saying he wanted judges to decide.
“Although it is regrettable that this matter has to be clarified in our courts, I hope that it will be treated with the greatest speed and diligence for the good of the people of Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi said in a statement late on Sunday. “We don’t have time to lose.”
If the Senate gets its way, the real governor might turn out to be Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, who doesn’t want the job and has said she would take it only as a matter of constitutional responsibility.
The chaos is weighing on the U.S. commonwealth’s fragile economy, its record bankruptcy and the prospects of federal aid to rebuild from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
All the major players in the drama — Pierluisi, Vazquez and Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz — belong to the New Progressive Party, which many protesters thought they were ousting when they drove Rossello from office. The party dominates both chambers of the legislature and the governorship.
But Puerto Ricans say they’re fed up with the status quo, under which free-spending and corrupt politicians helped the island of 3.2 million amass $74 billion in debt, all the while overseeing a collapse of the economy that spurred an exodus to the mainland. They also blame the Popular Democratic Party, the main opposition, which was in power during many of the years of misspending.
It wasn’t clear which replacement governor might satisfy protesters who flooded Old San Juan’s cobbled streets, leaving behind graffiti reading “Pierluisi, you’re next!” and “No to Wanda.”
Gustavo Velez, a Guaynabo economist and head of consulting firm Inteligencia Economica, said it may be early to declare the end of the establishment.
“Its legitimacy is really undermined, but at this point, there are not feasible political options, nor an effective leader to replace the traditional ones,” said Velez.
Much could turn on the influence of the Senate’s powerful president, Rivera Schatz, a New Progressive stalwart expected to run for governor in 2020. Several lawmakers supported him to step in now, and some have suggested a plan is still afoot to make that happen. Rivera Schatz has said he hasn’t asked anyone to give him the job.
‘Enemy No. 1’
In a fiery speech Thursday, he excoriated critics and blasted what he called a media conspiracy. He said that Pierluisi was “Puerto Rico’s public enemy No. 1.”
He has also been an outspoken critic of Justice Secretary Vazquez, whose resignation he demanded last year amid an investigation into whether she improperly tried to influence a criminal case involving a break-in at her daughter’s home.
At the heart of the resistance to Pierluisi is his role in creating a deeply unpopular federal oversight board, which is trying to enforce austerity to help restructure the debt. As the nonvoting representative for Puerto Rico in the U.S. House from 2009 to 2017, Pierluisi championed a law called Promesa that gave Puerto Rico a path to bankruptcy court but also installed the board. Then, Pierluisi worked for O’Neill & Borges LLC, the board’s on-island law firm.
Blaming Wall Street
“He represents the financial sector that has been ruining us,” said Yadira Carrasquillo, 45, a U.S. Army veteran among about 100 protesters in front of the governor’s mansion on Sunday afternoon.
Many protesters also blame Wall Street for underwriting so much of the island’s debt even when its finances had become stretched.
Pierluisi’s critics said the work constitutes a conflict of interest, which he denies. He says he never wanted the board, but accepted it as part of a tough negotiation that brought other benefits.
The leadership crisis began July 13, when Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin, a participant in the infamous messaging group, was among the first in the administration to resign — a gesture meant to save the administration when it still seemed salvageable. Swelling street protests soon made Rossello’s own job untenable.
As Rossello’s 5 p.m. Friday resignation approached, Rivera Schatz said the Senate couldn’t vote on Pierluisi — a mainstay in Puerto Rican politics for about 25 years — until documentation arrived to vet his credentials. Pierluisi took the oath anyway.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, an opposition politician who is seeking the governorship in 2020, promised to file separate court documents Monday morning challenging Pierluisi’s swearing in.
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