Puerto Rican Reporter’s “Country of Blackouts” 

Interview with documentary filmmaker Bianca Graulau

By Democracy Now

HAVANA TIMES – Puerto Rico’s financial oversight board has voted to extend a contract with LUMA Energy — the private U.S.-Canadian corporation that took over the island’s power grid and is widely denounced by residents on the island for its inconsistent service and high prices. The privatization of Puerto Rico’s power grid, supported by an unelected board appointed by the U.S. government, represents the “everyday consequences of colonialism,” says independent reporter Bianca Graulau, whose latest documentary is called “País de Apagones,” or “Country of Blackouts.”


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show looking at Puerto Rico and a growing dispute over the country’s electric grid. Puerto Rico’s financial oversight board has voted to extend a contract with LUMA, the private Canadian-U.S. company that took over Puerto Rico’s power grid, even though power failures have increased since the private takeover.

Our next guest is the independent Puerto Rican journalist Bianca Graulau. This is an excerpt of her documentary, Country of Blackouts. In this clip, Bianca speaks with Puerto Rican Representative Luis Raúl Torres about potential corruption within LUMA.

BIANCA GRAULAU: [translated] LUMA admitted that the blackouts were partly due to their failure to trim vegetation. The company is in charge of cutting down trees that could interfere with the power lines, and they did not do it on time.

GOV. PEDRO PIERLUISI: [translated] My patience is running out.

BIANCA GRAULAU: [translated] This despite the fact that LUMA has granted or extended million-dollar contracts to six companies to provide that service.

REP. LUIS RAÚL TORRES CRUZ: [translated] The one that caught my attention the most is Centurion, because the person who started that company in Puerto Rico is a former vice president of LUMA, who goes to that company, they incorporate the company, and then they come to LUMA, and they give them a contract of up to $60 million to do the trimming of vegetation in Puerto Rico. This is another example of the conflicts of interest that are being created to manipulate federal money.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from Bianca Graulau’s documentary, País de Apagones, or Country of Blackouts. Another one of her short documentaries, People Live Here, was recently featured in a viral video by musical superstar Bad Bunny. Bianca Graulau lives in Puerto Rico but is joining us today from New York.

Can you talk about what people should understand about what Puerto Rico is going through right now, Bianca?

BIANCA GRAULAU: I think what people should understand is that we’re seeing the everyday consequences of colonialism. And we see it when it comes to the energy situation in Puerto Rico. We see it when it comes to the gentrification that you saw in that documentary, in Bad Bunny’s music video. So, it affects the everyday lives of Puerto Ricans, and the fact that the U.S. federal government has a responsibility with Puerto Rico and, in its hands, a decision about Puerto Rico’s future when it comes to its political status.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bianca, when the government decided to privatize a big sector of the electrical supply, there were promises that things would get better. What has happened under LUMA since they took over?

BIANCA GRAULAU: Yeah, so, the electric utility used to be completely in public hands. That was the generation of energy, as well as the distribution and transmission of energy. However, part of those operations, the transmission and distribution, was turned over to that private company. It’s a U.S.-Canadian company called LUMA. And, yes, we were told that outages would be a thing of the past and that Puerto Ricans would have a better energy system and a better energy service. However, what we know, according to the company’s own numbers, is that now outages last longer than they used to before LUMA took over.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, talk about the cost, as well. How has the cost changed?

BIANCA GRAULAU: Yeah, so, right now Puerto Ricans are paying 34 cents per kilowatt hour. What that means is that for some people the electricity bill has doubled. And to put that into context, you know, in New York City, the price for electricity is about 10 cents below what Puerto Ricans are paying, but we know that the median income in a place like New York City is three times the median income in a place like Puerto Rico. So, what we’re seeing is that Puerto Ricans are carrying that heavy burden of paying extreme prices, very expensive prices, for a service that’s not reliable.

AMY GOODMAN: How do hospitals and clinics cope with the blackouts? And what are you demanding? And what decisions are being made today, Bianca?

BIANCA GRAULAU: So, over the summer, we saw a series of outages that affected hospitals. And it was striking to see these major hospitals in the dark and how their services were directly affected by this. Then Hurricane Fiona came in September, and what we saw was that hospitals had to go weeks operating on generators. And then, when diesel started running out, you had hospitals sounding the alarm, saying, “We don’t have enough fuel to continue to use the generators. If this doesn’t stop soon, our services are going to continue to be affected, and we’re not going to be able to provide the service to the Puerto Rican population.”

So, I think what you’ve been seeing after that series of events and very critical situations where Puerto Ricans don’t have such a basic, important service, you’ve been seeing many people calling for the cancellation of the contract with LUMA. And when I say “many people,” I’m talking political leaders across parties in Puerto Rico. However, the decision-makers here and the ones who really had the power to decide what happens with LUMA going forward is the governor of Puerto Rico and also that oversight board that you mentioned before. Now, that board is a board of unelected members. They’re appointed by the president and Congress, which Puerto Ricans don’t get to vote for, either. And they’re the ones making the decisions about what happens with LUMA moving forward.

Now, that first temporary contract expires today. However, yesterday we heard that, again, the decision-makers, the people sitting at the table, have decided to extend that temporary contract. And they did that by bypassing the votes of the representatives of the public interest. So we’re seeing how they’re making these decisions and keeping the people who represent the people of Puerto Rico out of these decisions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the current governor, the pro-statehood Governor Pedro Pierluisi. How has he responded to LUMA’s mishandling of the power grid? And aren’t there also some questions about some of the governor’s relatives benefiting in contracts, as well?

BIANCA GRAULAU: Well, you just heard — you played an excerpt of the story we did on the energy situation, and you heard the governor say, “I’m losing my patience.” So, at a time when we were seeing all these outages and he was facing a lot of scrutiny, he was saying, ”LUMA is on probation. We are overseeing their performance, and they will not have my support if service doesn’t improve.” Then we saw Fiona, and then we saw that some people went a month without electricity. So the governor continued to say that he wanted to see service improve. However, he has very much supported LUMA staying in Puerto Rico. And to this day, he says that he is trying his very best so that LUMA doesn’t leave Puerto Rico, because he believes that that would be the worst consequence for Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your comment on this latest news, 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico filing a lawsuit against Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and other companies, accusing them of contributing to the climate crisis by pushing a multibillion-dollar fraudulent marketing scheme that downplayed the catastrophic impacts of fossil fuels? Your thoughts, Bianca?

BIANCA GRAULAU: Well, in Puerto Rico, we’re seeing the consequences of climate change firsthand. Those hurricanes have devastated Puerto Rico. People are still recovering. You know, five years later, we see a hurricane like Fiona. So, we’re seeing sea level rise swallow beaches in Puerto Rico. So I think it makes sense that the Puerto Rican people and municipalities are taking these companies to account when it comes to the consequences that they’re living every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Bianca Graulau, we want to thank you for being with us, Puerto Rican independent reporter. Her short documentary Aquí Vive Gente, or People Live Here, was featured in the Bad Bunny music video titled El Apagón. Her most recent documentary is titled País de Apagones, or Country of Blackouts. We will link to both of these.

Read more interviews here on Havana Times