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Puerto Rico Swears In A New Governor Who Inherits Multiple Crises

Pedro Pierluisi takes office as governor amid the island's ongoing efforts to claw itself out of an economic crisis and recover from natural disasters.
Eric Rojas
AFP via Getty Images
Pedro Pierluisi takes office as governor amid the island's ongoing efforts to claw itself out of an economic crisis and recover from natural disasters.

Pedro Pierluisi was sworn in as Puerto Rico's 12th elected governor on Saturday, promising to turn the page on years of social and political turbulence in the U.S. territory and to restore trust in a government whose credibility has been badly damaged by its response to a string of recent crises.

Speaking from the steps of the island's Capitol, the new governor addressed a reduced crowd of a few hundred invited guests who wore face coverings and sat in chairs spaced out as a precaution against the coronavirus.

Pierluisi, 61, was previously the island's attorney general as well as its nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress. His swearing-in on Saturday was the culmination of two prior attempts to claim the governorship, first in 2016, when he lost his party's gubernatorial primary, and again in 2019, after the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

At the heart of Pierluisi's address on Saturday was an acknowledgement of the pain that many Puerto Ricans have endured in recent years — from twin hurricanes, earthquakes, the island's debt crisis, corruption scandals and the ongoing pandemic — and a pledge to usher in better days.

"We all aspire to leave crisis behind," Pierluisi said, "to turn the page on political turbulence, to walk on the path of reconstruction and progress, to create the Puerto Rico we all dream of. On that we are all united."

But he was also forced to acknowledge the deep divisions within Puerto Rican society over the best path toward that better future. Despite his election in November, Pierluisi claimed victory with less than one-third of the vote total, a smaller percentage than any elected governor in Puerto Rico's history. Pierluisi hails from the island's traditional pro-statehood party, which has long dominated electoral politics along with the other main party that favors Puerto Rico's existing territorial status.

But this year's contest was upended by strong showings from two alternative candidates who tapped into the frustration many Puerto Ricans feel with the island's economic decline under a political status quo that has long obsessed with the question of statehood.

"Our five parties and our independent legislators reflect our new political and social reality," Pierluisi said. "Destiny put me here amid these turbulent and historic times, faced with polarization and high expectations, and I trust God will give me the wisdom to guide Puerto Rico toward safe harbor."

He assumes a daunting charge. Aside from the pandemic still raging on the island, Puerto Rico continues clawing its way out of bankruptcy, and Pierluisi will face pressure to resist efforts by a federally appointed fiscal oversight board to impose austerity measures. Some Puerto Ricans view Pierluisi skeptically because he worked for a law firm representing that board. But he has called that experience valuable, saying it gives him an intimate understanding of how the control board works.

Pierluisi also takes office amid ongoing efforts to rebuild infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Billions in federal recovery grants have yet to arrive. During the campaign, Pierluisi cast himself as a fierce advocate for federal funds and their potential to transform Puerto Rico, sometimes to the point of mockery from critics, given the glacial pace at which the federal government has released post-hurricane funding.

Even so, during his address on Saturday, Pierluisi doubled down.

"We are going to take advantage of every federal dollar," he said. "And we're going to do it now."

His address also touched, in general terms, on other issues of deep concern on the island: public education, crime, mental health, the environment and corruption. And he reiterated his belief that statehood, long controversial on the island, is Puerto Rico's best chance at prosperity, and that it is achievable.

Pierluisi replaces Gov. Wanda Vázquez, who took office in August of 2019 after weeks of protests forced then-Gov. Rosselló to resign. The disgraced governor had originally intended for Pierluisi to replace him, appointing him to a top cabinet position days before leaving office so Pierluisi would be first in the line of succession.

But days after Pierluisi took the governor's oath, the territory's Supreme Court ruled him ineligiblefor the office because his cabinet appointment had not been confirmed by the island's Senate. Vázquez, who was attorney general, ascended to the governorship instead. Pierluisi defeated her during the pro-statehood party's gubernatorial primary in August.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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