- Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez has been sworn in as the Governor of Puerto Rico.
- Vázquez is the third governor Puerto Rico has had this week, including former Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who stepped down amid a scandal involving leaked messages.
- Rosselló had originally appointed Pedro Pierluisi to be next in line for governor, but just days after he was sworn in, the Supreme Court ruled his appointment was unconstitutional.
- Vázquez, who was the third in line, is highly unpopular and had previously said she does not want the job. She has already been the subject of protests and backlash, and more are expected to come.
New Puerto Rican Governor Sworn In
Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez was sworn in as the Governor of Puerto Rico on Wednesday, marking the third governor that the island has had in less than a week.
Vázquez’s swearing-in comes after the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled that Pedro Pierluisi, who was sworn in as governor on Aug. 2 to replace Ricardo Rosselló, had come to power unconstitutionally.
Pierluisi had been appointed to secretary of state by then-Governor Rosselló, who stepped down from his position. Rosselló was pushed to resign following massive protests against him after hundreds of pages of messages were leaked revealing conversations between the then-governor and some of his top-ranking officials.
In the messages, the men used sexist and homophobic slurs and joked about people who died in Hurricane Maria.
Following Rosselló’s resignation, the next in the line of succession for the governorship was the secretary of state. However, Puerto Rico’s secretary of state has just resigned as well, as he also was involved in the message scandal.
Line of Succession Problems
The lack of a clear successor left Rosselló with two choices: either nominate a new secretary of state and hope that that person got approved by Puerto Rico’s House and Senate before he left office on Aug. 2, or simply continue down the line of succession.
The third in the line of succession was the Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez. However, a few days after Rosselló announced his resignation, Vázquez said in a tweet that she did not want to be the governor.
The next in line was the treasury secretary, but he could not be governor because he was 31, and Puerto Rico’s constitution mandates that the governor must be at least 35.
The fifth in the line of succession was the secretary of education, a career bureaucrat with very little political experience who had only been serving for a few months after the previous secretary of education was arrested for illegally directing $15.5 million in federal contracts to business friends.
Amid the political turmoil, Rosselló announced on July 30, three days before he was set to leave office, that he had nominated Pierluisi as secretary of state.
Pierluisi, a lawyer who previously served as Puerto Rico’s non-voting member in Congress and as their secretary of justice, was approved by Puerto Rico’s House, but not the island’s Senate.
Reportedly, the Senators were wary of Pierluisi because he had spent the last few years working for a Washington D.C.-based law firm that gave legal counsel to the federal oversight board that monitors Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy.
That board is largely disliked by Puerto Ricans because it has imposed strict austerity measures on them. As a result, the Senators were concerned he would still try to push the board’s agenda.
However, Rosselló still chose to swear-in Pierluisi, and the next day Puerto Rico’s Senate filed a lawsuit arguing that it was unconstitutional for someone in the line of succession who had not been confirmed by the Senate to step up as governor.
Pierluisi defended himself, citing a 2005 law that says a secretary of state does not need to be approved by both the House and Senate if they need to assume the position of governor in an emergency.
However, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a secretary of state had to be approved by both the House and Senate in order to step up as governor and that as a result, Pierluisi’s appointment was unconstitutional and he had to step down immediately.
After serving for a total of 120 hours, the shortest period of time any Puerto Rican governor has been in office, Pierluisi stepped down, and Vázquez was sworn in.
Speaking during a televised speech last night, Vázquez said that while she was not chosen by the people, she would try to create dialogue and build consensus.
“We will work together on all that unites us, and we will look for consensus where we disagree,” the new governor told the people of Puerto Rico. “I will remain focused on resuming the course for our people in an orderly and peaceful fashion.”
However, Vázquez’s future as the governor may be short-lived. Even after Vázquez had said she did not want the job, protestors took to the streets to oppose her possible appointment, and a hashtag calling for her to resign was reportedly shared Twitter more than 60,000 times.
After her swearing-in, a small group of protestors gathered in front of the governor’s mansion to call for her resignation and reportedly chanted, “There’ll be no peace as long as there’s impunity!”
Already, Puerto Rico is expecting a new wave of much larger protests calling for Vázquez to step down.
Vázquez, who has never held elected political office, is highly unpopular among Puerto Ricans for a number of reasons. At the very top level, many simply view her as an extension of Rosselló’s corrupt administration.
Critics have accused her of not being aggressive enough in launching corruption investigations into members of her own party during her tenure as secretary of justice.
She has also been criticized for not prioritizing gender violence cases while serving as the head of Puerto Rico’s women’s affairs office, as well as for making controversial statements about abuse victims and for not investigating a recent rise in violence against women in Puerto Rico.
