Hurricane Fiona and the impossible political situation in Puerto Rico
Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sunday. By then, the storm had been reclassified as a Category I Hurricane, with winds reported at 80 to 90 miles per hour. It is not the winds although that have been the major problem, although the electrical grid went down island-wide early on, but the rain. As I write this Monday, rain continues to fall heavily, and it is expected to continue for the rest of the day and tomorrow. Thus far, 18 to 25 inches of rain have been reported. Floods, landslides and collapsed bridges have already been reported, particularly in the southern part and the central mountain region of the island. Electricity has returned to certain metropolitan areas.
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi (D) declared a state of emergency early on, and President Biden approved, activating federal emergency funds. Hopefully, lessons have been learned from the slow (if we’re being charitable) response by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies. The political status question, and the fact that Puerto Rico does not have congressmen or senators to advocate for it, is of course never far from the conversation.
The Puerto Rico government response, both at the central and municipal level, appear to be better organized. It is still too early to estimate the extent of the damages, although it appears that they will not be as significant as when Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico in 2017.
Rightly so, all eyes are focused on the performance of the Puerto Rico Energy Authority (PREPA) and the current operator of the electrical transmission and distribution, LUMA Energy. It is fair to say that the energy question is the immediate fundamental question on Puerto Rico’s economic and political front. As made evident by the physical collapse of the electrical grid after Hurricane María in 2017, mirrored by PREPA’s bankruptcy under the legislation known as PROMESA, the lack of a trustworthy energy source, places Puerto Rico in an untenable position. Without it is impossible to restructure the economy, both in the private and public sectors, which still finds itself hostage to public debt financing models.
In this regard, the Financial Oversight and Management Board created by PROMESA to restructure Puerto Rico’s public debt has achieved some success, as for example its recent Debt Adjustment Plan. The board has not been as successful in restructuring PREPA debt, which faces the hostility of its creditors for self-evident reasons. This controversy, which is now before Judge Taylor Swayne at the Federal District Court under Title III of PROMESA, is perhaps the central economic issue facing Puerto Rico and which unfortunately, is not in the front news. It is not an exaggeration to say that without debt-restructuring the electrical grid — and therefore Puerto Rico’s economic development — will continue to be a sickly pawn to powerful stakeholders interests to the detriment of the common good.
Adding insult to injury LUMA Energy, which appeared as a solution to historical mismanagement by PREPA, has proven to be lead-footed in matters of public communications and operational transparency. Missteps in the last 12 months since it contracted to operate the transmission and distribution of the electrical grid have eroded any favorable public sentiment. You know you have a media problem when rapper Bad Bunny is the face of public criticism, even dedicating a song to the energy crisis, “El apagón,” which translates to “Blackout.”
It needs to be noted, however, that LUMA Energy is not solely responsible for the current situation, which it inherited. Both PREPA — which continues to be responsible for energy production — and the government of Puerto Rico are the historical parties responsible for the bankruptcy of the agency. Both have also been responsible for not taking the necessary aggressive steps for the development of renewable energy, notwithstanding its lip-service, condemning Puerto Rico to its dependency on fossil fuels and the volatility of the international energy markets. It is not reasonable to expect decades of mistakes, negligence and corruption to be corrected in just a year.
Notwithstanding, the last few weeks have seen a growing chorus of public officials complaining about LUMA’s lackluster performance, and the need to reconsider its service contract. Both Pierluisi, the Democratic governor, and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.), who represents the island as nonvoting member in Congress, for instance, have each respectively called for stricter supervision and contract review or cancellation. Their expressions need to be understood within the context of their growing political rivalry in the face of the 2024 elections.
The fact that there is no current alternative to replacing LUMA Energy should give all political actors pause, least they condemn Puerto Rico’s economy to continuously spiral down.
As one might expect, both the previous labor union UTIER and its political allies such as Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana are apparently trying to capitalize on the controversy, calling for a repeat of the summer of 2019 — when then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (R) was forced to step down. Their political opportunism has been clear for all to see. The main political opposition The Popular Democratic Party has joined in the criticism of LUMA Energy although it has failed to offer any viable alternative.
Hurricane Fiona is just the latest in a series of events that manifests the impossible political situation in which Puerto Rico finds itself. As an unincorporated territory, without representation in Congress, it cannot advocate for itself and must rely on the good graces of others. This is not a foundation on which to create a lasting democratic society.
The ongoing congressional ping-pong game regarding the Puerto Rico Status Act, for example, reminds us that not all ill-winds are from hurricanes.
Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico. He is also a columnist at the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico and the digital newspaper Microjuris al Día. He is also the author of the newsletter on Law and Literature Minima Juridicae at Substack.com.
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