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Head of Puerto Rico Electrical Workers’ Union Demands Corruption Probe of Whitefish Energy Contract

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Democracy Now! has just returned from Puerto Rico, where we interviewed Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, head of the Puerto Rico electrical workers’ union, just as the island’s governor announced he was instructing the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, to cancel its controversial $300 million contract with the tiny Montana-based company Whitefish Energy. The move came after enormous pressure and scrutiny of the contract to reconstruct Puerto Rico’s electrical power grid devastated by Hurricane Maria. Whitefish Energy is based in the tiny hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The head of the private equity company that backs Whitefish, Joe Colonnetta, was a Trump campaign donor. All of this comes as a leaked copy of the contract sparked even further outrage last week, when it revealed that the terms barred penalties for work delays and prohibited the project from being audited.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Puerto Rico, where Governor Ricardo Roselló announced on Sunday that he was instructing Puerto Rico’s Electrical Power Authority, known as PREPA, to cancel its controversial $300 million contract with the tiny Montana-based company Whitefish Energy. The governor’s move came after enormous pressure and scrutiny of the contract to reconstruct Puerto Rico’s electrical power grid devastated by Hurricane Maria. Whitefish Energy is based in the tiny hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The head of the private equity company that backs Whitefish, Joe Colonnetta, was a Trump campaign donor. Meanwhile, Whitefish CEO Andrew Techmanski argues his company’s ability to mobilize quickly was vital to winning the contract.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this comes as a leaked copy of the no-bid contract sparked even further outrage last week, when it was revealed that the terms barred penalties for work delays and prohibited the project from being audited by any U.S. government agency.

Well, Democracy Now! went down to Puerto Rico over the weekend, and I got a chance to sit down yesterday, on Sunday, with the head of UTIER, the Puerto Rico electrical workers’ union, Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo. We sat down in his office just as Governor Roselló was speaking. I began by asking him what he thought of the governor’s announcement that he will be canceling the contract, that he’s calling for the cancellation of the contract with Whitefish Energy.

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] What the government has just informed the country is that he’s asking the governing board of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to invoke the cancellation clause in the contract. We understand that this decision by the governor is in the face of the major questions that have been raised and the doubts that are circulating as to whether FEMA is going to be able to reimburse the money. And given the possibility that FEMA has distanced itself from reimbursing the money, and given the invoicing of $11 million, the governor is calling for the contract to be canceled. Nonetheless, in this process, he has not called for the resignation of engineer Ricardo Ramos, which is fundamental. He is the one who has defended this contract. He does not talk about continuing to investigate this whole process, and, above all else, does not talk about cooperating in any federal investigation that might be undertaken into the Whitefish contract.

AMY GOODMAN: In the contract, which is just something like 50-odd pages for this $300 million deal, it says that they can’t be held to any timetable and they cannot be audited by any U.S. agency. Now, this is a company whose largest deal, I think, was something like $1.3 million to build 4.8 miles of transmission lines in Arizona. That was its largest deal. You’re talking about 2,400 miles of transmission lines here in Puerto Rico.

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] Precisely. That was the first question that was raised. This was a company without experience. And its only experience is in places totally different from Puerto Rico. And to grant a contract for $300 million was to deposit a lot of money, deposit a lot of work, in a totally inexperienced company.

But most particular in this process are the conditions of the contract. How is it possible that you can have a contract that can’t be audited, that can’t be called into question, where the contract says that it is complying with federal regulations when it isn’t, and still, to this date, Whitefish continues to be in contract, and no one has moved away from that contract? We need to call into question the people who brought about this contract, and to call into question the participation of FEMA, if FEMA had any involvement. Today, FEMA says, “I had nothing to do with the contract.” Everyone is moving away from this contract. I think that this contract must have been seen and reviewed by many people other than Ricardo Ramos.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe FEMA had a role in this? They say they didn’t look at the contract, it’s PREPA’s fault.

