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With Rossello’s resignation, Puerto Rico is at a ‘critical juncture’

Puerto Ricans celebrated Thursday after embattled Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced Wednesday he'll resign August 2. Hundreds of thousands of people had protested after the release of insulting chat messages exchanged by Rossello and his associates. John Yang talks to The New York Times' Frances Robles about the corruption that helped spark the scandal and what could be next for the troubled island.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's a great deal of excitement in Puerto Rico this evening, even a sense that a revolution has been mounted against the island's government and Governor Ricardo Rossello.

    While the celebrations are under way, as John Yang tells us, there are enormous challenges ahead.

  • John Yang:

    There was jubilation in the streets of San Juan today for the thousands of protesters who had demanded the resignation of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello.

    Last night, outside his official residence in Old San Juan, demonstrators huddled around their phones awaiting Rossello's announcement.

  • Gov. Ricardo Rossello (through translator):

    Despite having a mandate from the people who elected me Democratically, today, I feel that continuing in this position presents insurmountable difficulties.

    Having heard the complaints, I have made the following decision. I announce to you today that I will be resigning as governor effective Friday, August 2.

  • John Yang:

    The reaction was immediate.

  • Jose Rodriguez (through translator):

    We wanted Ricky to leave not just because of the obscenities and insults we have seen on chat messages, but because of the corruption we have put up with for decades. Within this ruckus, Puerto Rico has demanded some respect.

  • John Yang:

    Rossello's final crisis was sparked nearly two weeks ago with corruption charges against six members of his administration. Then came a leak of offensive chat messages between Rossello and his aides that denigrated women, LGBTQ people, political opponents and even hurricane survivors.

    And amid growing protests, Puerto Rican lawmakers said they would begin impeachment proceedings if Rossello refused to resign. The scandal resulted in more than a dozen resignations, including the island's secretary of state, who was poised to succeed Rossello.

    Now Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez is in line for the office. But some Puerto Ricans say she wasn't aggressive enough in pursuing an investigation into the leaked chat messages. For many residents, the frustration reflects years of economic recession, austerity measures imposed by the financial control board created by Congress, and anger over corruption and a sluggish government response to 2017's Hurricane Maria.

    The succession process, already complicated by Cabinet vacancies, is far from settled. Analysts say someone other than Justice Secretary Vazquez could end up as governor.

    New York Times correspondent Frances Robles has been covering the unfolding drama in San Juan, which is where she is tonight, and joins us by Skype.

    Frances Robles, thanks for being with us.

    We saw the scenes of the jubilation of the people on the streets of San Juan today. As you were out there talking to them, what does this moment mean to them?

  • Frances Robles:

    This is a critical juncture, John.

    I mean, for one thing, it's a victory. There is no other way to describe it. They see this as a popular uprising in which the people of Puerto Rico won. But it's also a key moment, because if they use this opportunity to put kind of a same old character of the same old party politics in the position of governor, then it's going to be a huge setback for them.

    And the people are very, very wary of that.

  • John Yang:

    And talk about that, because, as we mentioned, the justice secretary is in line because of the Cabinet vacancy, the secretary of state, but there is — does she command a lot of support?

  • Frances Robles:

    Oh, not at all.

    You already see — there was #RickyRenuncia, which is telling the governor to resign. And there's plenty of hashtags and graffiti on the walls saying "Wanda Renuncia." They don't want her.

    And they don't — she's had some problems in terms investigations, in terms of meddling in cases of her family. She used to be the ombudswoman for the Women's Affairs Office, and the feminist groups didn't like her.

    So she is a really complicated candidate for that position. And I don't even think she wants it.

  • John Yang:

    The succession is dictated by the constitution. Is there a way that Vazquez could not be the successor under the constitution?

  • Frances Robles:

    I think there's a really good chance that Vazquez is not going to be the successor.

    Her statement last night was really telling. She said something like, I will assume this responsibility if necessary.

    And the key there was if necessary. So the trick really is going to be that the governor has this vacancy in his Cabinet, the secretary of state position. He is still governor until next Friday, and he is within his rights until next Friday to fill that position.

    And so, if he feels that position, and if that person is confirmed by the Senate and the House of Puerto Rico, then that person is going to become governor of Puerto Rico, not the secretary of justice.

  • John Yang:

    So much of the frustration that was expressed in these demonstrations against Rossello came from deep-seated problems, the economy, the debt crisis, the financial control board that's because of the debt crisis.

    How many — how much is going to be solved by Rossello leaving and how much is going to be sort of hard — hard slogging ahead?

  • Frances Robles:

    A lot of it is endemic, but a lot of it isn't endemic.

    Some of it has to — a lot of the discontent here has very specifically to do with what this administration did, how it handled hurricane recovery, how it handled the deaths, the corruption of members of its administration.

    So while the endemic issues are not going to go away, if they have a new administration that seems much more responsive to the people, I think that person could have more success.

  • John Yang:

    What are the chances of…

  • Frances Robles:

    There's no question that it's a big challenge.

    Yes, it's going to be a really tough challenge.

  • John Yang:

    I mean, will they — I mean, this — the corruption that's been described in the system seems pretty deep-seated. Is this new regime, the new governor, really going to be more responsive to the people?

  • Frances Robles:

    That's a really good question.

    I mean, that's — that's what every — that's the question everyone's waiting for an answer on. If they hire — and they are basically hiring a governor, because they're naming a person they know is about to become governor — a party hack, the people are not going to have it.

    I mean, they're basically — they will be inviting for all of those people to hit back the street again tomorrow, because they now have had that taste of victory. And they now know, well, hold on a second. Our vote, our say does matter here.

    And so that's the question. Can they find a person who's not just about the same old party machinery, giving contracts to their cronies and embezzling money? I mean, that's the history of Puerto Rico that people are trying to change.

  • John Yang:

    Could this sense of victory and sense of empowerment lead to a greater push for more sovereignty on the part of Puerto Rico?

  • Frances Robles:

    I don't know, because you have to remember that a lot of the people that were on the street were people that want statehood.

    So the beauty of this movement was that it was people of all of the different parties, the people who want more sovereignty, the people who want full sovereignty, and the people who want to join the union.

    It wasn't about that. That was the first time in Puerto Rican politics that an issue, a problem, a crisis didn't boil down to party lines here. And so that was kind of what was really special about it.

  • John Yang:

    Frances Robles of The New York Times from San Juan, thanks so much.

  • Frances Robles:

    Thank you for having me.

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