Blackout: What Darkness Illuminated in Puerto Rico

Almost immediately after Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico this past September 20, the island fell off the grid. Advancing with winds in excess of 155 miles per hour, Maria ultimately killed over three thousand people, destroyed or damaged 472,000 homes, and razed all electrical lines, leaving the entire island without power.1 On the fourth night after the hurricane, Puerto Rico was hardly visible on an aerial map of the Greater Antilles.2 An island once called “the shining star of the Caribbean” had slipped into the longest night of its modern history. It was no longer on the map.

In the Western cultural imagination, light is generally associated with goodness, beauty, and knowledge, whereas darkness (including dark-skinned people) is mysterious, dangerous, or evil. Over the last century, having access to electricity, or, in Puerto Rican Spanish, luz (“light”), has also been understood as a first-world norm and a sign of modernity and progress. This is not an arbitrary association. Most of the world’s people who lack regular access to electricity fall on the formerly colonized “third-world” side of the political divide. In these mappings, Europe and the United States flash brightly, but Africa hardly at all.

Accordingly, a “blackout” is generally defined in negative terms. If electric blackouts are often associated with social collapse, racial violence, and looting, mental blackouts are defined as a temporary loss of consciousness and an inability to form memories due to intoxication. At times, the absence of artificial light is similarly a trope for death or “the end of everything.”3 To black out is to lose sight.

Yet the darkness that enveloped the island was illuminating.

Before Maria, the island’s high-end shopping malls and luxury hotels gave the impression of first-world affluence. But the ease with which the hurricane cut through tin roofs, decrepit dams, and fragile bridges showed that after a century as a colonial possession of the world’s wealthiest nation, Puerto Rico remains poor. Although the island had experienced a U.S.-led industrialization process, which raised the standard of living in the 1940s and 1950s and created a middle-class, this short period of relative prosperity primarily enriched American companies and members of the local elite. By the time Maria hit, 44% of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people lived below the poverty line, and its per capita income of $12,000 was approximately half of Mississippi’s—the poorest state in the United States—and nearly $20,000 less than the U.S. national average.4

In exposing widespread poverty and failing infrastructure, the darkness also revealed how the United States systematically dispossesses Puerto Rico. In contrast to any of the fifty states, the island receives less—and frequently capped—U.S. government funding for basic health, food, and education programs, including in times of emergency.5 The Jones Act (1920) likewise forces the island to use the costly U.S. Merchant Marine to import and export goods, impoverishing Puerto Ricans by significantly raising product prices and the cost of living, which is 13% higher than that in most American urban areas.6 Moreover, the United States has made Puerto Rico a captive consumer market that yields superlative profits for American corporations such as Walmart, the island’s largest retailer and employer.

In this way, Maria exposed the predatory violence of late modern colonial capitalism, or a logic of extraction justified by a legal apparatus that does not require direct settler rule. In other words, whereas Puerto Rico’s economic precariousness is not unique in the global economy, how and why it persists is related to its colonial status as an American “unincorporated territory” that “belongs to, but is, not part of” the United States and is considered “foreign in a domestic sense.”7 A legal doctrine crafted by the U.S. Supreme Court (1901–1922), its aim is to obscure that unincorporated territories are colonies while excluding “alien races” from the nation’s body politic and laying claim to their land, labor, and other resources for military and economic purposes. Consistently, although the U.S. extended its citizenship to Puerto Rico’s residents in 1917, this status is in name only: Puerto Ricans can serve in the U.S. military, but they cannot vote for the president nor have a voting congressional representation.

The darkness that followed Maria also shined a light on the colonial character of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. In 2015, Governor Alejandro García Padilla announced that the island’s $123 billion public debt and pension obligations had become “unpayable.”8 In the American media, the crisis is often boiled down to an issue of simple overspending by irresponsible politicians. Although the local political elite is thoroughly implicated, the situation is more complex. The debt was incurred by successive administrations to cover the loss of income resulting from American capital flight after the United States began to phase out lavish tax breaks to balance the federal budget and fund an increase in the U.S. minimum wage in 1996. To avoid economic and political collapse, officials turned to a remaining tax break that they thought would provide the biggest and fastest return: selling bonds issued by the island’s main public utilities and municipalities, which are exempt from local, state and federal taxes, and mostly held by American financial investment firms and “vulture” hedge funds that focus on “risky assets.”9

