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Police Repress Protest in Puerto Rico as People Continue to Demand End of Contract with LUMA

Puerto Ricans are protesting constant power outages, after their electrical grid was partially privatized. They are demanding that the private electric company, LUMA, have its contract canceled. In response, they have faced repression and police brutality.

Raura Doreste

August 29, 2022
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Protesters in Puerto Rico in Old San Juan in the dark. Protesting LUMA private electricity company.
Image: @JossieValentin

Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets once more to demand that private electricity company LUMA, which is in charge of the transmission and distribution of power, have its contract canceled. Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of La Fortaleza (the governor’s residence) in Old San Juan to demand the cancellation of the contract with LUMA and the resignation of Governor Pedro Pierluisi.

The protest started peacefully until the police used excessive force to disperse and repress the protest. Activist Alberto de Jesús Mercado, also known as Tito Kayak, peacefully crossed the police barricade and was taken down and arrested by three policemen. In the back, people were chanting “Esta lucha no se para” (This fight does not stop) and “Este pueblo ya se escucha, el pueblo en pie de lucha” (The people are already being heard, the people are fighting).

At 9 p.m., allegedly, some protesters threw items (eggs, glass bottles, cooking pans) at the riot police and began pushing and tried to cross a barricade installed almost permanently since the 2019 uprisings against Governor Rosselló. The police responded with the indiscriminate use of rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas. Several protesters were arrested and others were assaulted by the police, including members of the press.

Police were shooting rubber bullets at point-blank range at the protesters.

Noticel’s journalist Juan R. Costa was thrown to the floor while trying to cover police brutality at the protest.

By the end, police kept moving from their original perimeter and continued to push protesters out of Old San Juan.

Puerto Ricans are fighting back despite repression. A small group of protesters showed up the day after the protest in Old San Juan and rallied in front of the police barricade. People called for another protest by the name of Apagón contra LUMA (Blackout against LUMA) on Saturday, August 27.

Once more, police have shown that they do not act to protect the citizens. The police are an institution that serves capitalist interests and protects their assets. As Puerto Ricans chant, “Policía de Puerto Rico, instrumento de los ricos” (Police of Puerto Rico, instrument of the rich).

Increasing Discontent toward the Inaction of LUMA and Pierluisi

Consumers have denounced seven consecutive increases in their electricity bill while power outages last longer every day since Canadian-American private company LUMA took over from the state-run utility provider, PREPA, in June 2021. The transition was part of a larger debt restructuring plan established by the Fiscal Control Board, which was created in 2016 under the PROMESA Law to ensure the payment of Puerto Rico’s debt. Over the past weeks, recent outages have affected about 200,000 customers, including one of Puerto Rico’s largest hospitals, whose generator failed in the middle of an outage. Governor Pierluisi publicly criticized LUMA over these outages and demanded that the company change its execution plan without specifying any direct action to address LUMA’s inefficiency to provide a reliable power service. Pierluisi has repeatedly defended the company and has ignored the people’s demand to cancel the contract.

LUMA held a press conference shortly after the outages and the governor made his criticism. The press conference was held in English, without a translator, thereby excluding 95 percent of the population, who speak only Spanish. LUMA’s CEO refused to translate, saying later that English is one of the island’s official languages. LUMA accepted that some of the most recent outages were caused by its own negligence and failure to prune trees and vegetation along the power lines. Yet million-dollar contracts have been given to external companies to address this issue.

LUMA has failed to improve the power grid while its electricity bills remain exorbitant. The company has also been accused of being understaffed. Some workers from PREPA, who have decades of experience, have moved to other governmental agencies because LUMA did not guarantee their previous benefits. These workers are more than qualified to solve problems that arise in the power grid.

Recently, LUMA customer service employees have reported workplace harassment and other irregularities in how customer complaints are handled. Employees have been instructed to convince customers that their bill is high because they are consuming too much power. This is an effort to keep people from making complaints and investigating irregularities.

The privatization of power distribution and transmission in Puerto Rico is not at the service of the people and the working class. Rather, it helps enforce the payment of the debt and the profits of a few. Puerto Ricans should stay in the streets and continue to demand an end to austerity and privatization, and that the state put the people before the debt. These demands must be linked to the fight against imperialism and exploitation. 

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