AJ Vicens, a reporter who covers Puerto Rico issues for Mother Jones, noted in a tweet:
Someone I met in San Juan tonight compared electric grid restoration in different parts of town to gerrymandering.
I found this tweet interesting so I replied to Mr. Vicens’s tweet, asking what he thought the person meant by that statement. And he promptly replied:
I think it was implying that power resources are distributed based on political and other factors, not necessarily on need or in an even way.
When I visited the island last week, to visit family and do some research on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) efforts to restore electricity, I also heard similar opinions. In addition, many people talked about countless alleged cases of corruption in PREPA. Some of these were covered by the local press – a subject that will be explored in a future Congressional hearing.
For now, let’s ignore the bribery allegations. I am interested in the following question: has politics played a role in the efforts to restore electricity to the island’s municipalities? In other words, does political party affiliation or political favoritism determined the USACE’s and PREPA’s efforts? And why do Puerto Ricans feel that this is the case?
Before we answer these questions, it is important to first note that Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities, each with an elected mayor and an elected legislative assembly.
In terms of population, the biggest municipality is San Juan with 347,052 people and the smallest is Culebra with 1,818 people. While the pro-statehood, Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) won all the territory-level institutions (i.e. the governorship, the legislature and the resident commissioner seat) in the 2016 general election, the pro-Commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) won 45 of the municipalities. Over 2 million people live in municipalities controlled by the PPD, while close to 1.4 million live in municipalities controlled by the PNP.
As of this morning, 179 days since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, 92% of the island’s 1,473,000 electricity customers have power, leaving around 120,000 customers without power. As the graph below shows, since 2 January 2018, around 545,000 customers have been reconnected to the electric grid.
Unfortunately, we don’t have these customer level data for the last months of 2017 as PREPA’s computer systems could not calculate how many meters were connected to the grid. But the graph shows that the process to repair the electric system has been very slow and has frustrated many Puerto Ricans.
Another problem with this graph is that it does not actually tell us how many people have electricity at the municipal level. Since mid-January 2018, the USACE has been sharing the number of connected meters by regions. The regions corresponds to PREPA’s division of the islands into the following clusters: Arecibo, Bayamon, Caguas, Carolina, Ponce, Mayaguez and San Juan.
Since mid November 2017, some PPD mayors have questioned whether PREPA and the USACE have spent more time and resources addressing the electricity needs of municipalities controlled by the PNP. While PREPA officials have denied these claims, in mid January 2018, more PPD mayors, frustrated by the slow pace of the recovery, raised the same concerns. While Governor Ricardo Rosselló asked the mayors not to politicize the recovery efforts, his chief of staff, William Villafañe, admitted that the mayors needed access to more information on PREPA’s efforts. Villafañe’s efforts however have not addressed these mayors’ concerns, as many of them noted in a meeting hosted by the governor on 28 February 2018.
Given the island’s politics and Puerto Ricans’ frustrations with the slow recovery process, it is not surprising that many believe that the efforts to repair the island’s electric grid has been shaped by political connections to La Fortaleza – the governor’s residence. But, is this the case?
On 19 January 2018, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día, as a reaction to PPD mayors’ growing criticisms, published the percentage of meters connected to the electric grid in each municipality. As noted in the table below, 60% of the island’s electric customers had power. The average of customers with electricity in municipalities controlled by either political party was the same.
I recently received a copy of a map prepared by the USACE and PREPA for the 28 February meeting mentioned above. At the time, 80.5% of the island’s electric customers had power. The figures suggest that the average number of customers with electricity in municipalities administered by mayors of the PPD and PNP is roughly the same. But given that more Puerto Ricans today reside in PPD-controlled municipalities, the total number of customers connected to the grid is larger in PPD-controlled municipalities than in PNP-controlled ones.
Although I do not have recent figures, these numbers suggest that political favoritism probably did not influence the USACE‘s and PREPA’s efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers. Looking at averages is a tricky undertaking as these numbers can hide important trends. In future posts, I will break these numbers at the regional level. This may provide new ways to look at the data, discover new trends, and reveal insights that may answer these important questions.
While more research is still need, it is also critical to take this opportunity and reflect as to why the mayors and so many Puerto Ricans believe that the USACE and PREPA’s efforts are driven by political favoritism and corruption. Lack of trust in the island’s political parties or political institutions is not a new development. The slow recovery process has only heightened these sentiments and these will further complicate efforts to reform Puerto Rico’s economy and political structures.
Similarly, this lack of trust is also an outcome of a poor public relations strategy on the part of the Puerto Rico’s government. To be fair to the USACE and PREPA, they have used their various social media accounts to inform the world about their efforts. Although their communications do help us understand why it has taken so long to repair the electrical system, they have not addressed Puerto Ricans’ frustrations or anxieties.
Moreover, Puerto Ricans’ negative view of PREPA’s record of poor service has shaken their confidence on the public utility’s capacity to restore power to the island. Similarly, Governor Rosselló’s repeated criticisms of the USACE’s efforts has forced many Puerto Ricans to question its personnel’s commitment and resolve.
It is too late to correct these problems. But lessons need to be learned as Puerto Ricans start to prepare for the 2018 hurricane season.