By Nick Brown
SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Puerto Ricans danced among the brightly colored houses of San Juan on Thursday after Governor Ricardo Rosselló capitulated to 12 days of protests and resigned, but many in the crowd warned they would reject the person in line to succeed him.
The first-term governor told the island just before midnight that he would resign on Aug. 2 in the face of public anger over profane chat messages and a corruption scandal that drew as many as 500,000 protesters onto the island capital’s streets.
Protesters were not enthused over Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez being next in line to succeed Rosselló, based on current Cabinet vacancies: One waved a sign reading “Wanda, we don’t want you either” and another shouted, “Wanda, you’re next!”
Leaders of Rosselló’s pro-statehood party were scrambling on Thursday to negotiate another successor, according to three sources familiar with the talks who requested anonymity to discuss them.
During Rosselló’s term as governor, Puerto Rico endured back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed thousands months after the U.S. territory filed for bankruptcy to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.
“I’m really, really, really, really happy, but I know we need to stay right here, screaming,” Julie Rivera, 21, said after Rosselló said he would step down. She added that she believed his designated successor, 59-year-old former district attorney Vázquez, was too close to the disgraced governor.
Vázquez rejected charges of improper past business ties leveled in Puerto Rican media.
“During our career in public service, we’ve showed that we’ve worked in a righteous and honest manner to benefit the public,” Vázquez said.
‘FROM THE OUTSIDE’
Vázquez was unlikely to actually become governor, said one of the three sources, a person familiar with Rosselló’s administration.
“Whoever it is, it can’t be someone in Ricky’s inner circle or close to his government,” that person said. “It has to be someone from the outside.”
That source, as well as a person familiar with Puerto Rico-related policymaking at the federal government and Puerto Rico Representative Luis Vega Ramos, a political rival of Rosselló, all said a top candidate for the job is Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s former representative in the U.S. Congress.
Pierluisi, a member of Rosselló’s party, ran against him in the gubernatorial election in 2016, losing in a primary.
He could be positioned to become the next governor if he is nominated and confirmed as secretary of state before Rosselló resigns. That post, currently vacant, is first in line to succeed the governor.
Pierluisi did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Vázquez spokesman Kelvin Carrasco acknowledged that a new secretary of state would take succession precedence if one were named.
U.S. Representative Jenniffer González, the island’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, said she believed Vázquez would be the island’s next governor.
“The new governor, Wanda Vázquez, has all my support,” said González, a Republican and member of Rosselló’s party.
Multiple Democratic members of the U.S. Congress urged their colleagues not to allow the political turmoil to limit federal funding for the disaster-rocked island or to block a plan to increase federal Medicare funding for its 3.2 million people by $12 billion over four years.
Puerto Rico has estimated its post-hurricane disaster funding needs at more than $130 billion. Nearly $42.5 billion of federal funds have been allocated for the island, which has received $13.6 billion so far, according to the Recovery Support Function Leadership Group, a federal interagency body. .
Weary of crisis and a decade-long recession, Puerto Ricans question why families still live under blue tarpaulins and have not yet received federal disaster funds to replace roofs ripped off homes two years ago.
So many Puerto Ricans were outraged when U.S. authorities on July 10 accused two former administration officials of pocketing federal money.
The final straw came July 13 when Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of leaked chat messages between Rosselló and 11 close allies.
The group made profane and sometimes violent statements about female political opponents, gay singer Ricky Martin and ordinary Puerto Ricans.
In a sign investors saw Rosselló’s departure as a positive, some of Puerto Rico’s defaulted general obligation bonds traded at their highest prices in three months in the U.S. Municipal Market.
“This kind of helps to eliminate some of the rampant corruption that plagued the commonwealth for decades,” said Shaun Burgess, a portfolio manager at Cumberland Advisors, which holds about $145 million of insured Puerto Rico bonds.
(Reporting by Nick Brown in San Juan, additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz and Marco Bello in San Juan and Karen Pierog in Chicago, writing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay; editing by Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)