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Hurricane Maria

Don't privatize Puerto Rico's electric power

By MST - Socialist Worker, January 30, 2018

In late January, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to privatize the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA, by its initials in English; AEE by its Spanish initials). It is a terrible, but not unexpected, stage in a still-disastrous situation, where as many as one-third of residents remain without power four months after Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

Rosselló, whose promise to have 95 percent of power restored by Christmas went by the board, said his government "will sell shares in AEE to firms that will transform the power generation system." His televised address was filled with the well-worn buzzwords used to justify previous schemes for privatizing other public services, like health care, telecommunications and the island's main airport. The new system, Rosselló said, will be "modernized and less costly" and "consumer-centered...where you will have choices."

At a press conference after Rosselló's January 23 address, Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, president of the electrical workers union (UTIER, in its Spanish initials), brushed off the governor's claims, saying "We will never fall for the government' game of using the people's suffering [to push through its agenda]."

In the face of these developments, the socialist newspaper Bandera Roja, published by the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras (MST, or Socialist Workers Movement), published the following statement denouncing the long history of corruption and mismanagement of the power authority under the island's two main parties, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and Rosselló's New Progressive Party (PNP). The statement also notes how the years of austerity under PREPA's restructuring officer, the corporate "turnaround" specialist Lisa Donahue, weakened the power grid further.

Puerto Rico’s Power Union Denounces Governor’s Decision to “Sell the Assets” of the Public Power Utility (PREPA)

By Angel Figueroa Jaramillo - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, January 23, 2018

UTIER DENOUNCES GOVERNOR’S ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE PRIVATIZATION OF THE PUBLIC POWER UTILITY (AEE, OR PREPA)*

San Juan, Puerto Rico, January 23rd, 2018

The Union of Workers of the Electric and Irrigation Industry (UTIER) denounces Governor Ricardo Rossellá’s announcement to privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The announcement demonstrates the insensitivity of this government and leaves clear that the welfare of the people is not among the interests of the current Governor.

UTIER has been consistent in denouncing the privatization plans of various government administrations and also the recent intentional slowness in the process of restoring the electrical system.

The Governor is taking advantage of the pain of thousands of people who are currently without electric power. Given the insensitivity of Governor Ricardo Rosellá of announcing the privatization of PREPA in the midst of the suffering of almost half a million Puerto Ricans who still do not have electricity, UTIER once again raises its voice in favor of the people. We have tried through our brigades to restore electric power as soon as possible, despite all the obstacles that the government, the Engineers brigade, the Board of Fiscal Control, and the upper management of PREPA have erected to try to prevent us achieving that goal.

For decades we have warned how various administrations have undermined workers and intentionally damaged the infrastructure of PREPA. This was intended to provoke the people’s discontent with the service in order to privatize our first industry, “the jewel in the crown”, to strip us—the people—of what is ours. “Because PREPA is a public good that belongs to the people and not to the politicians,” said the president of the UTIER, Angel Figueroa Jaramillo.

Figueroa Jaramillo explained how, since the 1970s, governments of the two main parties have tried to privatize PREPA. In each of these attempts, UTIER has reacted immediately, warning the people what this would mean for the country.

“We asked, how come it was possible that, facing so much devastation left by the hurricanes, that we would prioritize hiring a company such as Whitefish, which did not have the staff or experience to handle an emergency like the one we had gone through? Then we met the endless irregularities in the awarding of the contract that was signed with Whitefish and the powerful political links it has with the current US administration. Everything we said was proven to be correct and has been so in every complaint we have made over decades”, said Figueroa Jaramillo.

The President of UTIER insisted, “The position of UTIER is that electricity is a human right and not a commodity. That is what our people have realized after the ravages of hurricanes Irma and Maria, after having run out of electricity and suffering so many hardships and the loss of family members, either because they have died or had to leave the country. That is why we strongly oppose privatization in any of its expressions, whether through the transfer of assets or the transfer of management to private companies. We ask the people the following question so that they think clearly about it: If PREPA was not profitable and able to generate profits, would there be a company that wanted to acquire it?”

