Hundreds of Puerto Ricans took to the streets on Wednesday to protest against the archipelago’s contract with LUMA Energy, which is jointly owned by US and Canadian business interests.
“There goes LUMA, there goes LUMA with another increase,” demonstrators shouted during a march towards La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion in San Juan.
Since the privatization of Puerto Rico’s energy grid under LUMA last year, Puerto Ricans have been criticizing the company for severe billing increases, widespread blackouts and labor abuses. But for many, the problems run far deeper than an energy bill, and relate to the archipelago’s longstanding struggle for self-determination.
“This is just one of several symptoms of the loss of control that Puerto Ricans are experiencing over our own island,” said Gabriela Malespin, an organizer with New York Boricua Resistance, which organized a solidarity rally on Wednesday in New York City. “And this is a direct symptom of American colonialism.”
In June 2021, LUMA — a joint venture by Canada-based ATCO and Houston-based Quanta Services — took over Puerto Rico’s power grid from its state-run utility provider. The transition was made with little public input as part of a larger debt restructuring plan by the Fiscal Control Board, an unelected panel created by Congress that has largely controlled the archipelago’s budget since 2016.
“This isn’t just one company taking advantage of Puerto Rico — this is American imperialism.”
In a 2021 report, the Action Center on Race and the Economy and the Center for Popular Democracy sharply criticized the Fiscal Control Board for using “its power to impose devastating austerity measures and negotiate unsustainable debt restructuring plans that enrich Wall Street and hurt Puerto Ricans. ”
This month, LUMA increased Puerto Ricans’ electricity bills by 17.1 percent to 34 cents per kilowatt-hour, the company’s seventh consecutive rate increase since taking over the power grid in 2021. With the new increase, Puerto Ricans — about 43 percent of whom live below the poverty line — now pay more than double the average rate of 14 cents per kWh for electricity in the US
Despite the high bills, the power grid has experienced chronic system failures, leaving hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans in the dark, including a major outage to one-third of the archipelago in April.
On Monday, a group of around 20 protesters entered LUMA’s office in Levittown, Toa Baja, where they shouted “out with LUMA” and “enough with the abuse,” and invite those present to join in Wednesday’s mass demonstrations, before being escorted out by security.
During Wednesday’s protests, union leaders, community leaders, politicians and Puerto Ricans from around the archipelago converged on the capital, where they marched together, urging an end to the contract and criticizing Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.
“It’s really unfortunate that the governor is continuing to defend a contract when his constitutional duty is to defend the people above a contractor,” Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, president of Puerto Rico’s Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union, told El Nuevo Dia.
Figueroa Jaramillo has also been criticized for failing to employ enough Spanish-speaking customer service representatives, leading to delays in repair times.
As for what the protesters want from their energy grid, it is called for a return to public ownership, affordable prices and investments in repairs and renewable energy.
In New York City, the solidarity protest by New York Boricua Resistance focused on the broader net of multinational companies profiting off of LUMA’s dysfunction. Protesters rallied outside of the offices of DLA Piper, a global law firm representing LUMA that has also been criticized for helping to design tax incentives that have contributed to gentrification on the archipelago.
“DLA Piper is representing a company that is clearly despised and detrimental to the people of Puerto Rico for profit, and they’re complicit in our rising utility costs,” Malespin said. “This isn’t just one company taking advantage of Puerto Rico — this is American imperialism.”