Puerto Ricans Ready to Oust LUMA & Forge a New Energy Future

in Politics by

Leading up to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure was already in poor condition. Puerto Rico—which has the potential to harness massive amounts of solar and maritime energy—also lacks energy diversity, with almost 98 percent of its electricity being generated by fossil fuels.

After Hurricane Maria devastated the energy grid and contributed to a months-long blackout across Puerto Rico, local authorities focused their efforts on the short-term goal of restoring power. Yet, the long-term need to develop a sustainable energy grid was not just overlooked, but ignored for decades. 

After the 2017 hurricanes, Puerto Rico’s public power utility, Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE), lacked access to much-needed capital resources and investments to improve and expand grid condition, capacity, systemic resistance, and long-term durability. In the face of these problems, Puerto Rico’s colonial government, led by the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), sought to receive more federal funds from Congress and the executive branch. 

Yet, who’s to blame for this sorry state of affairs in Puerto Rico? Although there are various factors, most of the blame can be set upon the shoulders of the local colonial parties, namely the pro-statehood PNP and the pro-commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático (PPD). These two corrupt political parties, as fervent supporters of U.S. colonial rule and policies, have greatly damaged Puerto Rico’s political, economic, and energy future.  

Upon being elected to power, these parties managed to politicize the utility’s board and staff by appointing to important positions not competent professionals but incompetent party hacks, cronies, and loyalists, who were more interested in party loyalty and corruption schemes than actually promoting the interests of the power utility. These parties not only appointed unqualified incompetents to various high-salary positions, but they also sought to enrich themselves through bond issuances, contracts, and other schemes. 

These parties even had their own political party organizations, such as Energéticos Estadistas, or “Energy Statehooders,” operate within the utility in order to support their party leadership and also undermine the efforts of the other party organization. Such corrupt behavior was tolerated and eventually normalized at the AEE by both the PNP and the PPD. In fact, currently, many leaders and operatives of both the PNP and the PPD have been investigated and arrested by the FBI regarding major graft and corruption schemes.  

Unfortunately, pro-privatization corporate interests began to influence the PNP and PPD-led colonial administrations in the 1990s and the 2000s. Both parties, which are in the hands of such corporate interests, began to implement the same strategy used in other countries to push through such privatization projects: defund the utility so that services are affected, the people begin to complain about the quality of the service, politicians begin to promote “privatization” as the solution to such bad service, then the government privatizes the utility and turns it into a for-profit corporation. For decades, this strategy was implemented successfully on the AEE. 

After years of bad service, chronic politicization, and toxic incompetence, the PNP and the PPD—the very parties responsible for the bad service, politicization, and incompetence—supported privatization of the AEE in order to solve the very problems they themselves created and benefitted from. Along the way, the PNP and PPD managed to demonize and smear the AEE’s electrical worker’s union, the Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego (UTIER, in Spanish), and blamed it for everything that was wrong with the AEE. 

The aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the massive recovery undertaking was the perfect excuse for the PNP colonial government to highlight the weaknesses of the AEE and the urgent need to privatize. As you can imagine, in the disaster capitalism that flooded Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricanes (Whitefish, COBRA, and FEMA corruption), the corporate vultures were circling around the AEE, particularly when billions of federal dollars were being set aside to help Puerto Rico rebuild its failing energy grid and infrastructure. 

In time, the PNP colonial government, with the blessing and approval of the unelected and despised Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMBPR, also know as “la Junta”), managed to attract two foreign companies, Quanta Services and ATCO, to form a new company, LUMA Energy, to control and profit from the AEE’s electric power transmission and distribution infrastructure—particularly in regards to accessing the proposed billions in federal funds to enrich themselves, not actually help Puerto Rico recover and rebuild.

Puerto Rican experts who actually read the LUMA contract have said that the contract is bad for Puerto Rico. In fact, the contract even states that if a major hurricane were to strike Puerto Rico again and devastate the electrical grid, LUMA, instead of rebuilding, can simply just leave Puerto Rico, thus leaving Puerto Ricans to suffer and die in the aftermath. 

