By Barry Sheppard
Five years ago the rickety electrical grid on the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico was exposed in the aftermath of two powerful Category Five hurricanes, Irma and Maria. It was the latter storm that made a direct hit and caused the most damage.
The blackout that engulfed the island when a much weaker Category One hurricane, Fiona, hit on September 18, laid bare that the system was even more fragile and in worse shape than in 2017.
Washington had promised to rebuild the grid after Maria, but that promise was a lie.
After the electrical system was privatized and sold in 2020 to LUMA, a Canadian-U.S. company, more and more power failures in different localities and rising electricity costs resulted in an explosion of protests in recent months demanding LUMA be abolished.
These outages were caused by ordinary winds from local storms. The recent island-wide blackout occurred before Fiona’s hurricane force winds made landfall. It was caused by weaker outlying winds.
When LUMA’s grid completely collapsed this month, it was an event foretold.
To understand why this happened, it is necessary to give a brief outline of how U.S. exploitation of the colony developed this century.
Before 2000, Washington had encouraged U.S. companies to invest in Puerto Rico by granting them tax breaks. This was ended in 2005, and many companies left, resulting in a recession beginning in 2006.
Revenues to the government collapsed, and to maintain services including electricity, the island issued bonds to borrow more and more from U.S. banks. To pay off loans, more cutbacks to social services were made. A vicious circle set in, with more and more borrowing and austerity policies implemented to meet previous loan’s payments, including interest which rose due to compounding.
In 2014, the colony’s government finally declared it could not pay any more on its debt, which had ballooned to $75 billion.
In response, the U.S. Congress, under the Obama administration, appointed a fiscal control board to run the island’s financial system and to pay off the debt in full – despite the fact that the market price of the debt had drastically fallen, due to inability to pay.
Congress had earlier passed a law forbidding the colony to declare bankruptcy, which states and cities in the U.S. can do. So, even though Puerto Rico was bankrupt, it could not declare bankruptcy.
The US. Congress has always had final say over Puerto Rico. It could overturn any law the colony’s government passed.
The fiscal board introduced further austerity and squeezed the economy to begin paying the debt. The electrical system was allowed to deteriorate, repairs were not made, and when Maria and Irma hit in 2017, the system was in disarray.
Under the rule of the U.S. fiscal board, the electric system was allowed to deteriorate further, and was finally privatized in 2020, with LUMA taking over.
We see the results with Fiona. A week after the hurricane, half the island remains without electricity.
Reuters reports that “Puerto Rico’s widespread power outages caused by Hurricane Fiona have led to cascading energy problems for the island, where fuel distribution limitations and surging demand for fuel to run backup generators has left many gas stations dry.”
On September 20, Democracy Now! interviewed its Puerto Rican correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila and the former mayor of the capital San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz.
Carmen Yulín was the mayor when Irma and Maria hit, and was shown on TV chest high in flood water spearheading relief efforts by civilians.
She denounced then President Trump for his grotesque and cruel response when he visited San Juan after Maria. He made fun of the disaster in a show of disrespect when he tossed paper towels to a crowd that came to hear him.
Carlos Dávila explained that “The little electric power I have is because I’ve been preparing for this kind of situation.” He had gotten a system that he could plug into his car battery, with the electronics to produce house current, that would give him a few hours before he had to recharge.
“Like myself, many people in these last five years have found different ways to cope because we know that we cannot rely on the national electric grid, that is now privatized ….”
He said that the real problem is that the situation is very unequal. “The people who have more power and money have been able to install solar panels, have been able to disconnect from the grid, and the people who are poor and the working class have been left with this electrical system that basically doesn’t work.”
He said that the government is promoting that wealthier people individually install solar panels, “rather than really find a way to develop a community-oriented solution to solar panels like community microgrids” that environmental organizations are putting forward, “based on rooftop solar, but connected through communities with community microgrids.
“But this is not what happened. The solution has become individualized.”
Also, the government has prioritized beachfront resorts to attract Americans, and the building of new expensive homes.
Yulín Cruz is now in the U.S., in Massachusetts, where she is Weissman fellow at Mount Holyoke College.
She told Democracy Now! “What we are seeing is tragedy unravel once again. Puerto Rico is what happens when climate change goes wrong. But it can also be, like Juan Carlos was mentioning, an example of what can happen if solutions are put into place that put people at the community level and the disenfranchised first.”
She also explained that the cut-off of electricity meant that clean water cannot reach people further from the coast because pumping stations that pipe water to higher elevations rely on electricity. “They start washing dishes in the creeks and rivers…. So, this hurricane is a crisis that begets another crisis, a health crisis, leptospirosis, people getting sick from not having appropriate drinking water.
“The Biden administration has the opportunity to show the world the goal of not one life lost, not one. As [Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman] mentioned, with Maria, close to 4,000 people lost their lives, because bureaucracy and inefficiency were the guiding principle, that aid was weaponized.”
Community solutions are necessary, as the pro-U.S. Puerto Rican government has proved to be an obstacle.
Carmen Yulín referred to Biden’s declaring a national disaster in Puerto Rico and promise of financial aid.
She proposes that “number one, send the aid directly to all 78 municipalities …. That distribution has to be robust and has to be people-centered and community centered, meaning not only to give aid to the government at the municipal level, but also give it to religious organizations and community organizations, that know exactly where each one of the people are and how much do they need.
“And, I think of the utmost importance, is everyone must be deployed, whether it is people from different electrical authorities within the U.S., with one goal, to lift up the electrical grid and to make sure that from now on when we rebuild — last week it was mentioned in Congress that of $9 billion allocated for the reconstruction of the grid [after Maria], only $40 million have been used — so Congress has to make FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] accountable and has to make LUMA accountable.”
Juan Carlos added, “To really think about the long-term solutions in Puerto Rico, we have to address colonialism, right now embodied through the fiscal control board imposed by the United States Congress.”
The control board has imposed austerity and cut public funding including the privatization of the electrical grid, he said, “simply in order to pay an illegal debt to Wall Street bondholders.”
Subsequent to the Democracy Now! broadcast, it has become clearer just what the aid Biden promised is. Washington promises to pay 75 percent of the costs to rebuild damaged homes and businesses caused by Fiona’s winds and torrential rains, with the remaining 25 percent coming from the Puerto Rican government and private organizations.
We can be sure distribution of the aid will not be along the lines proposed by Carmen Yulín Cruz.
There is no mention of the necessity of rebuilding the electrical grid, but hopefully immediate repairs to it are included, since LUMA is a business.