More recently, she came under fire for refusing to investigate trailers full of unused hurricane supplies that were found abandoned in fields a year after the hurricane, despite the fact that leaked messages revealed that she had discussed looking into it with the governors chief of staff before declining to do so.
Additionally, last year, Vázquez was suspended as justice secretary for a brief period after she was accused of intervening in a case involving her daughter who was the alleged victim of a burglary, though she was later cleared by a judge and resumed her post.
On top of everything, Vázquez has made it quite evident she does not want to be the governor.
On Wednesday, Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día newspaper reported that sources told the publication that Vázquez plans to resign after nominating Jenniffer González, the islands current non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.
China Rushes to Build New Hospital as Coronavirus Spreads
- Chinese authorities announced plans to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan by Feb. 3 to treat patients of a deadly new virus that has killed at least 26 people.
- More than 800 cases of the never-before-seen strain of the coronavirus have been detected.
- The majority of the cases are in China, though some have been found in other countries, including the United States.
- Officials hope the new hospital will help alleviate some of the pressure on China’s healthcare system, which has been overwhelmed in the wake of the outbreak.
Race to Build Hospital
In the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 26 people, China announced plans on Friday to quickly build a 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients of the epidemic.
The hospital is being constructed in Wuhan, where the deadly “2019-nCOV” virus originated and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 3. Images and video from Chinese media show dozens of workers preparing the site.
China’s healthcare system has been strained by the outbreak. At least eight hospitals across Wuhan have called for protective medical gear donations, according to the Associated Press, citing notices online. Video footage has emerged showing health facilities packed with people desperate for help.
“I am scared because this is a new virus and the figures are alarming,” an unnamed doctor told BBC. “The hospitals have been flooding with patients, there are thousands, I haven’t seen so many before.”
The expedited Wuhan hospital is reminiscent of another project that China undertook almost two decades ago. In 2003, when the nation was swept up by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that spread to 28 other countries and killed nearly 800 people, a hospital was built from scratch in Beijing in just under a week.
The Wuhan structure is modeled off the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in Beijing and is being made from prefabricated buildings that help with fast assembly.
What is the Coronavirus?
The outbreak causing all the panic is a novel coronavirus — a strain of the coronavirus that has never been seen before. According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe ailments. SARS is a member of this family.
Coronaviruses can be transmitted between people and animals. The novel coronavirus was suspected to have come from a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed for disinfection. The new strain is particularly intimidating because it is not yet known how it affects people or how to treat it.
At least 12 Chinese cities near the center of the outbreak have been placed on a travel lockdown to prevent further spreading of the virus, affecting roughly 35 million residents. The lockdown comes just ahead of one of China’s most important holidays, Lunar New Year, throwing a wrench in many people’s celebration plans.
More than 800 cases of the virus have been detected and a few have been found in countries beyond China, including the United States. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said the new virus has not yet reached a level that makes it a global health emergency.
See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Guardian) (The Washington Post)
Brexit Officially Becomes Law in the United Kingdom
- British Parliament passed a final Brexit withdrawal agreement on Wednesday.
- The following day, Queen Elizabeth gave the bill her royal assent, a formality that turns a bill into law.
- While the European Parliament is set to make the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union official next week, the U.K. still has a long journey ahead in laying out a new relationship with the EU and countries like the United States.
Brexit Becomes Law
After a bitter three and a half year struggle that resulted in the resignation of two prime ministers, protests, elections, and multiple delays, the United Kingdom has officially signed a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to the bill on Thursday, a formality that gave the agreement the rule of law. Her signature came after parliament passed the agreement Wednesday evening.
In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament’s elected lower house, the House of Commons. The massive win was seen as a mandate that the United Kingdom wanted to divorce itself from the European Union, and Johnson’s victory gave him the ability to pass the withdrawal agreement through the Commons with ease in early January.
The bill was then sent to the non-elected upper house, the House of Lords. On Tuesday, the Lords passed the bill back to the Commons with several amendments attached. Notably, one of those amendments included a provision that would have protected the rights of refugee children to be reunited with their parents if their parents were in the U.K. post-Brexit.
On Wednesday, the Commons used its majority to reject those amendments and tossed the bill back to the Lords. The Lords, lacking a majority to pass the amendments, passed the bill to prevent the U.K. from missing its current Jan. 31 deadline.
Before the U.K. officially leaves the EU, however, the EU’s parliament will also need to vote on a final approval of the withdrawal agreement. That vote is expected to happen Jan. 29, and like the Queen’s royal assent, this stage is also largely being viewed as a formality, with it easily expected to pass.
