A Green New Deal could radically change the daily lives of Puerto Ricans and the outlook for the island, according to San Juan’s mayor. Speaking at the inaugural conference of the The Sanders Institute, Carmen Yulín Cruz offered a vision for clean energy self-reliance during a panel discussion, describing the island’s desire for a Green New Deal “to live, to thrive, not only to survive.” Such a policy shift through progressive policy approaches to clean energy, she argued, could ameliorate infrastructure gaps left more than a year after 2 hurricanes decimated Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm, made landfall in Puerto Rico in September, 2017, impacting all critical infrastructure and damaging at least 80% of the island’s energy grid. This hurricane compounded destruction caused by Hurricane Irma 2 weeks earlier, damaging roads and interrupting the water supply, electricity, telecommunications networks, and access to medical care. Causing an estimated $90 billion in damages, the tropical cyclone displaced 1000s of people from their homes, and 1.5 million customers lost electricity across Puerto Rico.
US federal assistance continues to trickle in, with many critics asserting that a US colonialist attitude hinders motivation and policy administration to assist Puerto Rico. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, considered to be a leading Democrat on climate change and who will begin to serve New York’s 14th congressional district in January, 2019, has suggested that storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, still struggling to regain reliable electricity nearly a year after the deadliest hurricane in contemporary US history, could be a testing ground for a Green New Deal. “Our fellow Americans on the island have suffered horrendous losses and need investment at a scale that only the American government can provide,” she said.
Puerto Rico’s Energy Infrastructure Post Hurricane Maria
With the largest blackout in US history, the damage caused by Hurricane Maria was unlike anything ever seen on the US mainland. Harvard researchers have estimated in the New England Journal of Medicine that up to 4,600 people likely died as a result of the storm. That death toll makes Hurricane Maria the deadliest natural disaster to hit US soil in more than a century, ever since a hurricane hit Texas in 1900 and killed more than 6,000 people.
Power restoration was more difficult than any other restoration efforts the US had previously faced. Nearly 60 investor-owned electric companies and public power utilities committed crews, equipment, and/or materials to the emergency power restoration mission. Overall, approximately 3,000 industry lineworkers and support personnel were involved in the restoration effort on the island.
“What a hurricane tells you about climate change is that it’s not fake news. We are not a theoretical case — we are what happens when you have a perfect storm. We don’t want a Green New Deal for electricity or to take hot showers or to have air conditioning,” Yulín Cruz explained. “We want it for children to go to school … for children to have access to nebulizers.”
A Green New Deal is a 4-part program for moving the US into a secure, sustainable future. Wealthy countries — in Europe, Australia, and the US — have failed to provide meaningful aid to poorer nations to protect them from weather extremes and leapfrog to clean tech, according to social activist Naomi Klein. She argues that, if a US political party running on a sweeping Green New Deal retook the White House and the Senate in November 2020, “then there would actually be time left on the climate clock to meet the harsh targets laid out in the recent IPCC report, which told us that we have a mere 12 years to cut fossil fuel emissions by a head-spinning 45%.”
Inspired by the New Deal programs that helped shift the US from the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Green New Deal seeks to provide similar relief and create an economy that makes communities sustainable, healthy, and just. Yulín Cruz states, “We are in a fight for our lives. Hurricanes Irma and María unmasked the colonialism we face in Puerto Rico and the inequality it fosters, creating a fierce humanitarian crisis. Now we must find a path forward to equality and sustainability, a path driven by communities, not investors … What type of society do we want to become, and who is Puerto Rico for?”
What Would a Green New Deal Look Like for Puerto Rico?
A Green New Deal “will dramatically reduce energy costs throughout Puerto Rico,” said Political Economic Research Institute (PERI) co-director and University of Massachusetts professor Robert Pollin. “We will create through this somewhere in the range of 25,000 jobs in the early stages, 80,000 jobs per year in the later stages. It will be good for business — it will create all kinds of business opportunities… You can create a domestically-created infrastructure that is maintained and owned by small businesses.”
Under a Green New Deal, Pollin said, 1.5% of Puerto Rico’s $100 billion GDP would be invested in green energy, financed by a carbon tax as well as public investments and private incentives—allowing the island to shift to a 100% renewable energy economy by 2050. Puerto Rico is paying 2-3x more for electricity now than the continental US, he says. For renewable energy, as of 2022, the cost for Puerto Ricans will only amount to 25% of their current electrical payments “by delivering reliable, renewable, dependable energy.”
Pollin co-wrote a study, “Austerity Versus Green Growth for Puerto Rico,” which offers a bold set of counter-proposals based on green investments, a carbon tax, and debt forgiveness by Puerto Rico’s creditors. “Think about investing and building a green economy,” Pollin began at The Gathering. “We cost it out, given what we know about cost investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.” Grid upgrades, public transportation, industrial efficiency, and upgrading the building stock become focal areas. “We’re looking at something like $2.2 billion. You do it every year for 30 years, and you can have zero emissions. Puerto Rico can pay for it by itself by putting a tax on carbon that starts in 2020 and escalates in 2050. It will dramatically improve energy costs in Puerto Rico.”
A “disastrous” economic policy enacted under President Clinton, added Pollin, fostered debt dependency in Puerto Rico.