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] It’s interesting, FEMA’s response, when it found out about the scandal. As long as Whitefish was being called into question, while the government of Puerto Rico was telling the country that FEMA was going to reimburse the money, FEMA didn’t react. It’s only now that the Congress of the United States, that the media in the United States and worldwide has called into question this contract. FEMA only reacted on Friday, saying it had nothing to do with the contract. So we need to call into question the silence, why there was so much silence for such a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Zinke’s son, the interior secretary, worked for Whitefish, not to mention Whitefish is Ryan Zinke’s hometown. Do you think Ryan Zinke should be investigated? How did this contract happen? And have you met with Andrew Techmanski, who’s running the show here, all of the Whitefish workers that they’re importing? Not that there are that many right now.

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] Here, everything needs to be investigated. Whitefish didn’t just come to Puerto Rico by accident, a very small company from Montana that no one knew about, coming into Puerto Rico with a $300 million contract. There must have been some connection to be able to come to Puerto Rico. It just—it wasn’t in the internet. There wasn’t a classified ad. Somebody must have called Puerto Rico for them. Whitefish has ties with companies in Brazil. Ricardo Ramos worked in Odebrecht, the Brazilian company. That’s another angle that needs to be investigated, the Brazilian company in this process.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the name of the Brazilian company?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] We still don’t know the name of the Brazilian company. This is a report by the environment news in the United States. It noted that this company was financing Whitefish for two years. When we saw that news, we drew the relationship with Odebrecht, which was a Brazilian company that has been pointed out by the U.S. Department of Justice as the most corrupt company in Latin America. And the Dominican Republic is the country where there was most corruption. Nonetheless, by chance, Ricardo Ramos worked with Odebrecht in the Dominican Republic.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Ricardo Ramos, the head of PREPA, who signed this $300 million contract, should be fired?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] Clearly. And not only that, I believe that a much deeper investigation needs to be carried out in Puerto Rico. There is an element that has always come about in these kinds of situations, which is impunity. Nothing happens. The money is stolen, and then nothing happens. I believe that this is the time to make sure that these contracts don’t happen again, to take this to the ultimate consequences. And if people need to be put in prison, the local and federal officials who may have been involved in this Whitefish process need to be put in prison, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it like for Puerto Rican workers to be working alongside of workers from the continental United States who are, apparently, reportedly, being paid much more to do the same job?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] Not only the same job. The ones who really know the Puerto Rican electrical system are us. They’ve worked much more slowly, with much more difficulty on the work assigned to them, compared to us. Seeing that big difference, looking at Puerto Rico’s topography, its geography, the complexity of our electrical system, one sees that this is a big scandal. When some workers are being paid $200 an hour to do the same work that we do for $21 an hour, there’s a difference there. One notes how poorly paid we are, but also it shows just how much corruption there is around Whitefish.

AMY GOODMAN: If the public power union, if the workers, if PREPA got this money to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid, what could you do with it, $300 million?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] With much less than that amount. Indeed, with the help of workers from companies in the United States who have experience with international assistance; Mexico, the Mexican electrical workers’ union has made themselves available, workers who are experts on the lines. With a lot of help, we’d be able to rebuild the country with much less money than has been given to Whitefish.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about Elon Musk and solar power. There’s a lot being made in the United States, continental United States, in the corporate media about his offer saying that Puerto Rico could be the experiment, the model for the rest of the country, for solar power. This goes to two issues. One is, the entire grid is down: How do you rebuild it in a more sustainable way? And does solar have to mean privatization?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] First, the complexity of the electrical system of Puerto Rico, it’s a totally isolated system. A system with a large amount of demand poses a major challenge in terms of looking at the possibility of solar power for powering the whole country. It’s very complex. It requires many studies, a lot of analysis, many evaluations. And the people of Puerto Rico can’t wait for all of that right now. Now, that doesn’t mean that Puerto Rico doesn’t have to look very seriously at the possibility of the transformation towards solar power. Nonetheless, the transformation that UTIER believes is most appropriate is—are solar communities. The communities themselves should appropriate that system. It’s not that we will become a commodity for renewable solar energy companies.

