Saturday, December 16, 2017

Puerto Rico: ‘The Stricken Land’ Again

By on November 27, 2017

Puerto Rico is “The Stricken Land” again.

That’s the title of Rexford Tugwell’s important 1947 book, the memoir of his five years, 1941-1946, as the last, and by far the best American governor.

And, of course, it describes the Puerto Rico of November 2017, still stunned by the catastrophe that was Hurricane María’s landfall on Sept. 20.

History has an odd symmetry.

I was on my way back to San Juan from Europe when one of CNN’s headlines was that the head of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) had resigned.

Puerto Rico power utility chief resigns amid Whitefish contract scandal

This was headline news in Europe!

In fact, Prepa has been worldwide news since María. Of course there is power failure everywhere after a hurricane. But all Puerto Rico? And now, two months later, half of Puerto Rico?

So a big part of the Hurricane María story has been how Puerto Rico allowed its electric power system, its power authority, so fundamental, so vital, to deteriorate to such a point.

A good question.

For many years, for us in the media, Prepa was hardly news. As in all developed countries, we took for granted vital services, like electric power, drinking water, sewerage. We got annoyed when there was a power outage, but we expected to get it back in hours or days after a hurricane; at worse, in a week or two.

When things work as we expect them to, it is usually not “news.”

Through the years, however, I realized there was a big, important story in the public corporations that provide vital services. The power of the unions.

The source of their power was evident. The fact that these were indeed vital, indispensable services, and that they were government monopolies. None was more powerful than the Prepa unions. It could, and did, threaten to black out all Puerto Rico.

In the 1990s, I was a consultant to a PR firm hired by a North Carolina contractor that built and operated the latest coal-powered, highly efficient power plants. I saw firsthand the power of Prepa’s unions.

The unions vehemently opposed the Cogentrix plant, threatening with violence, and with the help of the environmental movement, and finally of many politicians, killed it.

The unions consider it their No. 1 priority to prevent “privatization.” It’s a big word. For many it means that the government, thus “the people,” lose control of a vital service. For unions it means more. It means losing their control of the agencies.

What was most important, and relevant to today’s power crisis, was that I saw firsthand the weakness of Prepa’s management. It knew and feared the power of the unions. And it knew that it had to avoid, almost at all cost, union conflicts. It knew that the last thing Puerto Rico’s political leaders wanted was a labor strike that would result in a Puerto Rico-wide blackout.

(NASA/NOAA)

So of the many factors that explain what happened to Prepa, a big part was simply management’s fear, all the way up to the governor, of the unions’ power. While it was evident that every Puerto Rican and the entire economy suffered from the inefficiencies, the high costs of electric power, the attitude was that it was better not to stir the hornet’s nest: better to leave these agencies alone.

Former Puerto Rico Gov. Rexford G. Tugwell (1941-1946)

And this brings us back to Tugwell’s book.

He knew that he and the island’s political leader, Senate President Luis Muñoz Marín, had brought about deep economic and social reforms that had begun to lift Puerto Ricans out of centuries of extreme poverty. But Muñoz Marín and many others were unhappy with the title, “The Stricken Land,” that seemed to project pessimism–more defeat than success.

It was not in fact until a few years later that he wrote another book extolling Puerto Rico’s remarkable “economic miracle.”

But he did see, and dedicated a good part of his book to the many battles he and Muñoz Marín fought in Washington and here to create what was called the Puerto Rico Water Resources Authority, later called Prepa, with total control of power in Puerto Rico. And he was very proud of this.

And he was right.

Millions of words have been written about the island’s “economic miracle,” but the real miracle in the lives of Puerto Ricans was the day they pulled a string and the light bulb went on!

And Prepa became the pride not just of Tugwell’s years, but of the following decades of the Muñoz Marín years.

Tugwell described a Puerto Rican engineer who since the 1920s had headed the hydraulic plants that produced power in the rural areas as a genius. All his life, Antonio Lucchetti had an obsession, a government power authority, finally realized by Tugwell.

Leading it until his death in 1952, as historian Charles Goodsell wrote in his book “Administration of a Revolution,” Lucchetti turned Prepa into one of “the most prestigious and efficient” agencies in the Puerto Rico government. And as historian Henry Wells put it in “The Modernization of Puerto Rico,” by the mid-1960s, Prepa achieved the best per capita power production in Latin America, among the highest in the world.

“In the mid-60s,” Wells wrote, “the whole bulk of refrigerators and the pale glow of television screens became familiar sights in humble dwellings in both town and country.”

Now, Lucchetti, one of Puerto Rico’s biggest unsung heroes, as they say, must be turning in his grave.

Now we are again a “Stricken Land” as Puerto Ricans painfully wait for refrigerators to work again, for the pale glow of TV screens, for the light bulb to turn on.

Of course, there is no one to blame for María. But there is a lot of blame for allowing the shining pride of Puerto Rico to become the worldwide shame of Puerto Rico.

–A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist for The San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and publisher and editor of El Reportero.

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