Puerto Rico Needs Public Power, Not More Disastrous Privatization

Puerto Rico is still reeling in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, with hundreds of thousands without electricity. Energy privatization has made the problem worse — and the solution, historically, has been to fight it in the streets.

People march along Las Americas Highway as they hold Puerto Rican flags to demand the expulsion of power company Luma amid a continued lack of electricity across the island, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on October 15, 2021. (Ricardo Aduengo / AFP via Getty Images)

On September 18, Hurricane Fiona slammed into Puerto Rico, causing significant flooding and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity. More than a week later, nearly half of Puerto Ricans are still in the dark, unable to preserve their food, refrigerate their insulin, or power their respirators.

LUMA Energy, the North American company that now operates major parts of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, is at the center of this debacle. LUMA began overseeing the transmission and distribution of electricity in Puerto Rico in the summer of 2021, promising lower rates and better service than the austerity- and hurricane-plagued public system, called Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), that it replaced.

But privatization, so often the policy choice of pro-business politicians in the wake of a disaster, has yielded underwhelming results. Since the takeover, LUMA has raised electricity rates and overseen massive power outages, provoking a seemingly endless cacerolazo — a cacophony of banging pots and pans — in protest against the privatization.

At the forefront of these demonstrations have been organized workers: teachers and truck drivers but also PREPA’s own workers, the people responsible for operating and maintaining the island’s electrical grid. When LUMA supplanted the public system, some PREPA employees even refused to work for the new company. Protesters insist that the public should control the country’s energy future, instead of neoliberal politicians and technocrats. As PREPA worker Walberto Rolón wrote in reference to the LUMA takeover, “A better world is possible, but it will most definitely be decided in the streets instead of the courts.”

Public Power Through Class Struggle

The workers and protesters challenging privatization are building on a long history of class struggle over Puerto Rico’s energy systems. PREPA, the public system, was itself forged in the streets, born out of a wave of pressure from workers and consumers.

In the early 1930s, most Puerto Ricans were poor and food insecure, and their energy systems were controlled by private, North American–owned monopolies that charged high rates and provided lousy service. To protest this for-profit energy regime, transportation and electrical workers went on strike in late 1933. After walking off the job, strikers scattered broken glass on roads and punctured car tires, clipped electrical wires, and sabotaged gas tanks and transmission stations to paralyze Puerto Rico’s energy economy.

Energy consumers quickly joined the cause by boycotting gas and electricity, and before long, the energy flows that made Puerto Rico’s economy work ground to a halt. A group of Puerto Rican business owners offered an especially bleak assessment: “All towns in Puerto Rico isolated from each other except by telephone and telegraph. Roving mobs composed of worst elements prevent movement of private and public cars on streets and highways terrorizing and injuring citizens and destroying property.” They continued: “Business paralyzed. . . . A state of actual anarchy exists.”

For strikers, however, the chaos was more creative than destructive. As a flyer distributed by the strike committee in San Juan read, “Our public economy is in bankruptcy. . . . It is time that we begin the reconstruction of our hacienda.” That is precisely what happened after the strikes and boycotts subsided in the late spring of 1934. Calls for expanding Puerto Rico’s public electrical utility — which distributed power alongside three private electrical utilities — quickly gathered strength. Workers and consumers demanded their neighborhoods be freed from the exploitative private utilities and included in the public system, which offered lower rates and more reliable service. Beleaguered by the strikes and boycotts, private municipal utilities began to sell their systems to the government. The days of private power, it seemed, were numbered.

At the same time, the strikes contributed to a wave of labor unrest — among sugarcane workers, needleworkers, tobacco strippers, and others — that ultimately helped bring the New Deal to the US colony through the creation of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) in 1935, signaling a new, less neglectful era of colonial governance. One of the PRRA’s finest achievements was to drastically expand access to electricity in Puerto Rico by building a vast network of hydroelectric infrastructure and folding it into the public system. The PRRA also purchased one of the three private electrical utilities, in Ponce, and handed it over to the Puerto Rican government.

In 1941, as pressure continued to mount on Puerto Rico’s energy systems, the Puerto Rican government passed a bill creating the Water Resources Authority (WRA, which later became PREPA) and later expropriated the two remaining private electrical utilities in Mayagüez and San Juan to complete the islandwide public utility. For the first time, public power reached from shore to shore.

Transforming Power

For the strikers and boycotters protesting energy privatization today, the story of PREPA’s birth should be both heartening and instructive. It is a reminder that building a more just energy regime in the era of climate change requires not just new ideas and models but also a collective force with the structural power to challenge for-profit energy.

Today, privately controlled, fossil fuel power remains dominant mostly because of the network of wealth and power that has sprouted around it and has a vested interest in maintaining it. Energy regimes ultimately reflect the political economies of which they are an important part. Both are fundamentally concerned with distributing power. And both can be transformed at the behest of the workers, committed and organized, who make them operate.

At a time when ordinary people’s well-being depends on an energy transition — and indeed a broader transformation in the way we distribute power — this lesson is especially critical. Energy systems can at times seem intractable and out of reach, the work of engineers, elite politicians, and market forces. But as the struggle for public electricity in Puerto Rico makes clear, systems of power are made and unmade through class struggle.