“I hurt for Puerto Rico,” a Boricua friend of mine recently told me. It’s no wonder. The island is ever so slowly recovering from the worst environmental catastrophe in its history amid the federal government’s neglect, while vulture capitalists circle Puerto Rico’s soul.
I profess a profound admiration for a people who under devastating circumstances refuse to bend their knees. And we all witnessed this during the recent May Day National Strike that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in San Juan against the draconian austerity measures imposed by the local government, and the Financial Oversight Board, which was created by the US Congress to manage the island’s $70-billion debt.
“The disaster capitalists, the Trump administration, and even leaders in our own local government want to force the people of Puerto Rico to sell off our public assets in order to meet unjust debt obligations to international banks,” said José Menéndez, Chapter Chair for Sierra Club de Puerto Rico. “We will not allow hurricanes María and Irma to be used as an excuse to rob the people of Puerto Rico of our most valuable assets.”
One of those assets is the energy sector, which is of special relevance because it took seven months to re-establish the electrical power on the island, after hurricanes María and Irma caused the worst blackout in US history. In February, Governor Ricardo Rosselló proposed to privatize Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA) —a public utility now under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection— and pare down the Energy Commission, the entity in charge of the oversight of PREPA.
“We will not allow hurricanes María and Irma to be used as an excuse to rob the people of Puerto Rico of our most valuable assets.”
José Menéndez, Sierra Club Puerto Rico
The scandal of Whitefish Energy —a two-employee company with ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that obtained a $300-million contract to repair the island’s electrical grid— illustrates the great dangers of privatization of such a crucial asset. Months ago, PREPA approved the no-bid Whitefish contract, and after just a few weeks of sheer incompetence and accusations of corruption, Gov. Rosselló cancelled it, and the FBI started investigating it. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans remained without power.
Ninety-nine percent of Puerto Rico’s energy comes from imported fossil fuels, which makes the island’s electricity twice as expensive as the US average. And now the island’s government proposes to replace the obsolete electrical power system with more fossil fuel plants and even a garbage incinerator.
The island has a historic opportunity to build a grid based on clean energy —such as microgrids of solar power— that would turn Puerto Rico into a national leader in the development of clean, decentralized technologies benefiting all Puerto Ricans as well as making it more resilient to extreme weather events.
In order to achieve this, however, and to rebuild 500,000 homes and most of the island’s infrastructure devastated by María, Congress must fully fund the recovery of the island, which has been estimated to be approximately $90 billion.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz calls the federal response to the island’s worst-ever catastrophe “a violation of our human rights.” It’s not only about granting the resources for a just and fair reconstruction that benefits all. It’s also about treating our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters as first-class citizens.
Because we all hurt for Puerto Rico.
By Javier Sierra
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC.