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AP Interview: Puerto Rico governor to stay, fight corruption

August 16, 2019
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Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez poses for a photo during an interview with the Associated Press at the La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Governor Vazquez says she plans to remain in the position to help ease the U.S. territory's political turmoil and will have the flexibility to truly work for the people because she is free of all political ties or obligations. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo)
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Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez poses for a photo during an interview with the Associated Press at the La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Governor Vazquez says she plans to remain in the position to help ease the U.S. territory's political turmoil and will have the flexibility to truly work for the people because she is free of all political ties or obligations. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — As a child, Puerto Rico’s newest governor said she would stand on her balcony and hold imaginary trials, always finding the supposed defendants guilty.

Now, after more than 32 years of public service as a district attorney and justice secretary, Wanda Vázquez finds herself leading a U.S. territory of 3.2 million people following a Supreme Court ruling last week that ousted her predecessor and appears to have calmed the political turmoil that led the island to have three governors in less than a week.

As justice secretary, Vázquez was automatically next in line to become governor after the court’s ruling, a historic move she said will allow her to truly work for the people and respond to their needs because she is free of all political ties or obligations.

“I don’t have that weight on my shoulders,” she told The Associated Press in an interview. “I don’t aspire to political office.”

Vázquez is expected to finish the term of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned on Aug. 2 following popular protests fueled by anger over corruption, mismanagement of public funds and an obscenity-laced chat in which the governor and 11 other men including public officials mocked women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria, among others.

She said her priorities are to fight corruption, secure federal hurricane recovery funds and help pull Puerto Rico out of its 13-year recession.

Vázquez told the AP that in the coming weeks, she plans to create a special team within Puerto Rico’s Justice Department made up of local and federal officials to crack down on corruption. She said all government contracts will be investigated, including those awarded as part of a billion-dollar hurricane reconstruction effort.

She also said she would be pressing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump for funds that are sorely needed on an island still struggling to recover from the Category 4 storm that hit on Sept. 20, 2017.

“I have to fight for those funds,” she said. “There are still people who don’t have roofs ... There are still people who don’t have windows, who don’t have doors, who completely lost their homes, who are living with relatives. There are people ... who are still feeling like they are not being treated equally, who feel they are being discriminated against, and we have to fight that.”

Vázquez said restructuring part of Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion public debt load also is important, adding that she met this week with the chairman and executive director of a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances amid the economic crisis.

Like Rosselló, she said she opposes austerity measures imposed by the board including pension cuts to a public system facing more than $50 billion in unfunded pension liabilities: “They need (the money). We cannot cut them and force them all into poverty.”

But in an allusion to Rosselló’s public relationship with the board, she added, “We’re not going to adopt a confrontational stance. ... We’re going to collaborate because I want to pull Puerto Rico out of bankruptcy. I want the board to finish its job, but without sacrificing the people.”

Despite all her upcoming plans, being governor is not a job Vázquez initially wanted.

In a recent Sunday tweet that created a media frenzy, Vázquez said she was not interested in the position. But she posted the tweet just days before the court in a unanimous vote on Aug. 7 found that the swearing in of nominated secretary of state Pedro Pierluisi was unconstitutional.

“That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to reject the challenge,” she said. “Puerto Rico needs this. I’m not a politician. I’m not going to run for any political office, so this is going to give me the flexibility to implement change and give the people what they need.”

Despite her decision, some members of her own party, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, publicly called on Puerto Rico’s congressional representative, Jenniffer González, to be nominated as secretary of state and eventually governor. Those calls have since dissipated, with party officials saying they support Vázquez, who met with the presidents of the island’s House and Senate last week and told them she wanted to set certain rules, including that they work together with mutual respect and deference.

Vázquez said she plans to work with González to ensure Puerto Rico receives equal treatment regarding federal funding, and that she will meet with legislators and other officials before deciding if the administration should hold a referendum on whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state.

She also said she has requested a meeting with Trump, adding that she wants the federal government to give her a chance.

“We came here to re-establish credibility,” she said. “We don’t want confrontation. ... We need recovery funds so that people who are suffering can recover.”

Vázquez takes over as confidence in Puerto Rico’s government continues to erode, with federal officials arresting the island’s former education secretary, Julia Keleher, and the former executive director of the Health Insurance Administration, Ángela Ávila, on corruption charges in July.

Vázquez herself has rejected criticism that she was not aggressive enough as justice secretary in pursuing corruption investigations involving members of her New Progressive Party.

Vázquez said she expects to complete Rosselló’s term until November 2020.

“Right now, I don’t see leaving before 2020,” she said.

When pressed whether that meant she might step down in future weeks or months, Vázquez said she would not leave, even when a new secretary of state is named, adding her background as a district attorney is important. “It strengthened me so that today I can say, ‘These people are suffering, we have to help them.’ ... Maybe God prepared me because truly no one thought this was going to happen.”