Fighting for Puerto Rico: The Struggle Against Post-Hurricane Privatization

An electric power tower at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Monacillo Station is seen in San Juan, Puerto Rico on February 11, 2018. (Photo: Pablo Pantoja / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)An electric power tower at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Monacillo Station is seen in San Juan, Puerto Rico on February 11, 2018. (Photo: Pablo Pantoja / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now more than a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 111th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Julio López Varona, the director of Make the Road Connecticut, who also works as a consultant with the Center for Popular Democracy and helps lead the Hedge Clippers‘ corporate accountability campaign on Puerto Rico.

Sarah Jaffe: Let’s talk about Puerto Rico. What is the most important thing people should know about what is going on in Puerto Rico right now?

I would say things are not getting better and they could potentially get worse. We are in a process of extreme austerity measures that are being imposed on the island, [including] the privatization of our school system and our electrical grid, while at the same time an exodus of people [is] fleeing … because the island is not getting the resources it needs to rebuild. Companies and businesses are not being able to reopen and that is creating a spiral of economic decline that is making it very difficult for everyday Puerto Ricans to actually find jobs and to sustain themselves.

Let’s talk about the electrical grid first. There are still places on the island that don’t have power, right?

Yes, last I saw electricity was about 73 percent. That being said, about two days ago, there was a blackout that left most of the north part of the island without power for about 10 hours. We know that part of the problem is that the electrical grid is extremely unstable. It is running on generators. We know that it is going to take a long time to rebuild the system. One of the biggest concerns then is that it will get rebuilt with the same old antiquated and actually dirty energy that has been running the country for the last 50 years and that tends to be extremely expensive and bad for the environment.

The solution for all of that is, obviously, to privatize it, right?

Yes, for sure. You just privatize and magically everything becomes better.

That is not how that works. [Laughs]

No. It is a long story, but I would say over the last 70 years Puerto Rico’s electrical grid hasn’t been properly maintained. It is a crumbling infrastructure and it is an infrastructure that got worse and worse because over the last 10 years Puerto Rico was in economic decline after some tax extensions and other companies went out of the island.

Puerto Rico started borrowing money, and the people that gave us money were hedge funds and companies that actually had been in place with Argentina and Greece. So, companies held our economy hostage and pushed for austerity. Part of those austerity measures meant firing workers from the electrical company. It was about not maintaining the electrical company. It was about not maintaining infrastructure.

Then, Maria came and you have a failing infrastructure with 160 mile-an-hour winds. What you get is complete and utter destruction of the electrical grid. And for a lot of people that are in the government now that are interested in pushing capitalist neoliberal practices, it was also the perfect moment to make the argument that this was bad administration of government, this was greedy union members. So, the best option was to privatize and let another private entity take over our natural and Puerto Rican resources.

We are talking about them trying to privatize Puerto Rico’s infrastructure at the same time as Trump has dropped this infrastructure plan for the mainland that has some of the same characteristics.

Yes, what we are seeing is a trend. Puerto Rico is, in many ways a microcosm of what is happening in other places. We are seeing this move toward privatizing electricity, but at the same time, we are seeing this move to privatize education. In Puerto Rico, in particular, it is crazy because it is everywhere. The proposal is not like, “We will privatize some.” They want to change or renew — those are the keywords they are using — the education system, and they are saying the only way they can do it is by providing charter schools and a private electric grid, which has not been proven necessarily to actually improve the outcomes [for] students or to actually be good for customers that receive those electrical services.

We saw the privatization of the entire school district in New Orleans after Katrina. That, certainly, has not improved anything…. When you hear it you think, “What does privatizing the school district have to do with rebuilding after a hurricane?”

A lot of people have been talking about disaster capitalism, and it is funny because you start sounding like a conspiracy theorist…. The government over two weeks has proven that the mass exodus of people is being countered by a mass injection of rich people that are just buying everything and privatization of the electric company and cutting union contracts…. Half of the things we thought were just going to happen in theory are now happening in Puerto Rico.

Talk a little bit about the exodus of people and where people are going and what is happening in the places where you have a lot of people showing up either temporarily or permanently to stay with relatives or to try to find jobs.

It is important to give context. This has been happening for the last 10-plus years. Puerto Rico lost 10 percent of its population over the last 10 years, and it goes back to the economic conditions and the economic and humanitarian crisis that I was referring to. So, the exodus has been happening for a while.

What happened is that Hurricane Maria made it just clear that people couldn’t live here. If you go to Puerto Rico right now and you get on a plane, what you will see is blue tarps everywhere, and that is because half of the houses don’t have roofs. People were without electricity, without water, without jobs. They were forced to leave. Many of them went to stay with their friends and their family, and actually some of them were offered hotels by FEMA. And because Puerto Rico had no hotels that were working, or the hotels that were working were used by FEMA, they ended up in places like Hartford and Pennsylvania and Connecticut and Orlando.

What has been happening over the last couple of months is that many of those people that still don’t have a home in Puerto Rico, that have no bases in those places, are now being told that their vouchers are going to be running out and they are just going to have to fend for themselves until they can figure it out. Those people are moving, as I said, to mainly Puerto Rican communities, although we have heard of some new communities that are not traditionally Puerto Rican (like Texas, Arizona, and other places that are interestingly enough, creating new bubbles of Puerto Rican communities).

