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Wanda Vázquez.
Wanda Vázquez. (Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced, who 11 days ago said she had no interest in the position, was sworn in yesterday as the island's third governor in a month after Pedro Pierluisi lost all legitimacy to remain in office.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that part of the law used by former governor Ricardo Rosselló to name Pedro Pierluisi as his successor was unconstitutional, forcing the immediate exit of Pedro Pierluisi who left La Fortaleza in an official car, two hours after the ruling, without speaking to the press.

Until Tuesday, Pierluisi defended his appointment alleging that he was named in accordance with Law 5-2005, which exempted the Secretary of State from House and Senate confirmation to be the governor´s successor.  

That theory was defeated yesterday when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that part of Law 7-2005 is unconstitutional and then all actions based on this part of the amendment to the Succession Law are also unconstitutional. To become governor and replace Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, Pierluisi needed the House and Senate confirmation. However, the Senate did not examine the appointment and its president, Thomas Rivera Schatz filed a lawsuit asking to declare that the appointment was unconstitutional.

In a message shared on social media, Pierluisi Urrutia assured that he assumed the position motivated by his best interest in favor of the wellbeing of the island and supported Wanda Vázquez as the new governor.

Pierluisi, who hours before was greeting those police officers responsible for the perimeter between the protesters and La Fortaleza,  said that the only thing that moved him was the wellbeing “of our people."

"Given the decision of our highest judicial forum, I must give way and support the Secretary of Justice of Puerto Rico, the honorable Wanda Vázquez Garced... I wish her success as governor of Puerto Rico," he added.

Vázquez Garced  was sworn in

While Pierluisi message was coming out, Vázquez Garced was in the Supreme Court along with relatives being sworn-in before the president of the Supreme Court, Maite D. Oronoz Rodríguez.

Hours earlier, Vázquez had announced that she would take the position to achieve the stability of Puerto Rico and give certainty to judicial and legal processes.

"As the position of Secretary of State is vacant, I will assume the position of governor of Puerto Rico, as established by our Magna Carta," Vázquez Garced said in written statements.

Vázquez Garced arrived at La Fortaleza minutes after taking the oath and went to the Throne Room -the name of the governor´s office in the Santa Catalina Palace- and issued new written statements with her intentions for Puerto Rico to push forward.  

"I arrive at this position by constitutional provision and by opinion of law, but with the greatest respect and determination to serve my people and to push Puerto Rico forward. It is with great humility and commitment that I assume the position to direct the destinies of our country, with responsibility and delivery," said Vázquez.

Meanwhile, outside La Fortaleza, protesters started to show their opposition. "Don't dress up, you're not staying. And take the Board and Thomas Rivera Schatz with you," sang demonstrators gathered at the intersection of Fortaleza and del Cristo Streets.

Protests returned, partly, due to the relationship between Vázquez Garced and now former Governor Rosselló Nevares, who resigned on August 2, following scandals of moral and administrative corruption.

Vázquez Garced was widely criticized for how she dealt with complaints against the state government for mishandling aid the island received during the emergency caused by Hurricane María in 2017.

Vázquez also led, in the initial phase, the investigation into ghost contracts in the legislature, a controversy that led to a clash between Rosselló Nevares and Senate president Thomas Rivera Schatz. As the controversy unfolded, Vázquez Garced was charged with violating the Penal Code and the Government Ethics Act for allegedly intervening in an investigation in which her daughter appeared as a victim. Judge Yazdel Ramos Colón did not find cause to arrest the official for these allegations, and the case was closed.

Immediate Agenda

In this scenario, Vázquez Garced will have to stabilize the operations of the government, regain the confidence of federal authorities, appoint new officials to vacancies in agencies, and lead the reorganization of the Executive Branch.

However, these efforts may not end up being directed by the new governor. Sources said Washington Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón appears as likely to replace Vázquez Garced in the coming weeks. If this were the case, the now-former Justice Secretary would have to appoint González Colón as Secretary of State and then resign, once the House and Senate confirmed the Resident Commissioner.

Second move

This move has allegedly been already agreed with the Senate president and with the president of the House, Carlos "Johnny" Méndez. In a radio interview (NotiUno) with Enrique "Kike" Cruz, Rivera Schatz yesterday recommended that González Colon takes office.

Asked about this scenario, González Colon said "that is for the chambers and the governor to decide. I will support whoever they choose. That has been my position since day one." González congratulated Vázquez Garced yesterday and said she was willing to collaborate with the difficult responsibilities of the position.

"The success that Wanda Vázquez has as governor must also be the success of Puerto Ricans," González Colón said.

Meanwhile, the House Speaker said the Supreme Court's determination strengthens the island's constitutional order and assured that they will be watching carefully so that services to citizens continue.

Meanwhile, the Senate president complained about the criticism against him for filing the lawsuit against Pierluisi's appointment as governor and accused the media, the Oversight Board, and people who discuss daily events of conspiring to install an illegitimate government.

"With absolute legitimacy, we will seek true peace and stability. Now it has truly ended and that disgraceful group from the chat that lied, mocked, conspired, violated the law and betrayed Puerto Rico will leave the government," he said.

Aníbal José Torres, president of the Popular Democratic Party, on the other hand, was pleased with yesterday's decisions, and said the ruling was conclusive and "sends a clear message in the face of an attempt to usurp power."

"The true stability of democracy comes when people know that the institutions they created and endorsed in their constitution have been respected," Torres said.

"Today, all the island´s political leaders are warned that our democracy is not at the service of individual interests, but of the common good, and that it cannot be taken or manipulated by the whims of those clinging to power," he added.

A political drama

Pierluisi became governor after he was appointed as Secretary of State to replace Rosselló Nevares, who officially stepped down on August 2.

Rosselló Nevares' resignation came after weeks of intense protests with hundreds of thousands of citizens demanded the immediate resignation of the now-former governor. Opposition to Rosselló Nevares' government intensified on July 13 when the Center for Investigative Journalism revealed an 889-page Telegram chat between the former governor and 11 of his closest collaborators with profane and offensive language targetting different sectors and conspiring to take partisan actions against members of the opposition, the press, and federal officials. Multiple lawyers estimated that there were crimes stemming from the chat.

The leak came days after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested six people close to the Rosselló Nevares administration, including former Education Secretary Julia Keleher, former Health Insurance Administrator Ángela Ávila, and advisor Alberto Velázquez Piñol.

On July 24, near midnight, Rosselló Nevares announced in a recorded message that he would officially resign on August 2 at 5:00 p.m., when Pierluisi was sworn in as governor.

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