Puerto Rico: new twist in leadership crisis

People march in San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 25, 2019, one day after the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello (AFP Photo/Eric Rojas)

Washington (AFP) - A political crisis over leadership in the US Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico took another turn Sunday when the designated successor to embattled governor Ricardo Rossello said she didn't want the job.

Secretary of State Wanda Vazquez, Rossello's number two, was set under the constitution to take over on August 2 as interim governor for the island which is gripped by a decade-long recession.

After two weeks of street protests triggered by comments that mocked gays, women and hurricane victims, Rossello confirmed in writing on Thursday that he would quit.

"I would like to underscore that I am not interested in the post of Governor," Vazquez said, in Spanish, on Twitter.

"I do hope that the Governor identifies and nominates a (new) candidate for the job of Secretary of State before August 2. And I have made that clear to him," she said.

While Puerto Ricans rejoiced at Rossello's departure, many wanted completely new leadership for the territory, whose residents are US citizens.

They said those with close ties to Rossello are tainted, and a social media hashtag #WandaRenuncia called for her to resign.

Protest rallies started July 13, when the Center for Investigative Journalism released 889 pages of text chats on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

In the texts, Rossello and 11 other male administration members made fun of women, gays, victims of Hurricane Maria in 2017, journalists and other politicians.

Among those they made homophobic jokes about was San Juan native pop star Ricky Martin.

The messages were widely seen as the painful last straw for people fed up with years of economic stagnation, corruption, government mismanagement and a slow and sloppy recovery effort after Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 people in September 2017.

Some went months without running water or electricity after the disaster.

Three days before the release of those chats, prosecutors charged six former government officials with embezzling $15 million in hurricane reconstruction money.

The island was already under bankruptcy protection and billions of dollars in debt when the hurricane hit.

About 44 percent of people in the former Spanish colony live in poverty.

As the protests grew in strength, Rossello apologized and said he would not run for re-election next year but initially refused to resign.

But pressure against him mounted, and he received word from congress that he would be impeached. He finally gave in.