Puerto Ricans ask ‘What’s next?’ as political limbo deepens

AP National - World

Protesters gather outside the government mansion La Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, calling for the removal of the island’s newly sworn-in governor. Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez took the oath of office early Wednesday evening at the Puerto Rican Supreme Court, which earlier in the day ruled that Pedro Pierluisi’s swearing in last week was unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s streets have remained so quiet since Gov. Wanda Vázquez took over as governor following weeks of turmoil that one can again hear the island’s famous coquí frog singing at night.

The protests that led to the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló just a week ago and continued on a smaller scale until the Supreme Court removed his chosen successor have dissipated. Also gone are the sounds of cow bells and whistles, as well as most of the angry graffiti that covered streets in the colonial district of Puerto Rico’s capital that was ground zero for the demonstrations.

People who took to the streets to express disgust with government mismanagement and corruption were united in focusing their anger on Rosselló, but now he is gone and there isn’t a common thread on how to proceed.Some Puerto Ricans are urging more protests. Others say people should take a step back and analyze what they want from officials. Yet others wish for stability and say Vázquez should be given a chance.Some worry about who might replace her.

“Many people rose up, and after they accomplished what they did, they’re asking, ‘Now what?'” said Mario Negrón Portillo, retired head of the school of public administration at the University of Puerto Rico. “In the next few weeks, we’ll really see if that sense of consciousness that was generated … is sustained and how it will be sustained.”

Only a handful of people showed up for a planned protest early Friday evening in front of the governor’s mansion, though Vázquez has said she would not live there, preferring to stay in her own house. Such conciliatory statements — and her earlier insistence that she was not interested in becoming governor — have led many Puerto Ricans to go into wait-and-see mode, activists say.

Some of those protesting politics as usual are also more worried about the alternative. Leaders of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party have suggested replacing Vázquez with Puerto Rico’s congressional representative Jenniffer González, a heavyweight in the PNP as well as being head of the territory’s Republican Party.

While Vázquez is also a member of the PNP, she’s a less prominent figure who entered the territory’s cabinet only two years ago as justice secretary. The governorship dropped on her almost accidentally because others in line to succeed Rosselló had resigned or were disqualified by the court.

González said on Thursday that she was available for the governorship if Vázquez decides to step down, even as Vázquez said she would not do so.

“There’s somewhat of a hiatus in the fight because there is still speculation whether Wanda Vázquez is passing through as governor or actually plans to finish the term (which ends next year),” said Ricardo Santos Ortiz, spokesman of the Socialist Workers’ Movement, which helped organize some of the demonstrations. “As that becomes more defined, people will be reacting in the streets.”

Ortiz planned to join Friday’s protest and said more demonstrations could materialize in upcoming days.

“It was unrealistic to think we were going to spend one month, two months, three months with the same intensity,” Ortiz said. “There’s a tense calmness, but people have not checked out.”

Rosselló and more than a dozen other officials resigned following anger over corruption, mismanagement of funds and the leak of an obscenity-laced chat in which they mocked women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria, among others.

Since then, hundreds of Puerto Ricans in towns and cities across the island have been showing up at unofficial town hall meetings, often in public plazas, where people bring folding chairs or sit on the ground and debate what path Puerto Rico should take as a volunteer writes down ideas on a display board. No politicians have been invited.

Karla Pesquera, an unemployed 30-year-old who has joined in the protests as well as the town halls, said the gatherings are meant to give power back to the people and take it from politicians.

“People want to be adequately represented,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve very excited, very hopeful.”

But Negrón warned that if people attending these town halls want to enact their ideas, they will have to bring in legislators and mayors: “Otherwise … it’s just catharsis.”

Some activists have been demanding a special election to choose a new governor and the tiny Puerto Rican Independence Party introduced a constitutional amendment to allow for that.

Social media posts reflect a certain waffling: Some have shared details of Friday’s protest to demand that Vázquez step down. Others shared a post that calls on Vázquez as governor to audit Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion public debt load to detect possible corruption.

And the hashtag #wandadontresign began popping up when PNP leaders began floating the idea of having Vázquez resign to let González take over.

Shariana Ferrer Núñez, a member of the Feminist Collective under Construction, which helped organize the protests, said activists are trying to identify common goals that a majority of people can get behind.

“That’s the challenge,” she said. “We have to figure out what we want.”

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