The president of the UTIER urged people to also remember the declarations of the Board of Fiscal Control (JCF) a year ago in which it presented the privatization of PREPA as one of its goals. “We cannot leave the heritage that belongs to us–-the people—in private hands. And one of them is PREPA. Because if at some point we face another atmospheric phenomenon such as the ones to which we are exposed every year during hurricane season, we already know how the private generators AES and Ecoelectrica will react: turning off their machinery in order not to lose their investment. That’s what they did on this occasion. They are not worried about the suffering of the people. That situation cannot be repeated and if PREPA is privatized, that is what’s in store for us. Furthermore, we must not be deceived: privatization increases the electric bill and makes us more vulnerable as the people. Let’s not allow the main industry for the development of our country to be stolen from us. Let’s not wait for it to happen”, added Figueroa Jaramillo.

Puerto Rico’s Decision to Privatize Power Coupled with Trump’s Alarming Infrastructure Plan Spells Out Devastation for Vulnerable Communities

By Wenonah Hauter - Common Dreams, January 23, 2018

“In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people are still reeling from the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria. In a time of such dire need, the Trump administration has failed to provide the support needed to restore water to 7 percent of Puerto Rican residents and power to the nearly one in three residents going without, paving the way for today’s catastrophic announcement. The decision to privatize Puerto Rico’s state-owned power company follows the same dangerous path mapped out in the Trump administration’s draft infrastructure plan.

“Whether it’s water or energy, privatization helps Wall Street at the expense of the wellbeing and health of communities, particularly low-income families and people of color. The leaked infrastructure plan from the Trump administration similarly provides a blueprint for handing over our public land and public water to Wall Street. It seeks to privatize our local water systems and other critical public services, prioritizing limited federal dollars to Wall Street and corporate investors. This scheme would also sell off federal assets and create a new infrastructure fund by opening up federal lands and waters to mineral and energy development benefiting the oil and gas industry.

“A just and equitable infrastructure plan would dedicate funding for water systems, have a progressive revenue stream, and prioritize vulnerable communities with the greatest affordability and public health needs like Puerto Rico. This plan does none of this.

“Federal funding for water infrastructure is at its lowest point in decades. Instead of reversing the decline, Trump’s plan provides zero dollars to the highly successful State Revolving Fund programs, which are the main source of federal support for our local water and sewer systems. Meanwhile, it seeks to open up the clean water fund to private entities. This amounts to taking away existing federal money from our local governments to give to big water corporations.

“From Flint to Puerto Rico, our communities deserve better from our leaders. Our public water systems need dedicated, annual federal support to make sure that every person in our country has safe and affordable water.”

Dreaming With Our Hands: On Autonomy, In(ter)dependence, and the Regaining of the Commons

By Mutual Aid Disaster Relief - It's Going Down, January 9, 2018

“It was like an atomic bomb went off” a local Boricua, as people born in Puerto Rico are often called, is saying about the view of the mountains the day after Maria passed. “Every branch, and every tree, was torn apart and broken, and scattered everywhere. Every green area was gray and brown.” The view now, almost three months after las tormentas, is eerie. The greenery is back, but the forests are very bare compared to how they were. Things can appear to be normal, except for the 60 foot telephone pole hanging over the edge of a cliff here, or leaned over at 45 degree angles onto a building there. As long as they still carry power to their destinations they’re left alone, even doubled over, to triage the other downed poles that are actually causing disruptions in the grid. These remnants of devastation can be seen everywhere, and everywhere there are people getting by and adapting to the changes Irma and Maria left behind with whatever limited tools are at their disposal.

I, a Brooklyn born Puerto Rican, arrive in Puerto Rico, or as the native Taíno people call it, Boriké, and meet up with a small team of two traveling partners. Our visits to Caguas on my first week were breathtaking, getting to know people, and watching the amazing projects that communities here are putting together. The town itself is very old, largely abandoned and magnificently beautiful. The streets in the pueblo are narrow and the buildings made of cement, painted bright pastel colors, with old Spanish architectures. Everywhere lay murals with sayings of hope, independence and resistance. In our short visits, we were able to glimpse how people here have begun rebuilding their lives, coming together to reimagine the kind of world they want to create.