AMY GOODMAN: And now you have a member of the fiscal control board, former Air Force Colonel Noel Zamot, reportedly about to be imposed as an emergency manager over PREPA. Can you talk about the significance of this and who he is?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] First, the UTIER—I want to be clear on this—doesn’t support the fiscal control board and obviously doesn’t support this appointment. And I want to make that clear to all the media. Nonetheless, the law allows the fiscal control board to make an appointment such as this choice in extraordinary circumstances. That means this appointment is being made because there are irregularities in control of Whitefish, the contract, and they are concerned that they’re not going to be able to satisfy the creditors. I agree. I don’t—I mean, right, I don’t agree with the appointment. Zamot, well, his appointment will be a major challenge. He doesn’t know anything about the electrical industry, has no expertise in this area. And so we are struck by Zamot’s appointment to be an overseer of the PREPA.

AMY GOODMAN: So you had, what, over 6,000 workers in 2000, and now you’re down to 3,500. It’s almost halved. Do you believe that—and this goes before the fiscal control board—that there are efforts being made simply to destroy the largest public power authority in the United States so that it is sold off, privatized?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] Yes, clearly. The UTIER has been denouncing this plan, talking about—for years, talking about how they were going to run down the service, make the service more expensive, how at the same time they are going to carry out a campaign vis-à-vis the Puerto Rico people, and reducing resources earmarked to the service, all with a view to privatizing the company. The UTIER has been consistent for 18 years warning the country about the route that the government has been following in Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: The author Naomi Klein wrote a book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. And in it, she points out, in times of disaster, precisely like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, those in power use the moment to consolidate their power and to take from the population. How can you turn that around to use this absolutely cataclysmic moment right now in Puerto Rico to reverse that trend, to establish a sustainable economy in Puerto Rico?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] That is precisely what they’re doing in Puerto Rico, applying the shock doctrine. Yes, something different could be done. And I believe that media, such as yourselves, could help us do something different. Puerto Rico often hears more from what’s happening outside than what—about what’s happening in Puerto Rico, than—rather than hearing within Puerto Rico. It’s difficult, but we need to be consistent with our message. Little by little, it is penetrating. And little by little, the country is realizing that, as in this case of Whitefish, it’s one of those capitalism disasters.

AMY GOODMAN: In contrast to a colonial recovery, what would a Puerto Rican reconstruction look like that’s done for the benefit of Puerto Ricans, for this island?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] The first—and I’m going to speak as Ángel Figueroa, a Puerto Rican, not as the president of the UTIER, who believes that Puerto Rico should have all the powers of any country in the world to be able to develop economically. The first thing is that the U.S. Congress should recognize our right to self-determination, as regards our future, with no intervention of the Congress, just recognizing that we Puerto Ricans want for the future is something that they will totally accept, within a system of total decolonization, this first. And it begins by taking down the fiscal control board. That’s the first thing that the Congress should show, within what they have said publicly about democracy. The U.S. Constitution says clearly that with the end of slavery, no power can be held over and against the rights of a people. Puerto Rico is a people. And we cannot allow the Congress to continue to treat Puerto Rico colonially, as it has been, like a colony, as it’s doing.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up this interview, I can’t help but notice, over your left shoulder, among the pictures on the wall and posters is a poster of Che Guevara. What is his significance in your life? What does he mean to you?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] Che Guevara, like other leaders in Latin America, shows the solidarity that we Latin American peoples must have at all times. He’s an Argentine who went to Cuba, an Argentine who went to Bolivia, an Argentine who went to Latin America. That means that we, the Latin American peoples, need to break down the borders that divide us as countries, as peoples, so as to have a single voice, so as to have greater prosperity, more democracy, more happiness. That’s our aspiration as a people. And that is what Che Guevara represented at a given point in time for all of Latin America. And that example of solidarity, of breaking down the barriers that divide us as a nation, is what we aspire to as Puerto Ricans.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo. He is head of UTIER, the Puerto Rico electrical workers’ union. PREPA, the Puerto Rican power authority, is the largest public power authority in the United States. I spoke with him on Sunday in his office in San Juan, just as Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, was calling for the partial cancellation of the power company’s contract with the Montana-based company Whitefish Energy, hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The company is two years old and had just two employees the day Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Special thanks to Sam Alcoff, Laura Gottesdiener, Juan Carlos Dávila, Denis Moynihan and Charlie Roberts. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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