Despite resistance and protest from Puerto Ricans regarding LUMA and energy privatization, on May 8, 2021, la Junta—which represents the U.S. government and U.S. business interests—unilaterally ordered Puerto Rico’s legislature to approve the privatization of Puerto Rico’s energy system. Ultimately, the United States, as the colonial overlord in Puerto Rico, imposed LUMA on all Puerto Rico, making LUMA, in essence, a mere extension and manifestation of U.S. colonial rule.   

Upon taking control of Puerto Rico’s energy system, LUMA promised Puerto Ricans better service and a better electrical power grid. As Puerto Ricans quickly learned, LUMA is not interested in better service and a better grid, but in enriching itself and its executives with exorbitant million-dollar salaries off the backs of poor Puerto Rican consumers who, despite more LUMA promises, must continue to endure outages and bad service so that LUMA CEO Wayne Stensby and Quanta Services CEO Duke Austin—along with their 22 corporate VPs that annually earn $676,000 each from Puerto Rico funds—can continue to enjoy their wines and filet mignons in luxurious San Juan hotels.

Since LUMA started operations, Puerto Rico has experienced almost daily blackouts and exploding substations that have left thousands of Puerto Ricans and businesses in the dark for days. These daily blackouts have not only directly impacted Puerto Rico’s economic development and quality of life, but are also life and death issues as they have forced hospitals to operate in the dark, affected patients who depend on machines to live, and have even led to house fires and people losing entire groceries due to dead refrigerators.

People have died due to LUMA failures and outages, and life under the colonial banner of LUMA has been hell for Puerto Ricans. Yet even with such evident failures, LUMA and its local defenders intend to stay. 

As one can imagine, Puerto Ricans despise LUMA and want the local PNP colonial government to cancel the LUMA contract. Yet the PNP colonial government, instead of defending the people, actually defends LUMA.

In November 2022, LUMA executives want the Puerto Rico colonial government to support and sign a new contract that would not only allow LUMA to remain in Puerto Rico, but also access $10 billion in federal funds in a 15-year deal. In these 15 years, LUMA has already stated that it will not support a transition to renewable energy sources, but continue Puerto Rico’s reliance on expensive fossil fuels. 

Puerto Ricans are realizing that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi—who was elected only by 33 percent of votes with exceptionally low voter turnout—and the rest of the PNP are more committed to defending and promoting LUMA’s commercial interests than the interests of the Puerto Rican people.

It’s easy to understand the PNP’s love for LUMA since LUMA has hired many PNP loyalists and party hacks, even if they have no technical knowledge or experience. For example, LUMA recently promoted Kathy Roure to a top high-salary position responsible for a new task force that will focus on logistics regarding the constant blackouts, even when she has no technical experience in electricity, logistics, and power. Yet she is a well-known and well-connected pro-statehood operative and former member of the PNP Youth.

Pierluisi also appointed an individual, also loyal to the PNP, as his “Advisor of Energy Affairs,” though the person has stated that he knows nothing about energy issues. But with a $100,000-a-year salary, he will “try to do his best.”

The individual tasked with oversight of LUMA—yes, another PNP party hack—does not review LUMA’s actions and says, with a straight face, that LUMA is doing a great job.

Unqualified, yet politically-connected family members of prominent PNP and PPD politicians also work at LUMA earning high salaries. Thus one can understand their passive and feigned resistance to the economic pillaging of Puerto Rico. 

LUMA even goes to the embarrassing extent of using troll Twitter accounts, like the recently exposed and closed @tumbaeltumbe account, to manufacture positive public opinion and defame opponents of privatization. Even despised and ridiculed members of the infamous chat that brought down ousted governor Rosselló in 2019 have come out of the woodwork to support LUMA.

For the PNP and LUMA, it’s all about loyalty, not competence. Lines are being drawn: Gov. Pierluisi wants to sign the LUMA contract, yet the Puerto Rican people want to cancel the LUMA contract.     

