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Puerto Rico’s Governor Is Resigning. But His Successor Worries Protestors Too

6 minute read

Thousands of Puerto Ricans united in protest to demand the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló following corruption charges against members of his government and the release of chat messages that saw him and members of his administration make crude jokes about victims of Hurricane Maria.

Rosselló announced late Wednesday that he would step down on August 2 — but his resignation may not stop the protests. Rosselló’s expected successor, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, is likely to face her own challenges because many protesters say she represents more of the same on the island territory.

In a statement, Vázquez confirmed that “if necessary” she will serve as governor once Rosselló’s resignation becomes effective next month. She is next in line to assume the position following the resignation of Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín on July 13.

“We will be working together to carry out an orderly and transparent transition process,” she said.

Assuming she steps in, Vázquez is expected to fill the position until the 2020 elections.

However, protestors have said from the outset that Rosselló was only part of a major problem with Puerto Rico’s government, suggesting they might not accept Vázquez as a temporary replacement. #WandaRenuncia––”Wanda Resign”–– is already trending on Twitter, similar to the #RickyRenuncia hashtag calling for Rosselló’s ouster.

“She is, I would argue, in the eyes of the Puerto Ricans who have mobilized, in the same league as Ricardo Rosselló in terms of not being acceptable to lead the island because of her past,” Luis Martínez-Fernández, a history professor at the University of Central Florida, tells TIME. “This includes some decisions she has made to not go forward with some cases and also because she is unpopular.”

Vázquez, a member of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, has served as the Justice Secretary since she was appointed by the governor in January 2017. Prior to that, she led the island’s Office for Women’s Rights after years of working as an attorney specializing in domestic violence.

In response to the mass protest against the governor, Vázquez called on protestors to employ “good sense and calm” as the Department of Justice investigated if any crimes were committed by the governor and his associates following “chatgate” –– the release of crude messages between Rosselló and his associates that were deemed homophobic and made fun of hurricane victims.

“We recognize the right of all citizens in a democracy to exercise the right to free expression,” Vázquez said in a statement. “However, this right must be exercised with prudence, with a high sense of citizen awareness and respect for others.”

On Tuesday, the Puerto Rican Justice Department confirmed to TIME that search warrants for the cell phones of government officials who are believed to have participated in “chatgate” were issued.

Vázquez is no stranger to controversy herself. Last year, she temporarily stepped down due to ethical complaints filed by the Office of the Independent Special Prosecutor. Vázquez was accused of abusing her power as Justice Secretary when she allegedly intervened in a case that involved stolen government property in a home her daughter was living in.

Protestors said despite the fact that she was cleared, doubts about her lingered among Puerto Ricans.

Now, Vázquez is wrapped up in her own alleged text leak, dubbed “WandaLeaks” on social media.

The blog, En Blanco y Negro, run by Puerto Rican journalist Sandra Rodríguez Cotto, has posted screenshots of alleged messages that appear to show Vázquez shielding party members from investigation.

The Justice Department has replied to the accusations referred to in the blog in a statement released Thursday morning, calling them “false” and “defamatory.”

“Vázquez categorically rejects the contents of the reports that she could have committed any improper acts,” the statement said. The statement does not address the legitimacy of the leaked texts.

“During our career in public service we have demonstrated that we have worked in an integral and honest way for the benefit of the public,” the statement continued. “The interpretations published today are vicious attacks that seek to damage our integrity.”

Vázquez was also linked to “chatgate,” after leaks showed she was a topic of conversation among the members of the leaked group chat, with Rosselló supporting her after charges were dropped against her in her ethics case.

All of the allegations create a sense of mistrust among many protestors. Denice Frohman, a Puerto Rican poet from New York City, flew to the island to participate in Monday’s mass protest and says she does not see the people settling for Vázquez.

“People did not march and protest for nearly two weeks to have another corrupt leader replace Rosselló,” she tells TIME. “The feeling on the ground is one of determination and undeniable unity and commitment to a different, new Puerto Rico that is just and represents the people, putting their interest first. The energy on the ground is that we’re not settling for Vázquez, for another corrupt leader.”

Alejandro Calaf, the co-founder of the non-profit Water for Puerto Rico, has participated in the San Juan protest and says many who have taken to the streets to protest Rosselló also see Vázquez as corrupt.

Calaf says many Puerto Ricans feel Vázquez used her position within the Justice Department to protect members of the New Progressive Party.

Puerto Rican native Adriana Rivera works as Director of Communications at Alianza For Progress, a Hispanic advocacy group based in Miami. Rivera helped organize marches last week in Florida in support of the protests in Puerto Rico. She says she does not believe that protests will end with Vázquez being sworn in as governor.

“The Puerto Rican people feel she cannot lead because she’s also implicated in the scandal and it would only result in more protest and the Puerto Rican people are not going to have someone who is just as corrupt and implicated as Ricky be the successor,” she tells TIME. “If she is announced I think it wouldn’t make any difference and protest will continue.”

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Write to Gina Martinez at gina.martinez@time.com