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Five Months After Maria, San Juan Mayor Decries “Disaster Capitalism” & Privatization in Puerto Rico

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As this week marks five months since Hurricane Maria battered the island of Puerto Rico, more than a quarter of the island remains without power, marking the longest blackout in U.S. history. While the official death toll is just 64, it is believed that more than 1,000 died since the storm struck the island on September 20. Puerto Rico’s governor has also announced plans to privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, which is the largest publicly owned power authority in the United States. For more, we speak to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

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. This week marks five months since Hurricane Maria battered the island of Puerto Rico. The island is still facing a massive recovery effort. While the official death toll is just 64, it’s believed more than 1,000 people died since the storm struck September 20th. More than a quarter of the island remains without power, marking the longest blackout in U.S. history. Wide swaths of the island were recently plunged back into darkness after an explosion and fire at an electrical station, sparking fears about the vulnerability of the Puerto Rican electrical system.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA, is facing criticism after it was revealed only a fraction of the 30 million meals slated to be sent to the island after Hurricane Maria were actually delivered. FEMA approved a $156 million contract for a one-woman company to deliver 30 million meals. But in the end, FEMA canceled the contract, after she just delivered 50,000 meals, in what FEMA called a logistical nightmare.

Well, on Friday, Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I spoke to the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. I started by asking her what the situation on the island is, five months after Hurricane Maria hit.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: We are facing putting together a massive recovery effort. And that is part of the problem. It doesn’t seem—wheels are spinning, but things don’t seem to get off the ground. The botched effort continues to be deciphered. Fifty-five percent more—increase in the suicide rate, which tells you the mental state where people are at because of the dire situations and living conditions that we’re still in.

As you mentioned, 25 percent of the island is still without power. And just last night, Judge Taylor Swain denied the administration’s request for an emergency loan for our power authority. So the government is now saying that employees are going to be let go, laid off, and that we’re going to go to program blackouts. So, for many people, it will mean going back to September 20th, at least for a few days during the week. Our power grid is still very unstable, even those of us that have electricity. Just in San Juan this past Sunday, a massive community of San Juan just got electricity for the first time, but things come and go.

So we’re facing a privatization on the energy front. We’re also facing privatization of the educational point. The local government of Puerto Rico has introduced the concept of charter schools and has said that it’s going to privatize schools. It almost seems like the perfect storm for disaster economics or what they call disaster capitalism. Everything seems to be out there for sale, while those essential services, that do more than provide services—they are sort of the equalizers of our society—are all put on sale. Still, the money from FEMA is not coming. The municipalities are facing a dire need of cash in order to continue to provide services and make payroll. For San Juan, the situation is a little better, but we are still in a very delicate financial situation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mayor, I’d like to ask you about the role of the oversight board imposed by Congress. I saw on their site that they issued a bunch of letters to the governor on February 5th, basically saying that the governor’s plan for what was going to happen with the water authority was not sufficient, that they wanted a 17 percent cut in costs, because the water authority is projecting a 17 percent loss in water revenues as a result of the storm. They told the government that its overall financial plan was not sufficient in terms of cuts. Amazingly, I saw that they wanted the government to plan to create a debt—a budget reserve, extra cash in the budget, while cutting other services. I’m wondering how you see the role of the oversight board, which is supposed to be helping Puerto Rico’s economy right itself.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, you know, I have been against the oversight board from the beginning, just because it’s anti-democratic. Seven people that were not selected by our democracy—and we’re in Democracy Now!—are now making the final decisions. I may have very different views than the governor of Puerto Rico about how he has handled this crisis, about how he supported the Trump administration in their botched effort and said they were doing a great job. But he is the governor Puerto Rico. He was elected in a democratic manner.

So, one of the things that is important about the legislation put forward by Senator Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, with Nydia Velázquez and Luis Gutiérrez, is that it puts in the hands of Puerto Ricans the recovery of Puerto Rico. And if one thing was proven, it’s that you cannot put the standard operating procedures of FEMA and other organizations and just put them on the ground here in this small island nation in the Caribbean and say that things are going to work as they have worked in other places before.

So, the fiscal control board is here for one thing. And that thing is to get the bondholders to get paid. Now, initially, the governor, when he was campaigning, said that the Puerto Rican government had to pay. And now, in this new fiscal plan, which is really an austerity plan, the governor submits it to the fiscal control board, and the fiscal control board says, “No, we want more. We want more taxation. We want more privatization, because we want—we want less education,” because the fiscal control board is taking about $500 million away from our largest public educational system, the University of Puerto Rico, and is taking away moneys from the municipalities. So, the fiscal control board is here for one thing, and it is to ensure that bondholders get every single penny that they can.

Now, should you pay for the loans that you made? You should pay for some part, but that should not come on the shoulders and stomping on the hopes and the livelihood of the Puerto Rican people. This is why Senator Gillibrand has also put together legislation, and basically it’s a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico, which is something that I have been very keen on advocating for. You know, the United States did it in World War II for Europe. So, let us just wipe out the entire debt and begin again, but let us make sure that Puerto Rico still have access to capital markets.

