THE BLOG
09/26/2016 11:37 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2017

Dark Star: Puerto Rico Reels From 3-Day Blackout

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Puerto Rico has emerged bewildered from a three-night national blackout, which affected 1.5 million customers, left 250,000 without water service, and prompted estimates of close to $1 billion in immediate economic losses, along with incalculable future repercussions.

Sleep cooled by air conditioning or electric fans in tropical temps of 80-plus degrees Fahrenheit became a sudden luxury over the weekend in this Caribbean country, now known as much for its debt crisis as for its salsa music.

For most -- but not all -- the nightmare ended over the weekend, shifting to the task of throwing out damaged food. Residents of the housing project Residencial El Prado in Río Piedras reported "que llegó la luz" or that the lights came back at about 3 a.m. this Monday morning.

Not surprisingly, and in the wake of $43 million in local public funds being paid to debt restructuring expert Lisa Donahue and the company Alix Partners, there is now talk of privatizing Puerto Rico's electric utility. But with infamous examples of energy firms such as Enron, privatization has long stopped being seen as a panacea.

The historic collapse of basic services -- caused by a fire Wednesday afternoon at a major plant initially blamed on poor maintenance -- culminated fittingly on Friday, September 23, known as Grito de Lares Day, an unofficial holiday in this U.S. territory of 3.4 million American citizens, which officially marks U.S. and local holidays, from Thanksgiving to Abolition of Slavery Day. Sacred to the country's independence supporters, el Grito de Lares, or the Cry from Lares, is named for the rural town of the interior where in 1868 an insurrection against Spanish colonialism briefly declared Puerto Rico independent before being crushed by the authorities.

Thousands of independence supporters traditionally make the pilgrimage to Lares every year to commemorate the day with speeches, music and traditional food and artisan vendors.

The most memorable of recent history was in 2005, when the FBI chose that date to raid the home of and kill Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a militant leader of the Ejército Popular Boricua (Boricua Popular Army), who had lived underground for many years. Leaders across Puerto Rico's political spectrum decried his killing at the time, as the FBI reportedly acted without informing local authorities, and a wounded Ojeda Ríos bled to death without medical attention.

In the aftermath, photo exhibits and artistic tributes repeatedly featured a searing image of the blood-stained steps at the doorway of his home where he died.

On this year's Grito de Lares, the entire country seemed to be mortally wounded and being left for dead.

The blackout spells the collapse of the Free Associated State -- or "Commonwealth" as Puerto Rico has been called euphemistically -- in even more tangible terms than all the seismic events of the past year, including two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that annulled Puerto Rico's Constitution and sovereignty -- or exposed it as the apparent lie it always was.

The blackout also portends the coming storm of the federally-imposed fiscal control board, instituted as part of PROMESA, the Orwellian-sounding law named for its acronym, Spanish for "promise." President Obama's recently announced appointees to the fiscal control board promise neoliberal economic austerity to do the bidding of vulture hedge funds, as well as social unrest.

The first conference for collaborators of PROMESA, sponsored by the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce at the Condado Plaza Hotel on August 31, was shut down by hundreds of protestors who confronted riot police, some brandishing home-made shields emblazoned with black Puerto Rican flags, a motif started by local artists who stripped the flag of its bright colors on a popular public art display in Old San Juan to signify resistance.

And a protest occupation has set camp for the long haul at the federal courthouse in San Juan since PROMESA was signed into law on June 30.

PROMESA was passed with a proverbial gun to the country's head, as a July 1 default deadline loomed on payment to the $72 billion debt, with more layers of creditors than top experts involved claim to have ever encountered. Yet the law's one clear benefit, to temporarily delay a tsunami of lawsuits, is now being challenged in federal court, with the same judge presiding who months ago ruled against Puerto Rico's attempt to file bankruptcy for its embattled electric utility.

PROMESA's fiscal control board is now set to convene at Hamilton Custom House this Friday in New York, home to 850,000 Puerto Ricans from a politically established stateside diaspora, which for over a decade now has outnumbered residents on the island, with a record 89,000 leaving last year.

The board became even more controversial with President Obama's recent appointment of Carlos García, a key figure in the administration of previous Governor Luis Fortuño, who was booted out of office by a long-standing tradition in Puerto Rican elections called voto de castigo or punishment vote.

García was a key figure in Fortuño's administration, president of the now nearly insolvent Government Development Bank, and an architect of Law 7, used to lay off thousands of public employees and annul public sector union contracts, later mirrored in the policies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Because of García's involvement in issuing predatory debt for Puerto Rico, his appointment has been characterized as a conflict of interest.

A federal fiscal control board in Puerto Rico is often compared to previous incarnations in Washington, D.C. and Detroit, an attempt to normalize what the United Nations defines in international criminal terms as colonialism. But Washington, D.C. and Detroit are not U.S. territories; while D.C. has clamored for statehood, it does not have an independence movement. Yet one telling parallel is that the hardest hit communities in both cities are African-American, as Puerto Rico is treated in federal terms as an ethno-racial "minority" population.

It's no accident that Black Lives Matter uprisings, along with indigenous occupation against the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Sioux at Standing Rock, coincide with Puerto Rico's crisis.

This was recently made explicit in a widely-publicized speech by federal judge Juan R. Torruella, who traced the legal lineage of PROMESA to such past infamous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that justified and perpetuated the Jim Crow era. He concluded by calling for Puerto Ricans to organize an economic boycott of U.S. businesses and imports.

That's a tall order for a country so steeped in consumption, and where 85 percent of food is imported, evident during the blackout with long lines for ice, gas and other goods, wherever businesses with generators managed to stay open.

Such purchases seemed an ephemeral consolation. Even the customary hospitality and humor of Puerto Ricans could not blunt the shock of a nation-wide blackout that lasted three plus days. "The damage now is to the psyche," said one municipal employee reporting to work this Monday morning.

Outside, a candle-lit gathering Thursday night, a neighbor from an exclusive enclave near the governor's mansion in beautiful Old San Juan looked up at his darkened balcony and remarked, "I thought the country was developed."

It is as if Puerto Rico was submitted to what Naomi Klein calls "shock doctrine," only without electricity.

A common phrase among anti-colonial activists here ¡Despierta -- Wake Up -- Boricua! invokes Puerto Ricans echoing the island's long colonial history with its original Taino name, Borinquen.

The silent, pitch-black nights of this national power outage have been a rude awakening indeed.