The arrest of the former Puerto Rican governor may affect the island’s politics

According to some analysts, the indictment of former Puerto Rican governor Wanda Vazquez on bribery charges damages her political party’s reputation, but since her party is the only one calling for an island state, the pain may be limited.

However, analysts said the arrest should have no effect on how long Puerto Rico’s oversight board remains in place.

Vázquez, governor from August 2019 to January 2021, and two others who were out of the country were involved in a bribery scheme.

Two others – John Blackman, who was involved in the Vasquez campaign, and Francis Diaz, the bank’s CEO – pleaded guilty.

Wanda Vazquez, who appeared when she was the governor of Puerto Rico, was accused of accepting bribes but maintained her innocence.

US Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico Stephen Muldro said Vazquez could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

A Venezuelan national who was the primary owner of a Puerto Rican bank offered Vásquez’s money to undermine the investigation of his bank. Vazquez allegedly accepted the offer and forced the head of the agency overseeing the investigation to resign, replacing him with someone proposed by the banker.

The grand jury charged the former governor with conspiracy, bribery in the federal program, and honest services wire fraud. The banker – Giulio Herrera, Velotini – and the consultant who helped arrange the deal – Marc Rossini – were accused in connection with the bribery deal. They were not arrested Wednesday because they are out of the country, but the US Department of Justice is seeking their extradition.

“We see once again that no one is above the law in Puerto Rico,” said Governor Pedro Pierluisi. He admitted that the arrest “certainly affects and rips our people’s confidence,” but pledged to work with the authorities “in addition to strengthening initiatives and following up on the bills they submitted to combat corruption.”

Resident Commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez Colon said the accusation “against any public official is an abhorrent event that harms the people’s confidence in their institutions and surprises and further harms if the accused assumes the highest office of government on the island.”

She added that honesty and public service should be synonymous, and anyone using public office “for personal gain should be denied”.

Pierluisi defeated Vazquez in the August 2020 NPP primaries. Gonzalez Colon, the non-voting representative of Puerto Rico in Congress, is also a member of the NPP.

According to many news sites, Vasquez declares her innocence.

While Vásquez is the first former governor to be charged with acts while in office, there have been a wave of arrests for corruption on the island in the past 12 to 18 months. Catania Mayor Felix Delgado Montalvo, Humacao Mayor Reinaldo Vargas Rodriguez, Aguas Buenas Mayor Javier García Pérez and Mayaguez Mayor Jose Guillermo Rodriguez were indicted during that time.

Most analysts said the charges against Vasquez would not affect the inclination of the US Congress to end the control of the oversight board.

“I don’t think this will affect the term of the oversight board,” said Sean Burgess, portfolio manager and analyst at Cumberland Advisors.

The existence and absence of the board depends on meeting specific criteria “and as long as it meets those criteria, it should terminate as prescribed by the legislation. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is serious enough to muster the political will to keep the oversight board in place.” Cumberland owns insured Puerto Rican bonds.

University of Puerto Rican political science professor Jose Garriga-Pico said, “I am sure it will have an impact on ‘alert the public’ in Congress and should lead them to suspect that Puerto Rico is willing to break free from Puerto Rican censorship, the ‘Ball and Chain’ administration and economic stability act.”

But he added that many members of Congress would still be inclined to get off the board.

Oversight Board member Justin Peterson said, “Remove [Oversight Board] PROMESA modification may be required. While I would certainly support this, nothing I have observed thus far leads me to believe that Congress will do so in the near term.”

On the impact of the arrest on Puerto Rican politics, Gariga Biko said: “This is another blow to the integrity of the PNP. It will deepen public perception and the feeling that it is a corrupt project. It will lose [a] Few adherents to the Citizens Victory movement, mostly younger voters. But older people may prefer the conservative dignity project.”

But, he said, rather than defecting from the party, the arrest would tend to alienate voters who would avoid the ballot because they feel all politicians are corrupt.

“The very little silver lining for the PNP is that it is happening now, more than two years before the elections,” said Garija Biko.

Attorney Philip Escuriaza, senior adviser to Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell, said the left-leaning Citizens Victory movement could pick up some supporters, as did some other smaller parties. However, PNP supporters want statehood and other parties do not, which will prevent the current embarrassment from losing too many followers. Escoriaza lived in Puerto Rico until recently and owns two homes there.

Burgess said that because corruption is widespread on the island, it is unlikely that many people will be pushed away from voting for the NPP. “Corruption has been one of the biggest issues on the island, and I expect to see more headlines like this if they are serious about creating real change and a brighter future for the Commonwealth.”

“Governor Vázquez is single and was a haphazard governor and was never elected to office,” Peterson said. “I don’t think you can judge an entire political party according to these allegations against her.”

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