Survival on the island of the portable generator

November 30, 2017

Roberto Barreto is a longtime revolutionary socialist from Puerto Rico, founding member of Organización Socialista International (OSI) in San Juan and editor of its newspaper Socialismo Internacional for many years. Here, he describes the state of daily life in Puerto Rico more than two months after the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria--and the stewing discontent among residents, and how it might take political shape. Several days after Roberto wrote this report, riots broke out over electricity in Mayagüez, a city on the western tip of the island. Monique Dols translated this article from the original Spanish.

IT IS now more than two months after Hurricane Maria struck, and Puerto Rican society is completely reliant on portable electrical generators.

Businesses and services that we thought were back to normal frequently have to close up shop because their generators break down or are in need of maintenance or repair. Everywhere you go, almost all the businesses that are open are only open part time--and even these have to open and close depending on when electricity is available to them.

Doctors have to postpone critical medical services such as CT scans because some generators simply can't sustain the machines.

These days, when we make any kind of plans, they are always tentative, because an unexpected power outage can quickly force us to cancel. These power outages can happen because of yet another failure in the electrical grid or because someone's generator has failed--yet again.

The government insists that 50 percent of homes have had electrical services re-established. They arrive at this percentage by taking the total amount of electricity being generated and estimating the number of homes served based on the island's maximum electrical load.

Residents roll a portable generator through the streets of San Juan
Residents roll a portable generator through the streets of San Juan

"This isn't the way it is done," said Matthew Cordaro, a trustee of the Long Island (N.Y.) Power Authority, told El Nuevo Dia. "The first thing you have to do is figure out how many of the distribution lines reach customers and how many have been re-established...What electricity is being generated and sent to the network is not actually being tracked. Instead of this, chaos reigns."

At the beginning of November, in the midst of the controversy about how they calculated the number of homes connected to the grid, the U.S. Department of Energy stopped counting the number of homes without electric service in Puerto Rico altogether.

GOVERNMENT FIGURES collide with reality at every turn. The little electrical service that has been restored fails again and again, leaving everyone on edge.

There is only one transmission line that connects the south of the island, where most of the energy is produced, with the north, where the most of it is used. With only one line in service, any failure cuts off thousands of people from critically needed electricity.

On November 15, only one hour after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló triumphantly announced that 50 percent of the country had the service restored, the system went down again. In what turned out to be an incredible display of government incompetence, the outage caused massive traffic jams and brought business to a halt.

Thousands of workers are unemployed and underemployed due to the crisis that followed in Maria's wake. Those who still have jobs count themselves lucky, even though their working conditions are worse since Maria.

For example, many buildings in Puerto Rico--which is, of course, a tropical island--lack natural ventilation because they are designed to be cooled by central air conditioning. Thus, a number of workers who are back at work labor in closed spaces in high temperatures, and with excessive levels of humidity and mold.

We don't know the real figures of post-Maria unemployment, but as of November 17, there were at least 29,000 fewer people who were working, in addition to 31,600 non-agricultural jobs that were eliminated. After the hurricane the rate of labor force participation is only 38.6 percent. It's thought that the revised number of people not working after the hurricane likely exceeds 110,000.

For decades, the Department of Labor falsified unemployment figures. But recently, these practices have increased with the systematic exclusion of thousands of people who have been forced to leave the island. As of July 2017, the government insisted that the unemployment was only 9.8 percent.

THE GOVERNOR has tried to appease the population by promising that 95 percent of homes will have electricity by the Christmas holidays. But the process of reconstruction has been terribly inefficient from the beginning. Little has improved in the more than two months after hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Even after the Whitefish Energy scandal--in which a two-employee firm won a $300 million contract to rebuild the Puerto Rican electric grid--the reconstruction process is still a mess.

Now, there are almost 3,000 electrical workers, many of them from the U.S., working on repairs to the electric system. You would think that with so many people working to fix the system in the midst of such a crisis, the grid would be well on its way to being repaired.

But the reality is different. These workers don't have the supplies, tools and materials they need to make needed repairs. As a result, time and money have been have squandered.

This situation is similar to what happened when the hospital boat, the USNS Comfort, arrived in Puerto Rico. The Comfort remained largely empty at the dock, while hospitals lacked electricity, thousands urgently needed medical care, and hundreds of people died.

Now millions are being spent on private contractors from the U.S. to work on repairing the electrical grid. But the workers can't do much without needed supplies and tools.

The newspaper Primera Hora interviewed an engineer who came to Puerto Rico to help repair the infrastructure:

They brought us here, and there is simply no material to work with. According to our contract, they have to pay us for 16 hours of work a day, whether or not we work. And unfortunately, we haven't worked those hours. We have been here since the first week of November and we have only worked six days since we arrived. The rest of the time we are not doing anything.

Every morning, there is a conference call with the Puerto Rican Power Authority (PREPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the unanimous complaint of all involved parties is that there are simply no materials to work with. How do you get to work without the needed supplies?

Despite this reality, the government's public relations offensive is working overtime to hide its ineptitude, negligence and corruption. They have promised that they will save the country--with the help of FEMA, one of the slowest and most bureaucratic agencies in the U.S. government; Tesla's solar-powered batteries; and Google's internet-beaming communication balloons.

But the people live their daily reality caught between survival and a precarious existence, relying on intermittent power that comes and goes all the time. This reality clashes sharply with official propaganda. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction is growing daily without finding a clear, alternative political expression.

With the exception of a few small but important protests, the general discontent has not yet turned into action. Puerto Rico is a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode.

Translation by Monique Dols

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