Since before the hurricanes, the downtown neighborhoods were losing their small shops and local markets to the incurring large chain stores that sprouted up less than a mile away. Still, one immediately gets the sense that this town is full of cultural life and spirit much different from that felt in wealthier neighborhoods, like the gated community in Guaynabo we stayed in. In traveling to different parts of the island, we can see houses on the coast of Aguadilla that were cut in half by mini landslides, and traffic lights and highway signs stashed beside the roads with the piles of detritus and branches.

We’re on the northwestern part of the main highway that encircles the island now, and traffic comes to a halt for a half hour. It was raining for only 20 minutes, but it left a 4 foot deep puddle along a large stretch of the often overcrowded road. As we finally reach the end of the bottleneck, we see the flooding is being manually fixed by a single worker in swamp boots unclogging the drainage holes with a broomstick. I get the sense this is an example of how the municipalities in Puerto Rico aren’t equipped to properly handle the crisis.

In speaking with people, it comes as no surprise to them either that the government isn’t doing much to resolve the problems here. As many non-Boricuas are only now discovering, the island’s government has been suffocated with public debts, issued and purchased by predatory Wall Street hedge funds. Aligning with what has now become a global custom with these kinds of debts, Puerto Rico’s creditors are forcing the island’s government to enact austerity measures on the population, with help from the US and its Fiscal Oversight and Management Board. This Board is an unelected entity established by the US Congress to decide how Puerto Rico spends the tax revenue collected from its people.

“They don’t serve the interests of Puerto Ricans,” Maritza, a local community organizer says, “They serve the interests of Wall Street.” She explains how the Board members assign themselves their own salaries. “The chair of the Board decided to make $625k this year, and overall the Board costs $300 million to operate, paid for by Puerto Rican tax dollars.” It’s their job to make sure Wall Street hedge funds can keep getting payments from Puerto Rico’s unquenchable debt, and in the process, ensure that Puerto Rico never has a prosperous and self-sufficient economy. By gutting funding for healthcare, education, food assistance, public sector jobs and critical infrastructure development, this policy instead ensures a continually collapsing economy. Maritza describes the Board as wanting “to keep us like a banana republic, a place with only low-wage jobs for corporations to profit off of,” and I believe her. FEMA and the Puerto Rican government failed in meeting people’s basic needs after the storms, but in their absence, I’m told old and new community organizations took the lead and saved many lives.

Puerto Rico teachers fight to reopen schools

Mercedes Martinez interviewed by Peter Lamphere - Socialist Worker, January 4, 2018

Months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leading to hundreds of deaths and devastating much of the island's infrastructure, ordinary Puerto Ricans are still struggling to put their lives and communities together--with little help from the U.S. government.

In November, Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR)--a teachers' union that has organized against school closures and attacks on public education for many years--talked to New York City educator Peter Lamphere about how teachers are continuing the fight to rebuild Puerto Rico and what others can do to help.

In early November, 18 FMPR members were arrested as part of a civil disobedience action demanding the reopening of schools and drawing attention to the threat posed by advocates of neoliberalism--who view the hurricane as an opportunity to privatize public education and further weaken the power of the teachers' union.

P is For Privatization

By Camille Baker and Lydia McMullen-Laird - The Indypendent, December 27, 2017

When Nilda Sánchez and her children ventured outside after Hurricane Maria waged a direct hit on Puerto Rico, aluminum road signs were crumpled by the highway near their house and trees crisscrossed each other like slain animals in the street. The power and water were off, and remained so for six weeks. It was nearly three months before Sánchez learned whether another of the mainstays in her family’s life would be restored: her son’s education.

Sebastián, Sánchez’s 9-year-old son, had been receiving therapy for his learning disabilities at Instituto Loaiza Cordero, a public school in their San Juan neighborhood. Already the school had been shut down following Hurricane Irma’s sweeping of the island Sept. 6. For the next three months, Sánchez had no word on how much damage the school had sustained in the storms, and no inkling of whether or when it would reopen.

