Puerto Ricans ask, ‘What’s next?’ as they await new governor

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The fliers handed out at Puerto Rico’s latest protest depict the U.S. territory’s outgoing governor as a clown and puppeteer controlling those beneath him.

“WHAT COMES AFTER RICKY?” the first page reads, referring to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

It’s the question hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are now asking themselves after having achieved their main goal: ousting a governor for the first time in the U.S. territory’s recent history.

Rosselló is scheduled to step down Friday at 5 p.m., but it’s unclear who will fill his position.

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Legislator José Meléndez told The Associated Press late Tuesday that the governor would nominate a former Puerto Rico congressional representative, Pedro Pierluisi, as secretary of state, a now-vacant post that is next in line to become governor.

However, Pierluisi would have to be approved by the island’s House and Senate, and Meléndez and others have said they would not vote for him. Pierluisi served as Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress in 2009-2017 and now works as a lawyer for a firm that represents a federal control board overseeing the Puerto Rican government’s finances, something that critics say is a conflict of interest.

A special session to vote on Pierluisi has been scheduled for Friday, just four hours before Rosselló is supposed to resign.

The secretary of state by law automatically replaces a governor who leaves office, but Luis Rivera Marín vacated that post by joining more than a dozen other officials who resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat that was recently leaked in which he, Rosselló and others made fun of women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria.

If a new secretary of state is not approved by Friday, the governorship goes to Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, who has said she is not interested in the job and also faces the ire of protesters who are calling for her to step down.

But beyond those demands, Puerto Ricans say they now want to root out government corruption and debate how to accomplish this while harnessing the energy that still remains from the days of street protests that led to Rosselló to agree to resign.

“We have to maintain the continuity of what has happened to clean out the government,” said José Rivera Santana, a 64-year-old planner. “The future of Puerto Rico is in the hands of our people right now. We cannot be passive.”

The historic achievement was born out of a leaderless movement that relied heavily on social media, the appearance of superstars including Residente and Bad Bunny and an angry populace fed up with corruption, delayed hurricane recovery efforts and a 13-year-old recession that has also brought the creation of a federal control board that has implemented austerity measures for Puerto Rico’s government as it restructures a portion of Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion public debt load.

The movement drew students, professionals, retirees, and rich and poor alike, and that is why Puerto Ricans say it was so successful: Everyone cast politics aside on an island long fixated with its political status and unified under a common goal and shared outrage.

“They were all in a pressure cooker waiting to explode,” said Ricardo Santos Ortiz, a spokesman for the Workers Socialist Movement, which also joined the protests.

Cellphones across Puerto Rico dinged dozens of times a day as regular citizens and groups including labor unions posted announcements on social media about upcoming protests or shared them in private chats: a paddle-out for surfers, a horse ride to the governor’s mansion, a twerkathon, a motorcycle run, and a yoga gathering.

“It was nobody’s but it was everyone’s,” Yaddeliz Martínez Pérez said of the protests. “The will of the people triumphed above everything else.”

The 38-year-old unemployed Puerto Rican was among those who took it upon themselves to organize a protest. She posted it on Facebook, but when she realized there was another protest already organized for that day, she cancelled the event and told those who had confirmed that they should join the other protest.

Other efforts fell flat, including an attempt to recreate a week later the mammoth July 22 demonstration that shut down one of Puerto Rico’s main highways, said Santos, the socialist activist, adding that the legitimacy of events sometimes depended on whether certain activists backed them.

Like many other Puerto Ricans, Santos said he wants the movement to continue but believes it should be more organized.

“We have to figure out how to keep people in the streets,” he said. “The announcements that have gone out have been a bit anarchic.”

But it is unlikely the movement will remain as strong as it has in recent days, said Gabriel Torres Colón, a cultural and political anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who has focused on Puerto Rico.

Torres said it would be very difficult to maintain the same intensity, adding that people realize corruption runs deep and will not be wiped out simply by replacing high-ranking government officials.

However, many Puerto Ricans say they will not give up.

Marisel Robles, a 29-year-old unemployed woman who studied engineering, is part of a group that was formed a couple of years ago to try to oust the federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s government finances. The group joined the protests to oust Rosselló and is now trying to keep the movement alive by forming an anti-corruption group, she said.

“This will be a learning experience for organizations on how to change,” she said. “We can keep up the momentum, but it will depend on the work each person puts in.”

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