BEFORE MARIA, PREPA—the Puerto Rican government’s electric power authority—was already more than $9 billion in debt, even though it had so underinvested that its power plants had a median age of 44 years, compared with an average age para afuera (“over there,” in the continental U.S.) of 18 years. Consultants from Synapse Energy Economics wrote, “It is difficult to overstate the level of disrepair or operational neglect at PREPA’s generation facilities.”
After the storm, many demanded that PREPA receive more money quickly. The problem, though, is that putting the electrical system back into its pre-Maria condition is not a fix and is hard to do since so much of the equipment is antiquated: Repair crews often cannot take what other utilities are using and plug it in. Rosselló has agreed with the oversight board’s plan to privatize PREPA and begin using state-of-the-art technology, but the need to turn on the lights for Puerto Ricans in isolated communities is great—and that might mean patches rather than progress.
The overstaffed and underachieving public school system is another focus of attention. The number of students has shrunk by 45 percent since 2004, as Puerto Ricans have fewer children and many young families have moved to Orlando and other cities para afuera. Meanwhile, the number of teachers has grown by 10 percent, and an educational bureaucracy consumes big chunks of the public school system’s $2.5 billion budget.
On March 3, I watched 100 teachers take turns circling around a plaza in Puerto Rico’s capitol complex. The teachers oppose public charter schools and also vouchers that would allow parents to choose a public or private school for their children. Those schools would be able to pay teachers less, trim benefits, and require better performance.
The teachers are suspicious of government plans, and perhaps for good reason. Last August, journalist Ethan Barton reported that Puerto Rico had closed some public schools and announced a savings of $7 million, but officials gave $11 million to public relations and lobbying firms. Half of that went to companies connected to government officials.
College professors and students oppose the oversight board’s proposal that the University of Puerto Rico increase its tuition costs for residents per credit hour from $57 to $157. But even the increased rate would be much lower than typical rates on the mainland: Florida State’s standard rate, for example, is $435 per credit hour for residents (and $1,445 for nonresidents).
THE REASONS WHY Puerto Rico is in such a financial fix go back decades and include poor financial decisions by New Deal ideologue Rexford Tugwell when he gained island authority. More recently, though, Puerto Ricans should blame their own politicians for running a taxation system that benefits their buddies, tolerating a thriving business in illegal drugs, enabling welfare payments larger than starting salaries for the unskilled, and mandating time-and-a-half pay when someone works more than eight hours in a day. (Para afuera, overtime only kicks in when it’s more than 40 hours in a week.)
For more on those factors, see WORLD’s Dec. 26, 2015, cover story. What I particularly noticed on this trip, though, was the beauty of the land and the pride of the people, evident in the abundance of statues memorializing centuries of Puerto Rican leaders. Who wouldn’t want to have more time off to enjoy the wonderful climate (except during hurricane season)? But should others pay for that?
The stories that stick with me emphasize resilience in the face of post-hurricane adversity. Some Puerto Ricans have lived for months with tarps instead of roofs overhead. Some have washed clothes in streams as their grandmothers did. Every isolated town had tales of neighbors with bottles of water sharing them with neighbors who had no water but two lanterns, one of which transferred hands.
In the town of Coamo (population 40,000), where Hurricane Maria cracked wooden poles and snapped power lines, 60-year-old homemaker Carmita Rivera called a meeting at her home and told the 50 people who came, “Enough is enough.” Her neighbors laid a 300-pound wooden electric post atop two logs and tipped it into a freshly dug 5-foot hole. They pulled power lines out of the undergrowth and dug holes for wooden posts under the supervision of a PREPA official, who made sure the high-voltage lines were off-limits.