Puerto Rico is once again reeling from a devastating hurricane. Fiona was much weaker than Hurricane Maria in 2017 – whose damage has still not been fully repaired five years later – and Fiona’s core did not hit the center of the island directly. But its slow speed meant torrential rains that knocked out the entire power grid and left about a third of Puerto Ricans without clean water. Four days later, rescue efforts were still hard to reach people blocked by washed out roads and bridges.
Many immediate factors explain Puerto Rico’s continued vulnerability to hurricanes and economic dysfunction. But the fundamental problem is political inequality. It is an American colony: controlled by the United States government, but without any political representation for the people who live there. Until this inequality is corrected, it’s a safe bet that Puerto Rico will never fully recover.
The most immediate infrastructure problem in Puerto Rico is the power grid. Even before 2017, the system was aging and strained, dependent on polluting heavy oil generators whose fuel had to be imported at great expense. Maria basically shredded everything into ribbons. This damage and the chronic corruption within the electric utility prompted the island’s government and congressional-appointed oversight board (more on that later) to privatize the network in 2021selling control to a Canadian-American consortium called LUMA Energy.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. Not only did the network collapse dramatically in the recent hurricane, it suffered worsening power outages immediately after privatization, including a widespread power outage in April this year when the weather was calm. In November last year, a judge issued an arrest warrant for the CEO of LUMA for failing to provide documents to local legislators (although it was later overturned).
Meanwhile, as Kate Aronoff points out at The New Republiconly a tiny part of the $13.2 billion FEMA allocated for network repairs and upgrades after Maria was defunded and spent. As frustrated Puerto Ricans have installed solar panels on rooftops by the thousands, which worked great During the recent hurricane, utility-scale renewable energy investments were scarce. In mid-2022, the island got 95 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels, mainly oil and natural gas. The capital city of San Juan has come to depend on liquefied natural gas delivered by a private terminal.
Incidentally, one would think that wind turbines would be toppled by hurricanes, but older designs have withstood Category 4 windsand new models should be nearly hurricane proof. The main vulnerability is the grid itself, especially overhead power lines.
The larger context here is that Puerto Rico has been in difficult economic situation for over a decade. In previous decades, Congress granted it various tax exemptions that made its debt exceptionally attractive to investors and incentivized the island’s government to borrow heavily, but removed those provisions in 2006, just in time for the Great Recession. The resulting debt crisis was ‘resolved’ by law called PROMESA, signed by President Obama in 2016, which placed Puerto Rico under a de facto dictatorship of technocrats. (This is the council mentioned earlier; locals call it “La Junta.”) This council implemented a plan for partial debt restructuring coupled with a demand for massive Greek-style austerity and privatization, which only worsened the economic crisis and further fueled migration to the mainland.
Until this inequality is corrected, it’s a safe bet that Puerto Rico will never fully recover.
This clumsy policy, primarily the fault of the federal government, is the reason why Puerto Rico has not experienced economic growth in more than 20 years.
The situation in Puerto Rico demands a fundamental restructuring of its relationship with the mainland. We needed massive debt cancellation, the elimination of anachronistic business rules, and a rebuilding program to shift its power sources to renewables and strengthen its grid against storms. (It makes no sense for a sunny Caribbean island to burn so much imported and expensive oil, gas and coal.) It would also be beneficial to extend full social rights to its citizens – currently Puerto Ricans. receive less to Medicaid than mainlanders and are not eligible for Supplemental Security Income, even if they pay payroll taxes. All of this could re-pressurize the economy, revive growth and halt population loss.
But as long as Puerto Rico remains a colony, this solution is almost impossible to imagine. If the island had senators and representatives, they could demand action by leveraging their votes in Congress, especially when control is so tightly divided between parties, as it is today and is likely to remain so. It’s no coincidence that no real US state has ever been pushed around by the federal government like this.
Now statehood is controversial on the island. The most recent vote in 2020 found a clear majority in favour, but not a huge one, at 53% for versus 47% against.
I can understand why Puerto Ricans might be wary of joining a government that has treated them so badly over the years. But the most realistic prospect of getting the help the island deserves from this government is to send its own voting members to Congress where they can wield real power. The current Commonwealth status is clearly not working; formal independence would not solve the economic crisis and would still leave the island (like all small nations close to large rich nations) under American economic domination.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have every reason to create a new state that would likely tend to favor their party, even if it wouldn’t be a liberal lock, like the Puerto Ricans. are more conservative than is commonly supposed. But partisan politics aside, the existence of any settlement is a flagrant violation of the fundamental principles of democracy, regardless of its vote. There should be no taxation without representation.