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Privatization in Puerto Rico: Keep PREPA Public

The devastation that Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico is staggering. At this time, the Puerto Rican government reports that just 45 percent of the population has drinking water and only 5 percent has electricity. Not to mention the 16 deaths, the thousands of homes destroyed, and the farmlands left in ruins. The next Hurricane Katrina is unfolding before our eyes.

It seems that the aspect of Hurricane Maria which has gotten the most attention, however,  is the hurricane of tweets that have emitted from the president. This is not surprising, given the spectacle that is Donald J. Trump’s Twitter account. However, just because the president of our country does not seem to be taking this disaster seriously does not mean that we should not be. There are 3.4 million Americans who need long-term assistance.

The emergency aid to Puerto Rico is finally starting to formalize. President Trump waived the Jones Act, helping ease the ability of aid to reach the island. In addition, countless charitable organizations and volunteers have descended into Puerto Rico to provide any assistance that they can. However, one day in the near future, the organizations and volunteers will be gone, and Puerto Rico will be left to navigate the long recovery process on its own.

Where some people see disasters, some see opportunities. Naomi Klein’s seminal book, The Shock Doctrine, laid out this basic theory. Shocks can occur in multiple ways, including torture, war, and natural disasters. After the shock hits, the affected population needs shock therapy, which normally entails an economic makeover. The shock doctrine can be seen in New Orleans, where destroyed public schools were quickly transformed into charter schools which have neglected the city’s neediest students. It can be seen in Iraq, where the shocks of total war opened up the nation to a wave of U.S. government supported privatization that ravaged the nation’s economy. The shock of Hurricane Maria is just the beginning, there is more damage that can come to Puerto Rico.

Plans to privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, have been in the works for years. The recent hurricanes have left it in a place where this idea can finally come to fruition. Capitalism has historically relied on these sorts of shocks to open up new spheres in which it can operate. PREPA has been struggling as Puerto Rico has been shackled by debt, and they are more or less bankrupt. However, that does not mean that the answer is privatization. When Congress gave the board of PREPA the authority to privatize, it gave them the power to cut pensions, break union contracts, and take control of public assets. In the piece of legislation, Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and, Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), Congress approved plans to close down 75 percent of Puerto Rico’s public agencies, lower the minimum wage, and privatize numerous other public corporations. Privatization will not help the Puerto Ricans who work or rely on it for electricity; instead, it will help the people who harness the disaster and use it for profit. In a world where ‘competition’ seems to permeate all of our society, it becomes more important than ever to keep public goods public.

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, yet it has consistently been seen as a colony by the U.S. government. PROMESA is an example of the way in which U.S. power believes it can exert colonial rule over the territory. This legislation was created in Congress by people who do not have Puerto Rico’s best interests at heart. In fact, a majority of Puerto Ricans have been found to be against PROMESA, and there have been a number of protests since its passage. The disregard for the lives and well-being of Puerto Ricans has been astounding, and the attempt to privatize PREPA is just another way in which the United States has neglected its citizens.

PREPA needs reform, but it does not need privatization. There is a middle ground between total privatization and total collapse; for instance, transitioning Prepa to more sustainable and renewable sources for Puerto Rico’s power. PREPA needs solutions that work for Puerto Ricans and the environment: not privatization that works for the profit of the few.

About the author

Charles Finn