Their hardships multiplied. Sánchez began to worry that Sebastián, who suffers from developmental delays in hand-eye coordination and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was regressing without therapy and the routine of school. Child support payments from Sánchez’s ex-husband — whom she left, she said, after he became abusive toward her — stopped coming, slipping through the cracks of administrative upheaval. Without anywhere else to be, Sebastián had to accompany Sánchez to the few job interviews she could find in the hurricane’s wake.

Sánchez says Hurricane Maria opened her eyes to the “cruelty” of living in bureaucratic limbo.

Corporate profiteers plunder Puerto Rico

By Roberto Barreto - Socialist Worker, December 20, 2017

CORPORATIONS ARE making out like bandits from hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. The wheeling and dealing behind the scenes is enriching the few, to the tune of millions of dollars in government contracts, at the expense of the many on the island.

The vultures are making off with millions in contracts that include inflated rates of pay, which were agreed upon through a highly suspect and corrupt process. The elites are also trying to get away with privatizing the few public services that we have left.

But these aren't even the worst aspects of the whole contracting process in Puerto Rico today. The main problem with these deals and government-awarded contracts is that they hold back desperately needed reconstruction efforts at every step of the way. The politicians and business people are squandering time and resources while Puerto Rico continues to reel.

Facing Massive Discrepancy, Puerto Rico Governor Demands Recount of Hurricane Maria Deaths

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, December 18, 2017

Following numerous reports that Hurricane Maria's death toll in Puerto Rico has been drastically under-counted by more than one thousand casualties, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló ordered an official recount of deaths related to the storm.

"This is about more than numbers, these are lives: real people, leaving behind loved ones and families," said Rosselló in a statement on Monday. "Every death must have a name and vital information attached to it, as well as an accurate accounting of the facts related to their passing."

Analysis by the New York Times has shown that the hurricane has led to far more casualties than the 64 that have been officially reported. While relatively few deaths may have been directly caused by the storm, the Times found that between Maria's landfall on September 20 and early December, 1,052 more Puerto Ricans had died than had over the same period of time in 2016.

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI), based on the island, found an even bigger discrepancy, reporting that 1,065 more people had died in September and October than in the previous year—a rise in mortality that could only be attributed to the storm, said the group. CPI blamed the huge gap in reporting on "the poor methodology being used to analyze and account for cases."

The higher-than-reported death toll is likely related to a lack of clean drinking water for many residents and the power outage that is still affecting nearly a third of the island.

While President Donald Trump insisted in early October that 16 people had died as a result of Hurricane Maria, 556 more deaths than usual had been counted by demographers since the storm. Around the same time, at least one million people were resorting to drinking water from Superfund sites and hospitals were struggling to care for people with diabetes, kidney disease, and other conditions, amid the power outage.

Rosselló has previously stood by the official count of 64 deaths. On social media, critics praised his call for a review of the death toll.

The Invisibility of Poverty in Puerto Rico

By Oscar Oliver-Didier - CounterPunch, December 11, 2017

It has been more than two months since Hurricane María, a catastrophic category four hurricane, took a heavy toll on Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and dismally affected its local residents. People in the mainland saw pictures and videos of entire communities being physically disconnected due to bridges collapsing and roads being covered with debris. The news cycle kept repeating how extremely difficult it was to send rescue teams and aid to these heavily hit areas. And it is pretty common to know by now that any form of communication was basically inexistent—due to cellphone towers being torn down by strong winds—and that 100 percent of users were left without electricity right after the storm. Although some improvements have occurred, to this date, not much has changed. Only a little over half of the island has recovered electrical power—mostly intermittently.

Even though it has lost its persistent media coverage, what this dire aftermath and the subsequent relief and recovery effort have revealed is the island’s century-old unequal colonial relationship with the United States, and the local elites’ role in sustaining it. Recent controversy over the mishandling of the humanitarian crisis after Hurricane María should not surprise anyone. In the territory, as subaltern subjects, Puerto Ricans have been continuously subjected to a capitalist and racial hierarchical system.

