Sen. Sanders in Puerto Rico: We’ve got to move forward in a different direction
SAN JUAN – Sen. Bernie Sanders paid a brief visit Friday to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico to explore both short- and long-term solutions to some of the larger issues affecting the island, including its collapsed power grid and its dire financial situation.
“The reason I’m here today is to listen, to hear from the people of Puerto Rico about how we address the immediate set of crises that the island faces,” the senator said during a press conference at the end of his visit.
“Short-term: How do we get the electricity back on? How do we make sure the people have drinkable water, have adequate food and the schools are open. How do we deal with the fact that tens of thousands of homes in this area and around the island have either been damaged or destroyed. That’s no small task. But the role of the federal government and our agencies is to bring the reconstruction of Puerto Rico to where it should be as quickly as possible,” he stressed.
“We were out his morning and a point a woman made was that we cannot rebuild to be where we were before. We’ve got to move forward in a different direction. That speaks to housing, you can’t rebuild housing that will be blown apart in the next hurricane, that makes no sense to anybody. That also deals with energy. Before the hurricane this island electrical problems in terms of the high cost of electricity and the unreliability of the system,” he added.
His hostess on the island was San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who first took him to the impoverished and severly affected Playita sector of the capital to speak with people of the community. This was followed by a meeting with the mayor of Comerío, José Antonio “Josian” Santiago; Vieques Deputy Mayor Daisy Cruz; Ángel Jaramillo, president of the island power utility’s Irrigation & Electrical Workers Union (Utier); the chairman of the Dominican House, engineer Pachín Francisco Ramírez; Popular Democratic Party Rep. Luis Vega Ramos; and David Dark of the nonprofit Operation Blessing.
Sanders made a case for utilizing two of the island’s most abundant resources, the sun and wind, to develop sustainable energy. Jaramillo, meanwhile, was supportive of having solar energy be part of the services offered by Prepa.
“The topic of energy in Puerto Rico has to go beyond when will the electric service be restored,” the union leader said. “Even though our priority is to rebuild and light up the country, we also have to take advantage and see the energetic transformation of Puerto Rico, but a transformation in the hands of the people, with a much stronger public utility.
“Within that transformation, we have been discussing for years how we can power communities with solar power. Not to deny them electric service, as has been stated, because it’s difficult to get the service to them. But to empower communities with conservation and energetic development.”
Jaramillo also warned that this crisis wasn’t the time to push privatization efforts or measures that benefit only certain economic sectors, noting that people have already died from lack of energy services.
“We need the equipment, the materials and the workers to light up the country as soon as possible. And we trust that the senator’s efforts here today will help us meet, not any imposed goals, but to meet the needs of our people. That’s why Utier will continue working for the people of Puerto Rico to light up the country, recognizing that we need to transform our electric system,” he added.
Another important topic covered during the meeting, Sanders said, was the island’s economic situation, including its $73 billion public debt and the fiscal control board.
The mayors present said the austerity measures being implemented had forced them to reduce public employee work hours and could leave many towns without funds to operate.
“For us, the fiscal control board has been like a crime,” Vieques’ Cruz said, noting that three-fourths of her island-municipality’s population depend on the local government.
Santiago, added that he hoped part of the $4.9 billion loan recently granted to the commonwealth government, which Sanders expects “will become a grant,” be assigned to replace the $350 million the municipalities are no longer getting from the central government.
“Otherwise, there will be more than 50 towns that won’t be able to operate as of July 1 of next year, and then we will have a real crisis, which nobody wants,” the mayor warned.
Sanders said that in three weeks, Congress will debate an additional relief package “in the many billions of dollars” for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“There is a full understanding, I think, on the part of many of us that the rebuild of Puerto Rico will require a very substantial sum of money. But while we deal with the short-term needs of the island, getting its feet back on the ground, it is also important that we deal with the long-term needs as well. These are decisions that need to be made by the people of Puerto Rico, obviously,” he said.
The Jones Act was also a topic of discussion during the meeting, with Rep. Vega Ramos noting that a “prolonged temporary exemption of the Jones Maritime Shipping Act, ultimate policy being the total repeal of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico,” was urged.
However, Sanders was noncommittal in his response to talk of a Jones Act repeal, citing union concerns over wages, but did acknowledge there should be exemptions for humanitarian situations such as the one Puerto Rico is currently facing.
Vega Ramos also indicated that he and the mayor of San Juan would be giving Sanders a revised version of a bill he submitted last year to the Senate that tackled the island’s debt crisis, with recommendations based on the situation post-Maria.
Closing the press conference, the Vermont senator did his best to reassure the people of Puerto Rico that “they are not alone,” adding that, “All across the mainland people understand the suffering that is going on here and people are demanding that the federal government work with your local officials to make sure the electricity gets on, that people get the clean water they need, the food they need, and we start the process of rebuilding this beautiful island.”