Whereas these investments may appear unsound, from the buyer’s point of view, they represented an excellent opportunity. Not only were Puerto Rico’s bonds “triple” tax-free at every administrative level in the United States or its territories and therefore guaranteed to deliver staggering profit rates; financial firms and vulture funds knew that Puerto Rico had to pay. Due to federal laws and the local constitution, the island cannot declare bankruptcy, and it is “required to service its debt above all else.”10 Consequently, in 2016, Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). 11 This federal law created a seven-member control board composed of people with deep ties to the banking and investment world—including entities involved in producing the crisis—and granted them broad powers over Puerto Rico’s elected government to “order” the island’s affairs.12 From the start, the board’s main goal has been to assure payment to the creditors largely by imposing drastic cuts in essential human services.13

Maria thus laid bare the rotten pillars upon which contemporary Puerto Rico is built: a political economy catering exclusively to U.S. corporate interests, a tax structure that exempts almost all American economic activity, and a local elite that takes what it can at the expense of the larger community’s needs.14 The wrecked electrical grid perfectly embodies this foundation. In an island rich in sunlight and wind resources, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) relies on expensive fossil fuel imports largely processed by polluting oil-fired plants that do not comply with U.S. emissions standards. 15 PREPA is likewise run by a corrupt administration that pocketed millions, and therefore contributes to the impoverishment of the population by charging excessive prices for inferior services, which include frequent outages.16 Not coincidentally, the utility is one of the largest issuers of the island’s debt, with $9 billion.17

The darkness, however, not only revealed; it also clarified.

As Puerto Ricans strove to recover in the days after Maria, they encountered a second, even greater, disaster—the slow, inadequate, and felonious response of the federal authorities. In contrast to how the U.S. government acted in relation to hurricanes that affected states like Texas and Florida just weeks before Maria, it approved insufficient funds, and sent considerably less personnel, food, and other supplies to Puerto Rico.18 Across many parts of the island, assistance never arrived. As Puerto Ricans faced life and death situations on a daily basis, what it meant to be a “territorial” U.S. citizen became completely clear: If the island’s bonds are triple-tax exempt, its people are triply expendable as Puerto Rican non-voting citizens.

That the state’s inaction was not an accident was clarified by President Trump’s deep contempt toward Puerto Ricans who criticized his administration’s performance. According to Trump, a population without electricity and running water who became their own first responders clearing roads and providing for the sick and elderly were actually ingrates who “want everything to be done for them.”19 In tweet after tweet, Trump deployed colonial and racial stereotypes of laziness and unworthiness to insist that Puerto Ricans had unreasonable expectations of the U.S. government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which the people of Puerto Rico, like other U.S. citizens, directly support with their taxes. When he visited the island, Trump dramatized his disdain with a seemingly banal action: the president picked up rolls of disposable paper towels and tossed them at hurricane survivors.20

The aftermath of the darkness has also been terrifying. An unconfirmed number of people have perished after drinking contaminated water, and many fear going out at night due to the absence of police and street lights.21 Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have reportedly left the island as schools remained closed for months and the sick died in hospitals.22 The lack of power similarly made it impossible for most persons to return to their workplaces or open their businesses while banks aggressively moved to foreclose thousands of houses and unemployment is expected to reach 80%.23 As trying to rebuild without resources overwhelms and insecurity mounts, an unprecedented number of people began to take their own lives. For many, particularly the elderly, ailing, and isolated, coping has become impossible.

In addition, Puerto Rico is now open for disaster capitalism, implying that the worst is yet to come. Congress and high-interest funds offer more debt and the White House insists that by law, the United States can “rebuild only what existed” before the hurricane, a policy to protect the fossil fuel industry.24  Local agencies likewise allow inexperienced but well-connected companies to negotiate multimillion-dollar contracts that bill at exorbitant rates, include clauses that shield them from being audited, or fail to comply with environmental and bidding requirements.25 The blackout is then also the sign of a glaring violence that raises the question of why so many have to die so others can see.

Being forced to live in the dark has, however, empowered many to energetically seek an exit from the old grid of toxic energy, colonial capitalism, and mainstream media. Across the island, communities are installing solar panels, and developing decentralized communal models of energy production and distribution. U.S. Puerto Rican activists are also collaborating with local sustainable energy organizations such as Casa Pueblo, donating over 3,500 solar lamps to their “Puerto Rico con el Sol” campaign to bring power to heavily affected but ignored mountain municipalities.26 Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. have similarly organized their own efforts, including the Philadelphia-based “Light Up Puerto Rico” that brought solar bulbs and helped build temporary shelters.27 To combat the blackout of government information regarding the death toll, recovery efforts, and privatization attempts, independent journalist organizations on and off the island such as Centro de Periodismo Investigativo and PR on the Map have refused to call it a night.

