On Sept. 17, 2017, the deadly Category 5 Hurricane Maria first devastated Dominica, then headed toward Puerto Rico, making landfall there as a Category 4 storm near Yabucoa on Sept. 20. Maria wiped out much of the island and killed thousands of Puerto Ricans; the exact number is still a matter of dispute.
I made a promise years ago to post or repost something on social media and/or at Daily Kos about post-Maria Puerto Rico every day. People ask, “Why do you do it, since you are not Puerto Rican?”
My answer: “Why not?”
RELATED STORY: Caribbean Matters: Five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the suffering continues
Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.
So here we are again: Another year has passed. In some ways, conditions on the island have worsened since Maria, complicated by and contributed to by Hurricane Fiona last year. One issue of great concern is the island’s piss-poor power situation, with ongoing blackouts and outages which have only increased since the utility was taken over by LUMA Energy, even as consumer costs increase.
RELATED STORY: Caribbean Matters: Fried electronics, sky-high energy bills— how LUMA's failures cost Puerto Ricans
Alexander C. Kaufman wrote an aptly titled story for HuffPost back in August titled, “Wall Street 'Vultures' Want Puerto Rico To Pay Even More For Electricity That Doesn't Work.”
Nearly six years after Hurricane María destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and triggered the second-longest blackout in world history, Raquel Maria Gonzalez Sparks still loses power weekly, if not daily. The nonstop outages — which many on the island say worsened after a private company took over the public power system in June 2021 — have left Gonzalez’s life in tatters.
She can’t complete her work as an independent contractor teaching and translating between English and Spanish when she can’t get online, and her income is already down by 25%. Voltage surges destroyed two computers, a refrigerator and a battery system. Grocery prices recently doubled, and the produce Gonzalez depends on as a vegetarian regularly spoils in her busted fridge when her useless stove and microwave can’t cook. Thieves steal all kinds of stuff under the cloak of night without power flowing to streetlights or security cameras.
The transformer down the block explodes at least once every two weeks, knocking out power for her entire neighborhood in a suburb of the sprawling capital city of San Juan. She needlessly burns through fuel as her car sits in traffic jams behind disabled stoplights. Her lungs ache from the air pollution spewed by her neighbors’ diesel generators that switch on during the extended blackouts that occur at least once per week. The roar of those generators all night keeps her from sleeping. The roasting heat on days when air conditioners don’t work raises her risk of heat stroke — as well as the risk for her 86-year-old mother.
And for all that, Gonzalez, like most Puerto Ricans, pays nearly twice the national average rate for electricity — a cruel reality for a U.S. territory with worse poverty than the poorest U.S. state. Businesses pay three times the national rate.
Puerto Ricans have not only continued to protest against LUMA, but community groups have been working to install energy alternatives, like solar. Groups like Queremos Sol are reaching out to allies in the States to garner support for their efforts.
NPR’s “All Things Considered” reported this week on the community-based solar efforts of Casa Pueblo.
SCOTT DETROW, HOST: Puerto Rico's electric power grid does not have a great track record when it comes to weathering powerful storms. Last year, Hurricane Fiona knocked out electricity for many across the island. And just six years ago, Hurricane Maria left large parts of Puerto Rico without power for months. That explains why many on the island favor building a decentralized grid, one that is more stable and more resilient and powered mostly by the sun. Our colleagues at Here & Now sent reporter Chris Bentley to look into this recently, and here's the story.
CHRIS BENTLEY, BYLINE: You can find what some people in Puerto Rico see as the future of the electric grid here in the mountains north of Ponce, where the Rio Cidra runs past the town square in Adjuntas. Even as the sun sinks behind the mountains, 14 businesses and two apartment buildings along the central plaza are running on solar power, thanks to two banks of batteries and some computers that orchestrate the flow of electricity among them. That is a microgrid - a self-reliant mini-utility run independently of the islandwide grid. Tucked behind a furniture store and a defunct gas station, there is a row of big, gray boxes, like industrial refrigerators. These are the guts of the Adjuntas microgrid.
BENTLEY: Cynthia Arellano is project manager for the Honnold Foundation, a nonprofit that helped Adjuntas build its microgrid. But the project started with Casa Pueblo, a local community organization that has run exclusively on solar for years.
