Puerto Ricans resist austerity measures and corporate corruption

5 years after PROMESA was signed into law which established the control of the Fiscal Control Board over the island’s economy, conditions in Puerto Rico are worse than ever before

October 20, 2021 by Monica Cruz
Protestors shut down Puerto Rico Highway 18 in San Juan on October 15, 2021. Photo: Twitter / @devilette

On October 15, protestors shut down Puerto Rico’s Highway 18 in the capital San Juan chanting “Fuera Luma!”, our “Out Luma”, demanding an end to the government contract with the private energy company, Luma Energy. Their cries were echoed at protests on the same day in New York City, Miami and Philadelphia. Three days later, protestors also rallied at the Capitol in San Juan to call for the stoppage of cuts to the public university, social services and public pensions.

A worsening economic crisis, compounded by brutal neoliberal policies, has ushered in a new wave of resistance in Puerto Rico. Nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line. More and more Puerto Ricans are leaving la patria (the homeland), in hopes of a better life in the United States. The archipelago has faced an onslaught of natural disasters, including the catastrophic Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a series of earthquakes throughout 2020.

On paper, Puerto Rico is a “commonwealth” of the United States, a term that implies a kind of shared prosperity between the two places. In practice, Puerto Rico is a nation struggling to breathe under centuries of colonialism. It’s economy is dictated by an unelected Fiscal Control Board composed of hedge fund managers and vulture capitalists, known as la junta, which saw its power enshrined into law with PROMESA in 2016.

“After four years of the passage of Hurricane María, the crisis that the country has experienced is one that has been very difficult to overcome,” Jocelyn Velazquez Rodriguez, an organizer with Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas said about the deterioration of conditions in Puerto Rico. “And once the hurricane passed, a country that had all these difficulties to recover from encountered two other calamities: the earthquakes of early 2020 and then the pandemic that has hit the whole world … the housing crisis continues, the infrastructure crisis continues, school shortages, schools destroyed and devastated by earthquakes, homes that lost their roofs and never recovered them.”

The electric grid disaster

Puerto Rico’s electric grid, a key element of the most recent protests, has undergone minimal repairs since Hurricane Maria caused boundless destruction. 80% of utility poles and transmission lines throughout the islands were destroyed. This damage was exacerbated by the series of earthquakes which battered the main island all throughout 2020 and early this year.

Since June, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets calling for the cancellation of the government’s $1.3 billion contract with the US-Canadian consortium Luma Energy. The 15-year contract was negotiated behind closed doors and wasn’t announced to the public until after it was signed last year. Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives voted unanimously against the contract, but that vote was overruled by la junta.

The publicly-run Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) retains ownership of its assets and continues to run power generation for the 3.3 million people that live in Puerto Rico. Luma Energy took over the distribution of energy across the archipelago from PREPA in June. In the days following, over a million Puerto Ricans lost power in rolling blackouts. On June 10th, an explosion at a main electrical substation in the San Juan suburb of Monacillo left an additional 800,000 people without power.

As of October 18, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is set to fund almost $10 billion toward Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure. The cost of power in Puerto Rico is higher than that in any of the 50 states.

At a recent US House Committee on Natural Resources hearing, Luma Energy CEO Wayne Stensby refused to answer questions about how many company executives earn over $200,000 and over $500,000 salaries.

A member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives and head of the energy commission Luis Raúl Torres Cruz sued Luma Energy over the summer in an effort to get this info. Luma appealed it in court.

The privatization of public services, rising costs for basic necessities, and less than transparent deals worth millions in public funds has become the norm in Puerto Rico. The damage wrought by Hurricane Maria created the perfect excuse for the islands’ Wall Street overlords to privatize what they could and shut down anything they couldn’t, or didn’t deem profitable enough. The electric grid is not the only essential service to be targeted by privatization, the housing, education, and healthcare to the water system and communication networks have all been under the threat of, or all-out attack, of privatization and debilitating austerity measures.

The disaster created by Wall Street

In 2016, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act or PROMESA into law, creating a legal framework to restructure the commonwealth’s $74 billion debt. It established the unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board known as la junta and gave it total control over Puerto Rico’s economy.

The Board has consistently made cuts to funding for the University of Puerto Rico as well as for Medicaid and Medicare. Hundreds of public schools and hospitals across the islands have closed. Puerto Rico’s historically public beaches are now under historic threat.

The wreckage of Hurricane Maria allowed foreign investors to buy up land for cheap and take advantage of the laws giving them generous tax breaks. Rising property costs in cities like San Juan and Ponce are fueling gentrification and locals are getting pushed out.

The median household income in Puerto Rico is $20,500 and the 9% unemployment rate continues to rise.

Jocelyn Velazquez Rodriguez described the impact PROMESA has had on the political consciousness of the Puerto Rican people: “PROMESA has been a mechanism that has revealed the true face of US imperialism. It is a law created for a colony, to serve of the imperial interests of the United States, and many Puerto Ricans who refused to accept that between Puerto Rico and the United States there has never been a contract, nor an agreement, nor a convention on this.”

She continued, “Now they have had to accept that we are a simple and mere colony, that we are at the disposal of the whim and the needs of the United States Senate and that our voices do not have any kind of value. PROMESA has definitely served to make people see in a more cruel, more bloody, and crude way, the serious problem of colonialism in which we live.”

Pa’lante siempre pa’lante, forward always forward

The people of Puerto Rico demonstrated their power back in 2019, when a popular movement to oust then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló was successful. Rosselló, the son of a former Puerto Rican governor, perfectly exemplified the corruption and greed of the archipelago’s misleadership. Two years after his resignation, a victory won by and for the people, Puerto Ricans are rising up once again to continue the work of dismantling neoliberalism and neocolonialism on the islands.

Velazquez Rodriguez emphasized, “These demonstrations, both during the [last year’s gubernatorial] elections and in the summer of 2019, with the ousting of Ricardo Rosselló, as well as the popular demonstrations that have consistently taken place in the country, are a sample of an awakening of a people that are tired of imperialism, the colonialism, the persecution and the suffering that it has caused us for so many years.”

Monica Cruz is a reporter with US-based media outlet Breakthrough News.