Following the sustainable agriculture movement that had picked up during the debt crisis in the years before Maria, many farmers began immediately replanting to counter the loss of 80% of their crops. Moreover, groups such as Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico and La Olla Común have organized collective kitchens to address the growing problems of hunger, limited access to fresh food, and tainted water.28 Importantly, these efforts are not charities. Rather, they are communal centers where participants are enacting forms of autonomous self-governance.29 In this regard, as the critic Gian Paolo Renello has observed in another context, a blackout, though deadly, can also show us “how to act.”30

Not surprisingly, an excavation of the island’s literary and visual imagination shows how it had already envisioned the possibility of coming to light from the darkness. For the native Taínos who populated the island for centuries before European colonization, the main sources of natural light, the sun and the moon, emerged from the penumbra of caves. Equally significant, one of the most used Taíno art techniques was to “to remove the rock’s dark patina and reveal the lighter layers beneath.”31 The very process of seeing arose from darkness.

Yet, perhaps the most widely known reference is José Luis González’s 1970 short story “La noche que volvimos a ser gente” (“The Night We Again Became People”),32 which evokes the 1965 binational electricity blackout that stretched from Pennsylvania to Ontario, Canada, and affected 30 million people. In this tale, an unnamed Puerto Rican factory worker describes “something big” that took place during the night when New York City experienced a darkness in which “neither the street nor building had a single light on.”33 The reader is not told much about the narrator, not even his name, but he is said to do repetitive and mind-numbing work in an electronics factory, is “dark-skinned with unruly hair approaching tightly coiled curls,” and is excited at the idea that his pregnant wife may bear a son.34

Whereas the plot bears little resemblance to the devastation of post-Maria Puerto Rico—the narrator struggles to get home to find mother and newborn son well and the community celebrating—the closing passage tells how a poor, black, colonial and migrant community came to see itself otherwise in the darkness. Simply put, this re-vision came with the realization that the barrage of city lights—one of the most visible signs of modernity, capitalist development, and American power—obscured the beauty of the moon and stars, the island they left behind, and their own humanity. As the narrator explains:

“It was like a dream….The moon was this big and yellow like it was made of gold, and the sky was full of stars as if all the fireflies in the world had gone up and stayed there resting in that vastness. Just like in Puerto Rico on any given night, but after so much time without being able to see the sky, because of the glare of millions of electric lights that are turned on every night, we had forgotten that the stars existed at all.”35

The story’s ubiquity in the post-Maria imagination has led writers such as Ana Teresa Toro to critique the implication that only through rejecting “modern life” can Puerto Ricans gain access to their humanity: “After more than fifty days without electricity and drinking water…it would be more appropriate that we not merely want to be people again but apply greater pressure to regain the minimum dignity afforded to a twenty-first country: electricity and water. We are people already, let’s become citizens.”36 Moreover, by referring to “stars,” which inevitably recall Puerto Rico’s single-starred flag; the lines of “los hijos de la liberta” from Rafael Hernández’s patriotic song Preciosa, and the protagonist’s desire to have a son, the story largely outlines a heteronormative nationalism.

Yet, González’s night vision contains the kernel of another politics and a foreshadowing.

On the one hand, the story has little to do with accepting injustice. Rather, it is about conceiving a politics of collective assembly through the practices of orality and memory, or what critic Walter Benjamin once called “the weaving of …memory.”37 Not only is the protagonist telling a story. But also, the narrator recovers himself when he no longer can “see anything” and instead hears live music, laughter, and “a conversation of many people.”38 Furthermore, the blackout becomes a transformative memory when the narrator realizes that it is the entire barrio that is looking at the sky and emerging from the erasure—the blackout—of whom they had been before they had become low-wage, racialized, migrant labor in New York. As he tells it, “according to my poor understanding of things, that was the night we went became people again.”39

On the other hand, the protagonist’s assertion of his racial, class, and migrant identifications, performs a broad critique of colonial-capitalist hierarchies and anticipates the massive role that a radicalized diaspora will play in Puerto Rican survival. This is signified in various ways, including the narrator’s journey home: he begins as an invisible factory worker riding the underground subway but rises to become a member of a freely constituted and autonomous community looking up to the stars from a rooftop.40 It is likewise present in that amidst a blackout occurring in a diasporic space, the narrator’s wife gives birth, which in Spanish is often fittingly referred to as “dar a luz” (“to give light)” and “alumbramiento” (“illumination”).41

From this point of view, a blackout is not necessarily a failure, nor does it entail a loss of memory or a lapse of vision. Rather, in a world where the powerful routinely enact predatory acts under the brightest of lights, it can serve to illuminate the unknown, clarify what has been obscured, ignite revolt, and, like in the theater, end one scene and begin anew. In going black, González thus imagines the possibility of a different future not yet here, perhaps never to come, but one that could emerge only from the piercing clarity of a total blackout.