Puerto Rico's New Governor Is Sworn In

Aug 3, 2019
Originally published on August 3, 2019 12:49 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And after weeks of angry street protests, Puerto Ricans today have a new governor, possibly not for long. Last night, the island's disgraced Governor Ricardo Rossello did as he promised and quit. Pedro Pierluisi, his hand-picked successor, has been sworn in. And as NPR's David Welna reports from San Juan, the political drama there is far from over.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Se fue. Se fue.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On a blue-glazed cobblestone street leading up to the governor's mansion known as The Fortress, jubilant demonstrators last night chanted, he's gone. He's gone. The news had just broken that Governor Rossello had officially resigned with a year and a half left to go in his term. One of those celebrating was Brenda Rodriguez.

BRENDA RODRIGUEZ: We were just saying goodbye. He's gone. He's supposed to leave today (laughter). I hope to watch him from the airplane, like, out the window, saying goodbye.

WELNA: Only an hour before Rossello was to step down, Puerto Ricans had no idea just who'd be their next governor. That changed when a last-minute vote was held in the commonwealth's House of Representatives.

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UNIDENTIFIED HOUSE ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Spanish).

(CHEERING)

WELNA: The House narrowly confirmed Pedro Pierluisi, the island's former delegate to the U.S. Congress, as the outgoing governor's pick to be secretary of state. Under Puerto Rican law, the secretary of state is first in line to succeed a governor who resigns, something that's never happened here before. The law also says the Senate must vote as well. It hasn't done so yet. And Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz says when it does, Pierluisi will not be confirmed.

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THOMAS RIVERA SCHATZ: (Speaking Spanish).

WELNA: Last night, Pierluisi acknowledged he could be having a very short stay at the governor's mansion.

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PEDRO PIERLUISI: If I am not ratified, then the second in line, who is the secretary of justice or attorney general of Puerto Rico, would assume the office of the governorship.

WELNA: A good deal of the political chaos here has to do with a discredited political system trying to fix itself using rules with lots of gray areas. Jorge Farinacci is a law professor at Puerto Rico's Interamerican University.

JORGE FARINACCI: This is not business as usual here. This is not that the governor had a heart attack and now we are discussing his replacement. The governor was kicked out in what has become a get-rid-of-all-of-them (laughter). Nobody here has a very strong political leg to stand on.

WELNA: Which may be why Pierluisi, who's been a legal adviser to a hated federal financial oversight board, declared last night he's listened to the demands coming from the street protests.

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PIERLUISI: We have to be responsive to that, and we also have to be transparent. And we need to make sure that we're not doing things as a matter of law. But, also, we need to make sure that whatever we do looks good. It's out there. It's open. Everybody sees it. It's in the light of the day. So that's my commitment.

WELNA: Some here are willing to take the newly sworn-in governor at his word. Berta Rios is one of them.

BERTA RIOS: Because we need stability, and he has a track record. And I think that he's the best choice at the moment. There might be more protests, but I think this is really a turnaround in the situation.

WELNA: Others are withholding judgment but seem prepared for another disappointment with Pierluisi. Noel Aymat is a 50-year-old dentist.

NOEL AYMAT: Let's give it some time. But he should know that the people of Puerto Rico are so awake, are very awake. And we're watching everything that any government will do from this time on.

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GABINO ROSARIO: (Singing in Spanish).

WELNA: At an intersection near the governor's palace, a 60-year-old shoeshiner named Gabino Rosario sings as he beats time on a small pan. He comes from the island's highlands that were hit hard by Hurricane Maria and sings about having seen corruption before, but never as much as now. He fears Pierluisi may be worse than Rossello as governor. And Pierluisi may have little time to prove otherwise.

David Welna, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.