CYNTHIA ARELLANO: So after Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo became this example of what you could have if there was solar, if there was an alternative to the grid that, at the moment, was down for over 11 months here in Adjuntas.
Tom Sanzillo, writing for The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis on Sept. 13, issued these key findings:
Low-cost solar energy would save Puerto Rico billions by lowering costs and rates for the electricity system, as well as boosting the economy.
The reasons for the rejections of proposals to settle bond debt over the last seven years have become evident; the latest plan that would reimburse lenders 23% of their bond values should be rejected, too.
Encouraging solar energy in Puerto Rico is a major management decision that involves a choice by island policymakers. They should choose solar over expensive and volatile natural gas, fuel oil and diesel sources.
If $14 billion in available federal funds are used prudently to reduce future debt costs for rebuilding the grid, then the impact of solar energy’s zero fuel costs can be maximized.
Activists and bloggers addressing climate change and energy issues here in the States should be following the efforts being undertaken in Puerto Rico. Consider the actions of this former Marine, reported last month by Bridgett Ennis for Yale’s “Climate Connections”:
Carlos Alberto Velázquez López is on a mission to make the island 100% powered by renewables before 2050. When Category 4 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, Carlos Alberto Velázquez López worked for a small solar installation company. What he saw in the aftermath — including some communities going without power for 11 months — was life-changing for the former U.S. Marine. No longer content with working on solar system installations for individuals, Velázquez López shifted his focus to helping entire communities.
Today, Velázquez López is the program director for Interstate Renewable Energy Council, or IREC, in Puerto Rico, which aims to rapidly expand access to renewable energy. He oversees the group’s solar business accelerator, helping remote and rural communities on the island achieve energy resiliency through the creation of community-centered microgrids made up of solar panels and battery storage.
Yale Climate Connections talked with Velázquez López about why this issue is important to him and about the microgrid projects IREC is spearheading in the remote mountain communities of Castañer and Maricao.
Beyond issues like the energy crisis on the island, I often get discouraged about the lack of press coverage and analysis of Puerto Rican politics by mainland English-language media. Puerto Rican politics are not simply a matter of Democrats and Republicans—island politics and alignments are deeply tied to the issue of status.
Republicans pay lip service to supporting statehood, while unfortunately, non-Puerto Rican stateside Democrats often repeat the mantra that “if Puerto Rico was a state, things would be so much better there.” As a Black American I seriously question that politically naive conclusion.
Within the Puerto Rican community—on both the island and mainland—there is a clear split between those who support statehood (most of whom, but not all, are Republican), those who want some form of continued relationship with the U.S., and the growing movement for independence that had been severely repressed for decades.
This Sept. 13 opinion piece from Alberto Medina, president of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, a group deeply focused on decolonization, speaks to the precarious position the island finds itself in. It’s a must-read.
Puerto Ricans on the island live like colonial subjects, under U.S rule yet without meaningful representation. That’s deeply undemocratic.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico. Since 1898, the island has existed in a political limbo: neither a state of the union nor a sovereign nation. To this day, Puerto Ricans remain, essentially, colonial subjects: living under U.S. rule without meaningful rights or representation in the U.S. government.
This unjust, undemocratic colonial status has endured, in part, because most Americans remain silent on it. Worse yet, many believe that silence is appropriate, and that it’s not up to Americans to take a position on Puerto Rico’s status.
That is wrong. Americans’ views on this issue should be informed by those of Puerto Ricans, but they need not be wholly dependent on them. Americans should not speak for Puerto Ricans, but they must speak with us on an issue that involves our two nations, both as a matter of moral responsibility and as a prerequisite for effective political action.
The idea that it’s up to Puerto Ricans to resolve this issue makes for a nice talking point, but it’s unmoored from reality. Congress has plenary power over Puerto Rico, including the power to ignore this issue altogether, which it has exercised for decades and continues to do today.
It can be difficult for many Americans in the U.S. to see the United States government as a colonizer. Most mainstream media, when referring to Puerto Rico, simply call it a “territory” without discussing or perhaps even considering why “colony” is a far more apt descriptor.
How do you feel about this?
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