Tired of the constant blackouts and LUMA corruption and mismanagement, on August 25, Puerto Ricans took to the streets and called upon the PNP colonial government to cancel the LUMA contract. Protesters waved Puerto Rican flags and chanted anti-LUMA slogans in front of La Fortaleza, the governor’s executive mansion. Later that night, colonial police attacked peaceful protesters with tear gas, baton smacks, and beatings. 

Unfortunately, Gov. Pierluisi was not at La Fortaleza to listen to the demands of the protesters, as he was hiding away like a coward on the island of Culebra surrounded by colonial police, the National Guard, and party loyalists. Puerto Ricans are angry, and this anger, sooner or later, will turn into concerted, multifaceted, and united actions against LUMA and the PNP colonial government that supports it.

Since it started operations, LUMA has shown gross administrative incompetence, inadequate performance, various arbitrary price hikes, a total disregard for its customers, and unbridled colonial disrespect to Puerto Ricans—such as having English-language press conferences in a country where 95 percent of the people speak Spanish. 

LUMA and the PNP’s normalized incompetence has had a dire impact on economic growth, health, education, and quality of life across Puerto Rico. Many Puerto Ricans believe that access to electricity should be a human right, not a luxury afforded to a few who are rich enough to pay for massive power generators. At the August 25 protest, Independence Party leader Juan Dalmau stated that “access to electricity should not be treated as a luxury, but as a human right,” receiving thunderous applause. As Puerto Ricans have realized, LUMA is a foreign for-profit monopoly, imposed by the U.S.’ unelected colonial junta, that has no interest in ensuring the well-being and safety of its Puerto Rican customers.

Realizing the role that the PNP and the PPD played in crippling and destroying the AEE through years of mismanagement, corruption, and politicization, and also in bringing LUMA to Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans need to hold all these entities accountable and, through concerted actions and protests, work to expel such organizations from Puerto Rico—be it on the street and at the ballot box. These corrupt colonial parties and corporations are responsible for Puerto Rico’s current dismal quality of life and backward state of affairs.

Puerto Ricans deserve better, but what can we do as a people to stop LUMA and the PNP from destroying Puerto Rico? What’s our plan of action? 

Here are recommendations supported by many Puerto Ricans: 

  1. As most Puerto Ricans demand, LUMA’s contract must be canceled immediately for gross violations. The Puerto Rican people have had enough of LUMA’s excuses and promises “to do better.” For Puerto Ricans, the cancellation of the LUMA contract is a non-negotiable that must be met. 
  2. Puerto Ricans cannot allow the PNP colonial government to sign the LUMA contract in November, thus condemning Puerto Ricans to 15 years of more LUMA blackouts, incompetent management, bad service, corruption, constant price hikes, burned-out appliances, ruined groceries, house fires, and exploding substations. If the PNP colonial government is still hellbent on signing the LUMA contract, then the people of Puerto Rico have every right to take to the streets and oust Gov. Pierluisi from power, just like they did Gov. Rosselló in 2019.
  3. Once the Puerto Rican people have forced the colonial government to cancel the contract and expel LUMA from Puerto Rico, we need to start the process of reorganizing and transforming the AEE into a national, depoliticized, professional, and properly managed public utility. The AEE must belong to the Puerto Rican people, not to a for-profit corporation.

Puerto Ricans do not want to return to the old, corrupt, and politicized AEE—we deserve much better. The new AEE, as expounded by many Puerto Rican leaders and experts, needs an administrative body that is independent of the government and whose members represent various interests, civic, and industrial groups. The AEE must never again fall into the hands of corrupt political parties and incompetent politicians. The new AEE must be led by Puerto Rican technical experts, engineers, electrical workers, and others committed to Puerto Rico and our national development. A civil society organization called Queremos Sol (We Want Sun), led by Puerto Rican energy experts and workers, has already provided an alternative and viable management proposal that is acceptable to most Puerto Ricans.

