After Hurricane Maria, as President Trump has boasted that the relief effort is going “great,” the vast majority of the island of Puerto Rico is still without power. That’s because Maria isn’t just a natural disaster. When the hurricane dumped a brutal storm surge on Puerto Rico, it was washing over an island crippled by years of debt and austerity.
The damage from Irma and Maria followed decades of neoliberal privatization that has eviscerated Puerto Rico’s brittle infrastructure. With power and public services wiped out—and currently still hobbling to get back online as swaths of the island remain isolated from federal aid—many advocates fear that the storm could accelerate the neoliberal “restructuring” agenda of PROMESA, the punishing bailout that Congress imposed last year to “rescue” the island from debt default. But while climate disaster has further exposed the commonwealth’s fragile public institutions to Wall Street’s privateering, particularly the public electricity company PREPA, a horizon for radical change is surfacing, where communities long oppressed by colonial and corporate dominion might find renewed autonomy.
In the face of escalating environmental vulnerability for the whole region due to climate change, recovery from Maria will be painful, but there may be one silver lining: There’s a chance that the disaster could end up leading the island to kick its reliance on dirty fossil fuels. Researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at University of Massachusetts-Amherst see fertile ground for renewal through green rebuilding efforts and a self-sufficient energy system. Creating a renewables-based power grid emancipated from the fossil-fuel industry could blaze a path to socially fair and climate-resilient energy sovereignty for the island.
With the right balance of massive public investment and tax restructuring, PERI argues, an island-wide program of “green growth” is possible. According to PERI, if the island’s long-struggling communities can reclaim the recovery process through democratic public control, the energy infrastructure could completely replace imported fossil fuels with homegrown renewable power by 2050.