The island’s residents are US citizens who pay federal taxes. It has its own constitution, but the US federal government can and does intervene in local affairs. In an effort to aid the island’s development in the 1950s, the US federal government established “Operation Bootstrap,” which offered tax incentives to manufacturers who would relocate on Puerto Rico. Subsequently, factory jobs and ancillary effects grew the island economy while corporations were excused from paying corporate income tax. The law became increasingly expensive for federal taxpayers, to the point where Congress repealed the tax break in the 1990s. When that change finally took effect in the mid-2000s, it had a dramatic negative impact on manufacturing employment and the entire island’s economy.
The fiscal situation has never really improved since. “Puerto Rico’s economy has been in a recession, basically since 2007,” and austerity, Pollin described, cannot serve as a solution for Puerto Rico’s troubled economy. Hedge funds — or “vulture funds” — have purchased billions of dollars of the island’s debt. The debt, which reached $73 billion before Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, was incurred due partially to a lack of tax revenue brought on by Congress’s repeal of business tax breaks there.
The Green Energy Plan includes a partial repayment of Puerto Rican debt out of a carbon tax. Because Puerto Rico imports all its energy, Pollin asserted, it will be good for business. “The Green New Deal is a program that I think is viable. What about climate change? It’s important — every entity should commit to zero emissions. The Green New Deal also works for Puerto Rico as a growth agenda.”
Puerto Rico is More of a Colony than a Territory, According to San Juan’s Mayor
A decade-long recession and utility mismanagement of an aging grid exacerbate problems rooted in Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status. A combination of colonialism and local policy miscalculations make rebuilding infrastructure complicated and problematic. Along with the Trump administration’s woefully inadequate and callous response to the hurricanes, the state of the island—a “colony” of the United States government, Yulín Cruz said, rather than a “territory — It’s a euphemism” — has been compounded by its long history of austerity.
Austerity in Puerto Rico has included reduced pensions, slashed sick leave and vacation pay for public employees, aid cuts across the island, and the establishment by the Obama administration of a board to oversee Puerto Rico’s debt. “Colonialism is a crime and financial domination is a crime,” Yulín Cruz said. “The right-wing people say, ‘You just want things done for you.’ No, we want what everybody wants.”
Things as basic as health care are directed by the fiscal control board, who may have “the best intentions for the people of Puerto Rico.”
“We pay the same cost for Medicare, but we get 40% less,” she explained. “We don’t want health to be connected to wealth.” Education, too, she says, has been cut, so that 15,000 undergraduate students on deferred payment cannot afford their tuition. Education, “which is the most egalitarian tool,” has been taken away from the people of Puerto Rico.
“The Trump administration has shown us that those we’re supposed to help when help is needed is not going to happen, but relationships have been cemented,” she offered. Nurses tended to wounds, unions sent 327 AFL-CIO workers who “left their homes to care for us and came to tell the world” what was happening Puerto Rico, she said.
“It is about unity, about vision. All I ask is for a true process of self-determination. If it is free association, which is what I want, which is a compact between two countries where everybody knows what the responsibility is and what they put on the table, let’s just know what the rules are,” she declared.
As Yulín Cruz and Pollin explained, the island is also at the mercy of the US government regarding its fossil fuel consumption, importing the vast majority of its energy from the mainland and unable to purchase components of sustainable infrastructure, like solar panels, without approval from the Trump administration.
In The Battle For Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, Klein outlines a rationale why the Green New Deal is imperative.
“The ground for this moment has been prepared for decades, with models for community-owned and community-controlled renewable energy; with justice-based transitions that make sure no worker is left behind; with a deepening analysis of the intersections between systemic racism, armed conflict, and climate disruption; with improved green tech and breakthroughs in clean public transit; with the thriving fossil fuel divestment movement; with model legislation driven by the climate justice movement that shows how carbon taxes can fight racial and gender exclusion; and much more.”
Grassroots pressure has elevated the visibility of a Green New Deal with a House Committee. Now supported by 15 representatives, the innovative proposal creates a new nationwide sustainable infrastructure that would help some of those in the US who are most affected by austerity policies.
Klein offers hope, even if the push for a Select Committee for a Green New Deal is defeated. “Those lawmakers who want it to happen could consider working with civil society to set up some sort of parallel constituent assembly-like body to get the plan drafted anyway, in time for it to steal the show in 2020. Because this possibility is simply too important, and time is just too short, to allow it to be shut down by the usual forces of political inertia.”
Who is Carmen Yulín Cruz?
Hon. Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto is a member of the Political Education Institute of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and was elected National President of the PPD Women Organization. In 2005 the Governor of Puerto Rico named her a member of the San Juan Reorganization Commission. Cruz was also part of the PPD Government Platform Program Committee and in 2008 was elected Representative by Accumulation. In 2012, Cruz was elected Mayor of San Juan City.
What is the Sanders Institute?
Founded in 2017 on the belief that a vital democracy requires an informed electorate, civil discourse, and bold ideas, the Sanders Institute focuses on progressive solutions to economic, environmental, racial, and social justice issues. The Gathering coalesced this vision by bringing together 250 leading progressive minds to envision – and to actualize – a better future for our country and the world. Reaching across generations and embracing the inherent synergies across the progressive platform, participants debated the most pressing US issues and offer innovative solutions.
The Gathering is part of a larger Sanders Institute theme which focuses on the need for international cooperation and a Progressive International movement.
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