Puerto Rican politics is notoriously riddled with corruption. The arrest of former governor Wanda Vázquez Garced earlier this month was only the latest scandal to rock the commonwealth. In a country still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria and struggling with the dregs of the pandemic, only time will tell how the state government will weather the latest blow to its crumbling authority.
In a historic first, the FBI arrested Vázquez during a raid on her home in San Juan Thursday, August 4. Vázquez, who served as the twelfth governor of Puerto Rico from August 2019 to December 31, 2020, is the first governor to be federally prosecuted for corruption. The New Progressive Party member is being charged for bribery relating to her 2020 campaign, which she lost by 15 percent.
“[I feel] a little bit let down. I wanted her for governor and I voted for her, but then [the bribery charges] came to light,” said Carlos Rossariol, a 62-year-old San Juan resident. “There’re many corrupt [individuals] who have done worse, and they haven’t been arrested…It was bad luck for her… She wasn’t governor for long, but during the pandemic she put things in order and saved lives.”
Vázquez rose to prominence in 2019, when then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned after massive protests following a scandal locals call “Telegramgate” or RickyLeaks, which involved screenshots of a group chat with 11 cabinet ministers exchanging inappropriate and offensive messages.
Constitutionally, the secretary of state was next in line to succeed the governor. However, the position was vacant when Telegramgate unfolded. Roselló appointed Pedro Pierluisi to the position, but the Puerto Rican Senate refused to confirm his appointment. Roselló went ahead and swore in Pierluisi as secretary of state — without the constitutionally required confirmation. When Roselló resigned, Pierluisi began acting as de facto governor. Like Vázquez, Roselló and Pierluisi belong to the New Progressive Party.
The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled Pierluisi was sworn in unconstitutionally and removed him from office. As Secretary of Justice of Puerto Rico, Vázquez was next in line to assume the governorship. She was appointed to finish out the governor’s term through 2020.
After claiming she would not run for the governorship in 2020, Vázquez declared her candidacy in late 2019. In 2020, Venezuelan-Italian banker Julio Martin Herrera Velutini reached out to Vázquez to offer a bribe, prosecutors allege. Herrera Velutini’s bank was being scrutinized by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (CFI). He offered to finance Vázquez’s campaign in exchange for dismissing the current commissioner and appointing one of his choosing. Vázquez agreed, then received more than $300,000 in financial support in the form of political consultants for her reelection campaign, prosecutors say.
Local reaction to the arrest is mixed. Many supporters as well as detractors say the arrest was justified, with some expressing surprise that federal agents were involved.
Pedro Luis Muriel, age 80, of Carolina, a municipality near San Juan, says the charges don’t bode well for the future of Puerto Rican politics.
“I did vote for her, but I think it is right for anyone that is corrupt to face the consequences,” said Muriel. “She was doing well, but as soon as the feds got in there, it was over for her. I don’t think this charge is that bad, but I do think it is alarming the federal government got into play here. It is a wake-up call…” Many of many of those who voted against Vázquez feel the arrest was justified.
“I think they did it right,” said John Ciaca, age 21, from Levittown in Toa Baja. “The people can’t take more corruption. I did not vote for her and I am glad.”
Currently, Pierluissi is serving as the island’s governor and is fully aiding the case. Vázquez is being prosecuted along with Herrera Velutini (who is still at large); ex president of Herra Velutini’s bank, Frances Díaz; former FBI agent who consulted Herrera Velutini, Mark Rossini; and campaign manager for Vázquez’s election, John Blakeman. All are awaiting court dates and hearings, but Blakeman has pled guilty and is giving the FBI his full collaboration. The former governor of Puerto Rico faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
While some credit Vázquez’s handling of COVID-19 lockdown policies with saving lives, others believe the lockdowns were too harsh. Joanna Herman Garcia, age 50, of Güaynabo, says in some ways Vázquez got what was coming to her.
“She shut us in with the pandemic. I didn’t feel like she was taking care of us, I felt caged in,” said Garcia. “She locked us up but now they are going to lock her up.”