Neoliberal Disaster Management Is Forcing Puerto Ricans to Create Their Own Recovery

Enmeshed in a colonial relationship with the US and abandoned by their own establishment politicians, Puerto Ricans are being forced to forge their own recovery after Hurricane Fiona. But they’re also dreaming of a different, more just future.

A person cooks in the dark in a home in the Condado community of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 19, 2022, after the power went out with the passage of Hurricane Fiona. (AFP via Getty Images)

Darkness enfolds the US colony of Puerto Rico once again. Large regions of the Puerto Rican archipelago are still without power and water, well over a week after Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm, hit the Antilles. On the ground, Puerto Ricans are grappling with a relief effort marred by privatization and neoliberalism.

Government officials no longer inspire much hope. Instead, ordinary Puerto Ricans are taking it upon themselves to clear paths, rescue families trapped by extreme flooding, share extension cords with those lacking power, and distribute water.

Many have been disillusioned since 2017, when they saw the post–Hurricane Maria cleanup plagued by inefficiencies and inequalities. In their eyes, establishment politicians are quick to celebrate aid allocations and slow to actually disburse it — or, even worse, simply channel aid to those who help get them elected.

The last time this happened, Puerto Ricans took their rage straight to the governor’s mansion to demand his exit. They succeeded.

Puerto Rico’s ruling class is once again playing with fire.

Why Wasn’t Puerto Rico Prepared?

The federal and local governments have had five years to prepare for more extreme weather events. Following Hurricane Maria, the US government announced billions of dollars in aid. Officials from the ruling New Progressive Party (PNP) were quick to claim credit and tout the effectiveness of their lobbying. As always, the pro-statehood party asked residents where Puerto Rico would be without the United States. But now many Puerto Ricans are asking other questions: Where is the loudly celebrated aid? How could a Category 1 hurricane cause so much damage after so much fanfare about abundant federal support?

The short answer: Puerto Rico is ensconced in a colonial relationship that prioritizes private interests over public well-being. There are fewer electoral incentives for US politicians to invest in preparing people for future disasters when those very people can’t vote in US elections. And Puerto Rico’s political class, playing the role of colonial apparatchiks, is happy to let the vultures have what is left in the wreckage. After Hurricane Maria, the US government violated federal law in awarding mainland firms relief funds at a 90:10 ratio. Rather than denounce and resist these practices, Puerto Rico’s ruling elite did the empire’s bidding.

Despite this performance, the PNP has been able to hold on to power for several reasons: its success in casting independence as a recipe for Third World poverty, its robust organizational ground game (the most impressive in Puerto Rico), a unilateral electoral law reform that granted them advantages in the 2020 election, and clientelist practices and patronage relationships.

Regardless, this era of Puerto Rican political history will not be remembered for the competence or rectitude of its elected leaders.

Puerto Rico’s Issues Are Systemic

Even if Puerto Ricans were under more competent leadership, many issues affecting the archipelago would persist absent structural reform. For poor and working-class Puerto Ricans — particularly its black residents — living in the colony never ceases to be an emergency.

Small island nations are especially vulnerable to climate change, and US colonial territories don’t have formal representation in global decision-making processes.

Instead, they get neoliberal disaster management, which promotes the idea that survival in the wake of cataclysm should be an individual concern. For instance, when a massive power outage hits, people (with economic means) are left to purchase their own individual generators for their own households (in the process, generating hazardous gasses that harm others). Collective solutions to collective problems — such as building microgrids closer to neighborhoods most vulnerable to outages — are nowhere to be found.

At the same time, residents are buffeted by market fluctuations and price gouging, and corporations are granted priority access to emergency aid and decision-makers alike. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, energy utility and government officials held regular meetings with corporate leaders and affirmed that the economy must get back on its feet: aid could only flow for so long before corporations were again allowed to profit.

Likewise, neoliberal governance seeks to privatize public utilities, often casting them as corrupt and overly politicized. In Puerto Rico, this has already happened: the archipelago’s public electric utility (the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA) was taken over in the summer of 2021 by LUMA Energy, a private North American company. The firm has since hiked electricity rates and been slow (and at times unwilling) to provide data to the local, territorial, and federal governments to identify areas in need of investment. LUMA’s record is so poor that a judge last November issued an arrest warrant for the firm’s CEO.

Before privatization, advocates claimed that it would purge the utility of partisan grifters (majority parties had themselves bankrupted the utility). But the self-dealing has persisted: LUMA has recruited from ruling party supporters for its personnel.

Dismantling and privatizing Puerto Rico’s public utility was not just a profit-seeking measure. It was also an effort to bust one of the most important unions in Puerto Rico: the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER), which represents line workers. For private utilities like LUMA, undermining labor and cutting costs is more critical than effective disaster recovery.

Austerity measures had already reduced the line worker workforce when Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Yet when it took over, LUMA hired even fewer line workers. Seasoned line workers from the public utility were told to join the new firm without collective bargaining or transfer to another agency in the territory’s government. Thousands of former line workers from PREPA who intimately know the specs of the energy grid cannot work this emergency.

The austerity billed as the solution to Puerto Rico’s economic crisis has failed on its own terms. More damningly, it has cost lives.

“The Sun Arrives Before LUMA”

In the wake of Fiona, many Puerto Ricans are sick of hearing about resilience and are calling for resistance. They do not seek a return to a pre–Hurricane Maria idyll but are instead envisioning a different future.

In the municipality of Adjuntas, the organization Casa Pueblo is calling for an energy insurrection through renewable energy projects. As scholar-activist Arturo Massol-Deyá puts it, “the sun comes before LUMA.” Massol-Deyá is among the leaders calling for a just transition away from fossil fuels and building bottom-up initiatives to distribute aid and energy. Other groups, like Mujeres Solares and Bosque Modelo, are developing local capacities to install and maintain solar energy systems.

In the meantime, ordinary Puerto Ricans are filling in the gaps left by Washington and their own neoliberal government — just as they did in 2017. After Maria, volunteers helped clear the way for people trying to make their way to hospitals and for power-line workers. One group was dubbed Las Termitas (the Termites) because they removed fallen trees and branches from roadways. Former line workers formed crews and started bringing households back into the energy grid. Volunteers formed collectives like the Pepino Power Authority to restore power before crews were deployed to their area.

More than three thousand former public-utility line workers are again pleading with the governor and the private utility LUMA to let them support the power restoration effort. The mayor of Aguadilla gave LUMA a deadline to show up to his municipality. LUMA failed to meet this deadline and declined to provide specific information about how many crews they had on the field and where they were deploying them. The mayor of Aguadilla responded by hiring former line workers to start the restoration themselves.

A people-led recovery builds on the ongoing work of movements seeking a just and sovereign future for Puerto Rico. The agroecology movement is leading efforts to achieve food sovereignty despite government neglect and barriers imposed on its work. Environmental justice groups are fighting government efforts to sell off land and the siting of projects in areas with rich biodiversity. Aqueduct projects like the one in Corcovada, Añasco, source their water from underground aquifers and use solar power to pump it to the surrounding community. After Hurricane Maria, they provided water to neighboring areas.

People on the ground are not waiting on false promises of aid or justifying their deservingness as “fellow Americans” rather than fellow human beings. With neoliberalism and privatization ravaging the archipelago, the post-Fiona recovery and rebuilding is being left to bottom-up efforts — and in spite of the elite politicians that claim to represent Puerto Rico.