These unjust core-periphery relations are a still evolving colonial condition that has made the territory a contested realm for economic extraction and injustices since the U.S. invaded the island in 1898. In fact, there is a similar case that dates back to an 1899 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico called San Ciriaco—after which the U.S. quickly moved to devalue the local currency, raise property taxes, and put in place a corporate takeover of land that unleashed the sugarcane economic boom of this period.

As multiple recent news articles have highlighted, it has also laid bare the extreme inequality and conditions of poverty present throughout the U.S territory. Even the politically vocal Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz pronounced recently in an interview that: “We will no longer be able to hide our poverty and our inequality with palm trees and piña coladas.”

It is important to note, however, that Puerto Rico has had a long history of obscuring poverty—especially after the Operation Bootstrap program was implemented in the island during the mid-twentieth century. This expedited modernization project was to become the Cold War’s antithesis to communist Cuba. Deemed a beacon for freedom and a laboratory for democracy in Latin America, huge amounts of federal money were transferred from the mainland to the territory in order to showcase Puerto Rico as capitalism’s success story.

However, this process of modernization was not working hand in hand with a long-term economic project that would actually lift most islanders out of poverty—today, more than 40 percent of residents live under the federal poverty line. By the 1970s, the economy started a downturn, so in 1976 Section 936 of the U.S. tax code was created to grant mainland corporations a tax exemption from their incomes originating from its Puerto Rico subsidiaries. Without a strong local economy—just a huge profit increase for mainland companies—when the tax exemption finally expired in 2006, Puerto Rico was left in economic shambles and has not recovered since.

Remake Puerto Rico’s power grid and create a universal basic income

By Elsie Bryant  - Climate Change News, December 6, 2017

Hurricane Maria, which made landfall at the end of September, left the island of Puerto Rico without energy, as more than three-quarters of its energy infrastructure was lost to the storm.

As Puerto Ricans sought help in restoring power to the people, for green energy enthusiasts, the destruction of Hurricane Maria was an opportunity to rethink – not just rebuild – Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure by going off-grid with solar energy.

Puerto Rico has a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink how it gets electricity”, wrote Earther journalist, Brian Kahn; “Solar industry wants to build Puerto Rico’s grid of the future” was the Bloomberg headline. Even the energy and environment minister for the Maldives, Thoriq Ibrahim, weighed in: “Puerto Rico hurricane shows islands must have renewable energy,” he wrote. Elon Musk has been one of the more prominent players in the space, with his company Tesla offering solar systems and batteries.

While any move away from fossil fuels is welcome, we need to think bigger about what resilience could mean for Puerto Rico. There’s an even larger opportunity here to transform Puerto Rico, where before the natural disaster happened, an economic and social crisis has been playing out for nearly a decade.

Puerto Rico’s economy has been in recession for over 10 years, the population is in drastic decline and the household income is less than half of what it is in the poorest US state. All the while, the island’s debt burden continues to grow, making private firms very rich. A resilient Puerto Rico needs not just a new grid but a new economic system, one that is localised and community driven, with Puerto Ricans owning and managing those resources.

This is not a vision that Puerto Ricans are waiting for the wider world to bring to them. Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, head of Utier, the electrical workers’ union in Puerto Rico, told reporters “solar power and wind power in Puerto Rico is really the key to the future of the island’s energy independence”, adding that “all the alternatives have to be owned by the community”.

The benefits of community ownership are clear when the evidence shows that some of the most resilient communities following the hurricane were cooperatives such as the Cooperativa de Vivienda Ciudad Universitaria. The co-op is a community of over 1000 people, who as the Orlando Sentinel reported, “learned to formalise the neighbour-to-neighbour mentality so well that in situations of crisis – such as this one – they don’t have to wait for the government to show up or feel the need to flee”.

Thinking even more radically, the gains of a commons-based solar network, could be extended by advocating that dividends from any energy sold back to the grid could be redistributed to every Puerto Rican as a basic income.

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