To add to this proposal, the new AEE should also contemplate the possibility of adopting a cooperative model of organization, as proposed by many Puerto Rican co-op experts and scholars. The new AEE, as a national energy cooperative, would truly be revolutionary in that the AEE would not just be led and managed by actual technical experts and engineers—instead of political hacks and cronies—but would also serve the interests of all the Puerto Rican people. Under such a cooperative model, Puerto Rican households and businesses would not just be
consumers” but also co-owners and shareholders of the new AEE. The UTIER leadership must be integrated into these negotiations so that their
concerns and interests are also addressed regarding the organizational and co-op model of the new AEE.

  1. The hiring process at the new AEE must be driven only by merit, competence, and experience, rather than PNP/PPD party affiliation and political connections. Political party organizations and clubs at the AEE and all government agencies and public corporations must be banned and political campaigning at such agencies outlawed. We cannot allow nor tolerate the same PNP and PPD corruption and politicization to disrupt and sully the management and operations of the new AEE.
  2. The new AEE should reintegrate the Puerto Rican electrical workers and other essential personnel who were fired or transferred to other agencies—due to their refusal to work for LUMA—so that the AEE may benefit from their expertise and experience. Due to LUMA mismanagement, the company is severely understaffed and had to resort to depending on mostly inexperienced electrical line workers and various imported American line workers who earn substantially more than their Puerto Rican counterparts, although they are not as effective at working in Puerto Rico. The new AEE would cancel all such “imported American line worker” contracts and rehire the thousands of experienced and knowledgeable Puerto Rican electrical line workers.
  3. The new AEE, as proposed by many Puerto Rican leaders and experts, needs to not only select an independent auditor that will carefully monitor the operations of the organization in charge of administering the energy service with complete openness, but also promote transparency and accountability in its management, human resources, energy projects, and operations.
  4. The new AEE needs to free itself from the tentacles and backroom deals of the petroleum cartel and finally begin the transition to renewable energy sources—solar, wind, hydro, maritime, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, etc.—and local microgrids as soon as possible. Queremos Sol already has a multiyear renewable energy transition proposal ready to go—but it has been ignored, of course, by past PNP and PPD colonial governments and LUMA. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s PR100 Report, Puerto Rico has the potential to generate all of its energy needs via renewable sources. Puerto Rico can do this, but not with LUMA and the corrupt and pro-dependency PNP at the helm of Puerto Rico.

If the PNP colonial government is hellbent on signing the LUMA 15-year contract, then the people of Puerto Rico have every right to withdraw their obedience to the colonial government and take to the streets and oust Gov. Pierluisi.

If the PNP and LUMA are committed to destroying Puerto Rico and plunging us into a future of darkness and resignation in order to enrich themselves, Puerto Ricans, educated in and committed to nonviolent civil resistance, protest, and disobedience—are equally committed to saving Puerto Rico from such a horrible fate and bringing us towards a future of light, freedom, and prosperity. 

The PNP and LUMA need Puerto Rico to exploit and enrich themselves, but Puerto Rico doesn’t need the PNP or LUMA in order to prosper and keep the lights on. Boricuas, if we want to take back the AEE, ensure our future, and keep the lights on in Puerto Rico, we need to kick out LUMA and the PNP colonial governor. Future generations will thank you.

 

Featured image: Puerto Ricans take to the streets of Old San Juan, calling upon the PNP colonial government to cancel the LUMA contract, on August 25, 2022. Later that night, colonial police would attack peaceful protesters with tear gas, batons, and beatings. (Courtesy of Francisco Amundaray Díaz)

Javier Hernandez is a Puerto Rican writer, linguist, small business owner, pro-sovereignty activist. He is the author of 'PREXIT: Forging Puerto Rico’s Path to Sovereignty' and 'Puerto Rico: The Economic Case for Sovereignty.' He is also a collaborator of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora and other pro-sovereignty organizations in Puerto Rico.

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