By Josefina Morales
On Friday, thousands of Puerto Ricans marched down the ‘Las Americas’ highway in the capital of San Juan to protest the privatization of the island’s electrical grid. The privatization has resulted in steep increases in electricity bills and blackouts that have increased in severity since June, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of the island’s three million people. The protest denounced the US-Canadian energy monopoly LUMA Energy, and called for independence from US imperialism and its colonial rule of Puerto Rico.
The protest was organized through a broad call to the people made by many labor and progressive organizations. Students and workers from towns across the island arrived in buses, with many teachers, construction, and electrical workers as well as pensioned retirees among the crowd. The Puerto Rican flag (with a sky blue section rather than today’s US-matching navy blue) representing the national independence movement was flown prominently among the crowd.
LUMA was the main enemy identified by protesters, who connected the company to the US imperialist looting of the island’s resources, as well as a continuation of over 500 years of colonization of the island’s people. The US has been the colonial power ruling over Puerto Rico for the past 123 years, ever since it seized the country in the Spanish-American War.
Over 4,500 protestors blocked roadways, making their way onto the largest highway on the island. The crowd chanted, “Out with LUMA!” and “LUMA go to hell!” Another chant, “Fight, yes! Delivery, no!” referred to the people’s opposition toward the ‘delivery’ of the island’s resources to US imperialism.
The Puerto Rican State attempted to hold the protest back by chaining the gates at the gathering point, a public parking lot, so that cars would not be able to park there and force protesters to walk a long distance to reach the meet-up point. As night fell, street lamps along the highway were shut off, at which point the protesters used their cell phones for light. Truck drivers who joined the protest used their headlights to help protesters move safely.
The protesters called for the resignation of Puerto Rican governor Pedro Pierluisi and the dissolution of the Obama-created Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMBPR), commonly referred to as ‘La Junta,’ implying that the FOMBPR is the de facto ruler of the US territory. The US Congress selects officers for La Junta to work with the governor in order to leverage the island’s debt in favor of capitalist beneficiaries and against the interests of the Puerto Rican people.
After signing a 15 year contract with the Puerto Rican government in July 2020, LUMA took over the distribution, transmission, maintenance, and modernization of the power infrastructure on June 1. With a summer of fluctuating voltage, generator fires, plant shutdowns, worsening customer service, and longer service restoration times for utility customers, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the former state-owned electrical company that still operates the electrical plants, voted to declare a state of emergency on October 7 due to the “critical condition” of its facilities.
One working mother spoke with Tribune on the hardships of raising her son with the constant electricity insecurity: “The school has the option to then take the class virtually but we couldn’t do that either because we obviously had no power. All our food went bad in the fridge and I had just bought groceries, so it was difficult to keep us fed. I had to go out and spend money I didn’t have to get food [from the] outside.”
Friday’s march comes after dozens of smaller protests, encampments, and strikes have been staged throughout the island over the past 14 months. Various worker and progressive organizations have been active and persistent in denouncing the LUMA contract and opposing privatization. In particular, workers belonging to the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER, Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego), which represents about 4,800 workers, have spoken out against LUMA.
The majority of these workers are unified against signing contracts to work with LUMA, which violated labor laws and collective bargaining agreements by laying off thousands of pensioned workers on June 1. LUMA has since forced contractors to hire International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union workers from the US exclusively, at a higher salary than UTIER workers would have made.
UTIER representatives have called for international solidarity to oppose the strike-breaking tactic, saying, “this North American union is not welcome. We denounce its participation as an aggression against Puerto Rican unionism […] UTIER will fight and resist until the last gasp of life.”
After hours of chanting, speeches, music, and calls for increasing mobilizations against the US lackeys who govern the island, Friday’s protest dispersed, only to face traffic jams caused by Puerto Rican police gathering to celebrate the birthday of one of their own officers on a street corner.
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