When it does, the U.K. will officially end its 40-year relationship with the EU.
Reaction to Brexit’s Passage
Unlike the raucous and theatrical debate normally associated with Brexit, the withdrawal agreement’s final passage was largely by the numbers and met with little resistance.
Thursday, when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced in the Commons that the Queen had given her royal assent, only a handful of members of parliament either threw cheers or jeers. Likely, this is a consequence of December’s sweeping elections.
However, that doesn’t mean MP’s and other lawmakers haven’t stifled their strong feelings for the agreement’s passage.
Just after the royal assent announcement, Scottish MP Ian Blackford said the U.K. is facing a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t support Brexit.
On Wednesday, member Alf Dubs—who had proposed the child refugee amendment—expressed his frustration on Twitter.
“It is bitterly disappointing that after a victory in the Lords, the government have voted down my amendment in the Commons,” he said. “What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?”
To note, one of the reasons Dubs is so passionate about the amendment is because he came to the U.K. as a child to escape Nazi persecution shortly before the start of the Second World War.
On the other hand, on Wednesday, after Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement, Johnson said in a statement, “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”
“Now we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future – with better hospitals and schools, safer streets and opportunity spread to every corner of our country,” he added.
What Happens Once the Divorce Becomes Official?
Following next week’s expected divorce, the U.K. will begin an 11-month transition period with the EU that is currently scheduled to end on January 1, 2021.
During that time, it will continue to follow most of the EU’s rules, but it won’t actually have any decision-making power in the EU.
The U.K. and the EU will also continue to hash out details of what their relationship will look like after that transition period. For example, that includes things like an ambitious free-trade deal, agriculture, and security.
As for negotiations, those are expected to start either sometime next month or in early March, but like how Brexit saw multiple extensions, a lot of EU officials believe this transition period will also need to be extended. Many believe 11 months is too short of a time frame to completely work out all of the details. Johnson, however, has refused to agree to any extensions.
At the same time, Johnson has also been vocal about getting a free-trade deal with the U.S. While in Davos at the World Economic Forum, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also indicated the U.S.’s desire for a trade deal, saying, “It’s an absolute priority of President Trump and we expect to complete that within this year.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that a trade deal shouldn’t be too hard because the U.S. and the U.K. have similar economies.
But the U.S. and U.K. are also currently in a disagreement over a so-called “tech tax.” That riff stims from the U.K.’s plan to introduce a digital services tax on tech companies like Facebook and Google. Mnuchin then threatened to retaliate by potentially slapping a tariff on U.K. car exports.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (The Independent) (Business Insider)
Greece Elects Katerina Sakellaropoulou as First Woman President
- Greece’s first female president was elected on Wednesday in an overwhelming majority vote.
- Beyond being a large step toward gender equality, Katerina Sakellaropoulou’s election to the largely ceremonial role was a rare display of unity in Greek politics.
- The high judge received support from lawmakers across all major political parties after being nominated as a nonpartisan candidate by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
- This was a notable move from the Prime Minister as all but one of the 18 senior positions in his Cabinet are currently held by men.
First Female President-Elect
History was made in Greece on Wednesday when Katerina Sakellaropoulou was chosen to be the nation’s first woman president.
The 63-year-old high court judge was elected to the largely ceremonial post by parliament in an overwhelming majority vote that showed unity among Greek politicians. She took the presidency in a 261-33 vote, well above the 200 votes needed to win, and received support from Greek lawmakers across all major political parties. Six members of parliament were not present.
After being notified of her election, Sakellaropoulou said she would strive for the “broadest possible consensus” while she fulfills her presidential duties.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis nominated Sakellaropoulou last week as a non-partisan candidate, a move some believe he took to counter the criticism he has faced for selecting nearly an all-male cabinet after he was elected in July 2019. In the current Greek Cabinet, all eighteen senior positions are held by men except for one.
Sakellaropoulou is a trailblazer in the effort to fix the gender imbalance in the country’s government. She has spent the last fifteen months serving as the president of the Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, and was the first woman to step into that role, too.
Sakellaropoulou will begin her five-year term in March, when the term of Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the current president, comes to an end.
Praise for Sakellaropoulou
Upon the news of Sakellaropoulou’s win, several prominent figures spoke up to express their support. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted that Greece is “moving ahead into a new era of equality.”
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, also applauded Sakellaropoulou on Twitter.
“A great signal to elect the Republic’s first female head of state,” Michel wrote. “I strongly believe that Greece will continue to contribute to the future development of the European Union.”
Prime Minister Mitsotakis described the new president-elect as “a great judiciary personality who unites all Greeks from the minute this procedure began.”