SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Friday that he was resigning as promised and swearing in veteran politician Pedro Pierluisi as his replacement, a move certain to throw the U.S. territory into a period of political chaos that will be fought out in court.
In an emailed announcement from his office, Rossello said Pierluisi does not need confirmation from both houses of the territory’s legislature because he was named secretary of state, the next in line to be governor, in a recess appointment this week.
The statement said Pierluisi will be sworn in to complete Rossello’s term, but it did not say exactly when. Rossello had promised to resign at 5 p.m. Friday, a few minutes before the statement was sent.
Rossello’s resignation came in response to weeks of popular protest over mismanagement and a series of leaked chats in which he and advisers denigrated a range of Puerto Ricans.
The down-to-the-wire maneuvering risked political chaos and a constitutional crisis and sowed bitterness and pessimism among Puerto Ricans about the fate of their island, which has been battered by years of bankruptcy and Hurricane Maria in 2017, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
Only days ago, there was jubilation over the success of the popular movement to force Rossello out of office. On Friday, Puerto Ricans bemoaned the chaos that left them not knowing who would be their next governor.
“People are disgusted with the government in general, not just Ricardo Rossello, everyone,” said Janeline Avila, 24, who recently received her degree in biotechnology.
Hundreds of protesters marched to the governor’s residence, the Fortaleza, banging pots and drums and singing the national anthem. The demonstrators chanted “Ricky, get out! You didn’t quit, the people fired you!”
Protester Bryan Carhu Castro Vega, a 21-year-old university student, said he was disappointed.
“It’s obvious that the constitutional setup that we have isn’t working for the people,” he said. “None of the options is one the people chose, or want, or deserve.”
Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives voted 26-21, with one abstention to confirm Pierluisi as secretary of state. The legislature, which is controlled by Pierluisi’s New Progressive Party, erupted into cheers when the deciding vote was cast.
Some lawmakers and officials believe that because the legislature was not in session when Pierluisi was appointed, he was already secretary of state. Others argue that he still needs to be confirmed by the House or both the House and Senate.
One constitutional amendment states that everyone in line to become governor has to be confirmed by both House and Senate, except for the secretary of state.
Constitutional law professor Carlos Ramos and other legal experts questioned the validity of that amendment and believed Pierluisi must be confirmed by the House and Senate because the amendment contradicts the intent of the constitution and its statement of motives.
Lawmakers and Pierluisi himself expressed concern that the continuing political uncertainty would damage Puerto Rico’s efforts to get federal funds to recover from the hurricane and confront the economic crisis.
Several legislators have accused Pierluisi of a conflict of interest because he worked for a law firm that represents a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances, a body that has repeatedly clashed with local officials over demands for austerity measures.
Pierluisi, whose brother-in-law is the board’s chairman, tried to dispel those concerns in his opening remarks.
“Who better than me to advocate for our people before the board? Who better than me to facilitate the process that will force the board to leave? That is what we all want,” he said.
The board was created by Congress to oversee the restructuring of more than $70 billion in public debt after Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy.
Pierluisi told lawmakers he is against several austerity measures demanded by the board, including laying off public employees and eliminating a Christmas bonus.
He said he supports public-private partnerships and the privatization of the island’s public power company.
“The people want a change, and I don’t blame them,” he said.
A key obstacle for Pierluisi has been Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who has said he would not vote for Rossello’s nominee and wants to run for governor himself next year. Several legislators have said they prefer Rivera Schatz over Pierluisi, but the Senate leader is a powerful figure deeply associated with Puerto Rico’s political and business elite, and his elevation to the governorship could re-ignite popular outrage.
Rivera Schatz has scheduled a Senate hearing on Pierluisi for Monday.
Pierluisi was Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress from 2009 to 2017 and then ran against Rossello in the 2016 primaries and lost. He also served as justice secretary under Rossello’s father, Pedro Rossello, when he was governor.
The political infighting and paralysis followed a wave of street protests against Rossello, who joins more than a dozen government officials who have resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they made fun of women, gay people and hurricane victims.