Pedro Pierluisi was sworn in as governor of Puerto Rico Saturday, promising to crush Covid-19, kick start a moribund economy and lead the U.S. territory out of a historic bankruptcy.
Pierluisi, 61, the island’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from 2009 to 2017 and Secretary of Justice from 1993 to 1996, narrowly won election in November on a pro-statehood, pro-business platform.
He’ll be facing political headwinds. He won the governor’s race with just 33% of the vote — a historically thin margin — and he and his New Progressive Party will be facing a divided and combative legislature.
He asked his political rivals to set aside their differences.
“You’re not our enemy,” he said during his swearing in. “Our enemy is Covid-19 and other diseases. We have to work together against the pandemic so that we can resume our lives, our work and the education of our children.”
One of his first major tests will come in February when the federal board overseeing Puerto Rico’s financeswill file a new proposal to restructure about $18 billion of island debt and lay out plans to begin repaying creditors for the first time since 2016.
“We are going to work hard to leave the government’s bankruptcy behind and attract investment,” he said.
He also promised to quickly tap billions of federal aid to rebuild the island after the 2018 hurricane season and series of damaging earthquakes in 2020.
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Pierluisi begins his four-year term as the Caribbean island is emerging from a period of political instability. In August 2019, then-Governor Ricardo Rossello named Pierluisi his No. 2 shortly before resigning amid corruption allegations and mass protests. But Pierluisi’s stint as accidental governor was quickly overturned by the courts, paving the way for Wanda Vazquez — then the Justice Secretary — to take the top spot.
Pierluisi’s swearing-in ceremony has been controversial. At a time when there are strict curfews and limits on gatherings in place to contain the spread of the coronavirus, he invited 400 VIPs to his inauguration. His campaign says it minimized the risks by holding the ceremony outside and requiring attendees to present negative Covid-19 tests. In addition, attendance seemed light.
Speaking in front of the domed legislative building that faces the sea, Pierluisi said he would pursue his long-term dream of making the island the 51st U.S. state. Some 52% of the population voted in favor of statehood during a non-binding referendum in November.
“The people have made a clear statement and we are obliged to listen,” Pierluisi said. “Statehood is just, dignified and possible.”
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