US colonial policies behind Hurricane Fiona power blackout in Puerto Rico

September 27, 2022
Home in Puerto Rico destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017
Hurricane Maria caused widespread devestation across Puerto Rico in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Weaknesses in the electrical grid on the United States colony of Puerto Rico were exposed five years ago — in the aftermath of two Category Five hurricanes: Irma and Maria. Maria made a direct hit on the island and caused the most damage to the grid.

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 promised to rebuild the grid after Maria, but that was a lie.

Instead, the electrical system was privatised and sold to LUMA Energy, a Canadian-US company, in 2020. More and more power failures occurred and electricity costs rose, resulting in an explosion of protests in recent months, demanding LUMA be abolished.

Winds from local storms caused power outages. The latest island-wide blackout occurred even before Fiona made landfall, from weaker outlying winds.

The complete collapse of LUMA’s grid this month was an event foretold, and is connected to the exploitation of the colony by the US.

Washington encouraged US companies to invest in Puerto Rico, towards the end of the 20th century, by granting them tax breaks. This policy ended in 2005, and many companies left, resulting in a recession that began in 2006.

Government revenues collapsed. To maintain services, including electricity, the island issued bonds to raise more funds from US banks. To pay off loans, more cutbacks to social services were made. A vicious cycle set in, with more and more borrowing and austerity policies implemented, to meet previous loan repayments, including compounding interest.

In 2014, the colony’s government finally declared it could not pay any more on its debt, which had, by then, ballooned to US$75 billion.

In response, US Congress, under Barack Obama’s administration, appointed a fiscal control board to run the island’s finances and pay off the nominal debt price. By that time, the market price of the debt had drastically fallen, due to Puerto Rico’s inability to pay interest on its loans.

Congress passed an earlier law forbidding the colony to declare bankruptcy, something states and cities in the US can do. The US Congress has final say over Puerto Rico and can overturn any law the colony’s government passes.

The fiscal board introduced further austerity and squeezed the economy to begin to pay 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. The grid was allowed to deteriorate further under its rule, and was finally privatised in 2020, when LUMA took over.

The result? A week after Hurricane Fiona hit, half the island remained without electricity and the power outages led to a cascade of energy problems, including shortages of fuel, including petrol, to run backup generators.

Democracy Now!’s Puerto Rican correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila told DN! on September 20 that he, like many other Puerto Ricans, has been forced to find ways to cope with power blackouts over the past five years, “because we know that we cannot rely on the national electric grid, that is now privatised”.

Dávila uses a system he can plug into his car battery, which produces enough household current for a few hours before he needs to recharge. “The little electric power I have is because I’ve been preparing for this kind of situation.”

The situation is very unequal for Puerto Ricans, explained Dávila. “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.”

“Rather than really find a way to develop a community-oriented solution to solar panels like community microgrids,” said Dávila, the government is ignoring such initiatives and promoting individual solutions like rooftop solar that only wealthy people can afford.

“The solution has become individualised.”

The government has also prioritised the construction of beachfront resorts to attract American tourists, and the building of new and expensive homes.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, a former mayor of the capital San Juan, also spoke to DN!. Yulín was mayor when hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, and was filmed chest high in flood water leading relief efforts by civilians. She denounced then-President Donald Trump for making fun of the disaster and tossing paper towels to a crowd of Puerto Ricans when he visited San Juan after Maria.

“Puerto Rico is what happens when climate change goes wrong,” said Yulín Cruz. “But it can also be … an example of what can happen if solutions are put into place that put people at the community level and the disenfranchised first.”

Power blackouts mean that clean water cannot be pumped to reach inland communities and is impacting health, explained Yulín Cruz. “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.”

Yulín Cruz said US President Joe Biden “has the opportunity to show the world the goal of ‘not one life lost’ … with Maria, close to 4000 people lost their lives, because bureaucracy and inefficiency were the guiding principle, that aid was weaponised”.

Regarding Biden’s approval of financial disaster aid, Yulín Cruz said: “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 organisations and community organisations, that know exactly where each one of the people are and how much they need.”

Out of $9 billion allocated for the reconstruction of the grid after Hurricane Maria, only $40 million was used, said Yulín Cruz. US specialists deployed to the island should have “one goal, to lift up the electrical grid and to make sure that from now on when we rebuild … Congress has to make FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] accountable and has to make LUMA accountable”.

“To really think about the long term solutions in Puerto Rico, we have to address colonialism, right now embodied through the fiscal control board,” said Dávila, which has imposed austerity, cut public funding and privatised the electrical grid, “simply in order to pay an illegal debt to Wall Street bondholders”.

Biden’s aid promise has become clearer since the DN! program aired. Washington promises to pay 75% of the costs to rebuild damaged homes and businesses caused by Hurricane Fiona, with the remaining 25% to come from the Puerto Rican government and private organisations.

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.

We can be sure distribution of the aid will not be along the lines proposed by Yulín Cruz.

Community solutions are necessary, as the pro-US Puerto Rican government has proved to be an obstacle.

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