AMY GOODMAN: We started this conversation by saying it’s been five months since Hurricane Maria hit. That’s the longest U.S. blackout in history, with what? Is it—do you agree with these figures? Are a quarter of the island still without electricity, not even to mention the latest blackout? What are the facts and figures on the ground, including what you understand the number of people killed—officially 60-something, our numbers are something like a thousand?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Yeah. Let me start towards that. In October, I was in a visit in the United States, and I used the numbers that the central government of Puerto Rico was given. The central government of Puerto Rico was saying, in September, we had 991 cremations or deaths. That’s about more—500 more than we have ever had. And it sort of continued that way in October. So, it is more than a thousand people that have died, because you have to count not only the people that died directly while the storm was taking place, but the people that have died because they don’t have oxygens in their homes or because there were no oxygen tanks at the hospitals, or the people that have died because of the botched effort, because their own diseases were, let’s say, made even worse. They didn’t have their diabetic medication, their insulin and so forth. So, if you look at the suicide rate, which has gone up 55 percent, you know that more than a thousand people have died. So I think that one of the important things that should come out of this devastating humanitarian crisis is that we should look at the way that we define a crisis and a situation of dire need. That’s number one.

Number two, yes, it is about 25 percent. The problem is that you may have an urban area where five houses in one street are lit up, and the other five houses are not lit up. And that creates what the government is calling and PREPA is calling bolsillos, pockets. And those pockets really are very unequal. And it seems to be that the majority of the people that now don’t have electricity, which also impacts in them not having water, because a lot of the pumps—Yabucoa, which is the town where Maria came through, the mayor was telling me that he has 16 generators that he is paying for, that are put in various water pumps in order to ensure that the people of Yabucoa have power, enough to move the water. So it creates an escalated situation.

The issue is, the fiscal control board put together another petition this morning, very early in the morning, for a much lower amount of loan. But if you don’t have electricity, if you don’t have an appropriate grid, you will not be able to jumpstart the economic motor of Puerto Rico. So one of the things that we continually ask for and I continually advocate for is a waiver on the Stafford Act. Why? The Stafford Act, that controls FEMA or gives life to FEMA, tells us that we need to build everything the exact same way as it was before. Well, yes, we need to pull back the electrical grid, but we also need to set the platform to transform and move from our addiction to fossil fuel to other sources of renewable energy.

I am calling—and I will use your platform to do this—I am calling on any company in the United States that wants to provide and wants to build solar panels in Puerto Rico. Why? Because now you have a tax in the United States, that when you import—thanks to Donald Trump—that when you import solar panels from outside of the United States, you pay a 30 percent tax. So come to San Juan. We will make sure that it’s worth your while, because we have the legal tools in order to say we will put a waiver on the property tax that you have to pay, and we will put a waiver on the municipal taxes that you have to pay.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mayor, to follow up on that issue of the electrical generation, my sister, who lives in Cayey, is one of the many Puerto Ricans who only recently got power back on. Last weekend in Cayey, they finally got electricity. But in the weeks before that, she says that there were private companies—in the days before that, private companies going door to door trying to convince the residents of her neighborhood to basically sign on to a private electrical generation system. So, apparently, the governor and the PROMESA board both agree on the issue of privatizing electricity. But can you talk about what the private electrical companies have already started doing in terms of creating not solar, but their own privatized versions of PREPA?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Yes. And this is—we also have to own up and take a look at what we have done that was not appropriately. The central government of Puerto Rico waited 60 days in order to invoke APA and have all these private companies from the United States come and work here. We in San Juan have been working closely with the New York Power Authority. And they have been doing—you know, it’s almost breathtaking when people see them in the street, and they say—because you know that behind them comes electricity, and behind electricity comes an ability to at least have some semblance of a normal life and providing a good life for your family and for your community.

This has not been the case in other towns. I always remind people that don’t look at what is happening in San Juan and think that that is the exact same thing that is happening across Puerto Rico. As you move further from the metropolitan area, things are still—I just got off the phone with a woman in Morovis, a teacher in Morovis, where in a couple of locations during the past few weeks, from San Juan, we have sent them powdered milk and water, because the children don’t have powdered milk and water in their schools. So, it is important that people know that things are different.

There have been been mayors—the mayor of Comerío—that have talked about, “Look, let me help. What can I do, from the standpoint of a municipality, to ensure that you can do your job?” And what they have been told—and this is a quote from the mayor of Comerío, Josian Santiago—what they have been told is “Look, you cannot open this road for us to go up the hill and do the work that we need to do, because the Army Corps of Engineers has subcontracted that. And the Army Corps of Engineers is waiting for the company that they have subcontracted to bring their agreement to Puerto Rico to get the job done,” to which the mayor has said, “But I have the equipment. I can get it done right now.” And they’ve said, from PREPA, “Well, we’re sorry, but we have to wait, because we already subcontracted that.”

The private companies are starting to leave by mid-March. But yesterday, just yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers said that they no longer could comply with their goal of having 90 to 95 percent of the island nation of Puerto Rico energized by February, that they were thinking that that could happen perhaps by March, but it would be better off if they said by April. So what they promised first by December, which the governor and the Army Corps of Engineers had a tit-for-tat regarding that, then they promised for February, and now they’re saying, you know, it’s most likely in April. So this keeps pushing back any opportunity that we have.

Now, what does this create? It creates desperation amongst people, so that people, when you ask them in the street, “Are you in favor of privatization of the electrical company?” they say yes. Now, when you ask them—and the governor of Puerto Rico made a terrible statement yesterday. When asked in New York, “Why would anybody buy PREPA, the Puerto Rico power authority?” he said, “Well, there’s a lot of space for making profits, because the Puerto Rican people are used to paying high prices for energy,” so as telling those that were listening, “Look, you may lower the cost of production of energy, leave the price at a very high, and this gap will be yours.” If that’s not disaster economics and if that is not setting the stage for the commercialization of services, that are there to promote equality amongst people, I don’t know what it is.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll continue with Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, talking about privatization, FEMA, President Trump and more, coming up.

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