Let’s talk about the Hedge Clippers connection because, as you said, there have been rich people looting Puerto Rico for a while. Talk about the work that Hedge Clippers and others have been doing researching and acting around the people who own Puerto Rico’s debt.

My role with Hedge Clippers started about two and a half years ago, give or take, after Alejandro García Padilla, who was the governor, announced on The New York Times, “We can’t pay bondholders and bondholders won’t negotiate with us.” So, we started looking at who the bondholders were and, as I said earlier, they were very much the same bondholders that we had seen in places like Argentina and Greece. A lot of people thought that was interesting and we wanted to look at it.

What we found was that the bond holders not only lent Puerto Rico money, but in many cases, they were lending on 30 cents on the dollar, which means that you are, in some cases, getting a credit card that has a 70 percent interest rate. So, 30 cents on the dollar, you pay a dollar for every 30 cents. I think that coalition of partners was really interested in the effects that this type of practice would have on US territory and how those practices could be replicated in the US.

I, as a Puerto Rican, started working with them to somewhat guide the work and talk about how we talk about Puerto Rico and how we connect that to the US. We have been doing research and we started with hedge funds, but we have done some research on banks, we have done research on pension funds, we have done research on big companies. The idea, more than anything, is to hold accountable any corporation or hedge fund or whatever that is hurting Puerto Rico with the vision and the goal to change their practices.

What we find is that the government is fairly difficult to move, but these companies actually care about their images, so they are able to be moved. I think Centro de Periodismo Investigativo and other groups have done a lot of research around those corporate players that actually came to Puerto Rico because they knew that Puerto Rico’s condition, the fact that it couldn’t go to bankruptcy, the fact that it was run by the US and the US had a lot of economic interest in Puerto Rico made Puerto Rico a really good place to go to buy for cheap, and actually to sequester the economy to a point where they could push these really bad measures that were very, very good for the rich while extremely bad for the poor.

I want to talk about what people can do, but to preface that, when we are talking about what people can do and you call your representative or whoever and say, “We need aid for Puerto Rico” then the question becomes “What kind of aid is that going to be and in whose hands is it being placed?”

And that is a hard question to answer. If you ask me, it is incredibly important for Congress to put money forward. What we have been saying is that money should not be conditioned to any more fiscal oversight, that it shouldn’t come with more privatization and more austerity.

But, your question is a valid one. Who manages the money? Is it the government that is imposing privatization and closing of schools and curtailing union jobs and everything? In many ways, it is. Some of us are thinking that there might be a need for us to lay an oversight board … but it is difficult. I can’t really tell you sincerely what is the way … to make sure that the government is not using that money to build a Puerto Rico that is kind of like Cuba in the 1940s, where if you are white and you have money you come to Puerto Rico to play and to have big houses and the rest of us are just working for those people.

A couple of months ago, I talked to Javier Morillo about this and he was saying the playbook for what capital is going to do in these situations is written. We know they are going to come in and try to privatize everything, but we don’t have the shock doctrine from the left. So, when talking about what to do here, instead of privatizing everything, instead of letting rich people make Puerto Rico into just a playground for rich people, what are the arguments people should be making?

I would say the problem is right now when you look at the powers that be and the people that we are electing, they don’t necessarily look different from each other. That creates an issue of “What is the left and what are we fighting for and do we have leaders that actually can push for those things in a moral and actually standoffish way?” And we don’t.

I agree we need to create some sort of a vision for the future from the left that actually puts forward these very clear principles that we should follow, but that is not here right now and we end up just choosing two or three, whoever is the best of those. But, yes, I agree, we need to figure that out.

What can people do? How can people get involved with the work you are doing; the work other people are doing?

There are many ways. The Hedge Clippers campaign, right now, we are working with students on divestment campaigns and trying to connect investments that universities are doing that are hurting Puerto Rico into student power. As a person that works with CPD, the Center for Popular Democracy, we have our partners, Make the Road and others, that actually are super invested and organizing from the ground up to get people activated. There are coalitions like the Power for PR coalition that actually brings together a very clumsy, but interesting group of organizations that are fighting for Puerto Rico.

I would say if people have questions, I am happy to answer those questions for them and they can call me and I can direct them the right way. But, usually, if you are in a state that has a lot of Puerto Ricans there will be organizations that in some way or another are doing work. And it depends, do you want to do relief work, do you want to do activism work, do you want to take over a corporation and make them look bad? There are options. I think what people need to do is just get informed, look at ways in which they can get involved in their communities and reach out to people like me and we will be happy to connect them to whatever activism is happening.

How can people keep in touch with you?

If they go to Twitter, I am @Julopezva. That is my Twitter handle and they can reach out to me there. I am more than happy to provide direction on where to go depending on what people are excited about. If you have a voice, you should use it because, if not, Puerto Rico is going to be in even worse condition in the following years and months and our people on the island and outside of the island are going to suffer a lot. We need to do something now.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.