Jan 20, 2020
Since December, Puerto Rico has been hit by hundreds of small earthquakes and a few larger ones. Thousands of people have been sleeping outside in fear that their homes will collapse, and the biggest tremor knocked out the island’s largest power plant, throwing Puerto Ricans into the dark ... once again.
These earthquakes come more than two years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, leaving much of the island without electricity for months, and causing at least 2,650 deaths. Most of the deaths were due to the lack of power to refrigerate food and medicine, operate medical equipment, etc. Yet to the extent that the power system was rebuilt at all, it remains extremely frail, overwhelmed by the slightest shock. This situation is a direct consequence of capitalism’s looting of this U.S. colony.
Puerto Rico had already suffered twenty years of economic hardship before Maria. In 1996, the federal government began removing the tax breaks it had given companies to set up shop on the island, and the companies began leaving. Both the Puerto Rican government and the power company got deeper and deeper into debt in order to stay afloat. When the bills came due, Puerto Rico slashed every public service, and the power company cut maintenance spending, all to pay the banks and bondholders.
After Hurricane Maria, recovery spending presented a new juicy target for U.S. capital. Cobra Acquisitions got at least 1.8 billion dollars in contracts to rebuild the power grid, despite having no experience with that work. Subsequently, the feds arrested the company’s former president, along with the FEMA official who led the rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure, and charged them with conspiring to commit bribery and disaster fraud. This came on the heels of Whitefish Energy receiving a $300 million dollar contract to do electrical power grid work it was totally unprepared for, because of its links with Trump’s former Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke.
The reconstruction work the companies did carry out was so shoddy that seven months after the hurricane, a piece of construction equipment tripped a wire and again cut off power to the entire island. Now, the electric company says it might take a year to fix the power plant damaged by the recent earthquake.
In the face of his own administration’s thieving, President Trump used corruption as an excuse to hold up 20 billion dollars in disaster recovery money for more than a year. Finally, on January 15, Trump said he would release 16 billion dollars of that money, but none of it can go to the electrical grid. The power grid’s reconstruction will have to wait for other funding, which may or may not come at all.
Puerto Rico is in the middle of a hurricane zone, next to a tectonic fault line. Hurricanes and earthquakes are predictable and could be prepared for ... if the protection of human life were a priority. Instead, the continued looting of the island continues to be priority number one.