A few hundred protestors gathered in San Juan, Puerto Rico for several evenings last week to voice their anger at LUMA, the company responsible for electricity on the island. They crowded the streets of the city near the island’s capitol building, chanting to the rhythm of drums and the banging of pots and pans, yelling “fuera LUMA!” Or “LUMA, get out!”
They’re furious over living conditions on the island, which has been suffering through frequent power outages that are disrupting normal life. Last year, the islands’ electricity was privatized and taken over by LUMA, an American-Canadian company. The company was supposed to help repair the power system after extensive damage from hurricanes and earthquakes, but there hasn’t been much improvement. Residents say that outages are still as frequent, if not worse than before, and they are asking government officials to revoke LUMA’s 15-year contract.
There was an especially bad power outage in April, after a power plant fire plunged the island into darkness. In-person classes were canceled at some schools, and the Mayagüez Medical Center had issues turning on its backup generator. As a result, the intensive care floor didn’t have power, and four patients had to be intubated, CNN reported. Soon after that, Puerto Ricans went to the LUMA offices in San Juan and threw bags of food that had spoiled inside unpowered refrigerators. And in late April, several restaurant chains sued the power authority for $310 million in damages over lost business, NBC News reported.
Young Puerto Ricans have shown their support for the new wave of protests and have shared their frustrations over police brutality. Genesis Soto Ruiz is a recent college graduate and activist who grew up in Puerto Rico. She’s currently living in Queens, New York, but most of her family is on the island and she spends over a month there each summer. Recently, she posted an emotional video on TikTok in which she spoke about feeling guilty that she had to return to New York City.
“The fact that I can’t be there for my island for a cause that’s so close to me and my family, and that affects everyone—it makes me feel really bad… It makes me feel like I’m not doing my part as a Puerto Rican,” she said in Spanish, as she wiped away tears. “Everyone who’s able to go, please go [to the protests]. This is really important. We have to go out into the streets.”
Carlos Berríos Polanco, a Puerto Rican journalist, attended protests last week and experienced the clashes with police first hand. He says he and several other reporters were pepper-sprayed by police officers in San Juan. “[The cops] were also shooting multiple rounds of munitions behind us, we started running when the police started pushing again,” he told Earther. “I was also worried because I saw munitions explode very close to another person.”
Some young people are also concerned that the long-term damage from natural disasters is disrupting their access to education, which people like Soto Ruiz feel could fuel more displacement of Puerto Ricans from the island in the near future.
“My little sister goes to school. She’s in second grade. I find her most of the time doing homework, with my mom flashing a flashlight on her,” Soto Ruiz told Earther. “She’s sweating her little face off and she can’t concentrate… It’s just not right.”
Both Soto Ruiz and Berríos Polanco have relatives who live with diabetes and need to keep their medication cold so that it won’t spoil in Puerto Rico’s year-round heat. “My little brother, he’s diabetic. We have multiple small fridges just for his insulin,” Berríos Polanco explained. “We’re incredibly privileged to have a generator.”
The frequent outages come with power surges, which only last a few seconds but can damage home appliances like refrigerators. Berríos Polanco has heard people complaining about malfunctioning fans and refrigerators, and one of his family’s own small fridges for insulin was also damaged by a power surge. Berríos Polanco said that Puerto Ricans are planning to dump their damaged home appliances outside of LUMA offices all over the island this week. Online posts have referred to this action as “basura combativa,” or combative trash. Last night, people left out air conditioners, computer monitors, and other damaged tech.
“There have definitely been a lot of people complaining, like, ‘Oh, there was a short circuit and now my fan doesn’t work, and I have to replace that.’ Or, ‘My freezer doesn’t work’,” he said.
The median income on the island is about $21,000, according to the U.S. Census data. That puts most families at a disadvantage if they have to dispose of spoiled food, worry about replacing kitchen appliances, and pay higher energy bills. A recent report from the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis found that Puerto Ricans spend about 8% of their income on electricity. On average, people across the U.S. pay only about 2% of their income toward electricity.
Local artists have posted their support for the protests and have called out government officials for the grid’s mismanagement. Bad Bunny kicked off a tour for his latest album in late July in the Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot. He took the opportunity to speak about the island’s energy crisis during the show.
“It’s messed up that I do tours all over the world… The only place where I have to use about 15 industrial generators when I’m going to perform is here, because I can’t trust Puerto Rico’s electrical system,” he said on stage. “LUMA pal carajo.” LUMA, go to hell. The huge crowd roared their approval.
He also threw jabs at Puerto Rico Governor and former coal lobbyist Pedro Pierluisi. Throughout his ongoing tour, Bad Bunny has performed his song El Apagón at nearly every location. The song’s title means ‘the power outage’ or ‘blackout’. In it, he threatens to smack the governor and tells monied gringo newcomers to get out of the island and off the beaches.
The phrase repeated most, online and on protestors’ flags, is “Fuera LUMA.” LUMA, get out. I asked Soto Ruiz why she believes the rallying cry is “fuera” and not a call for restructuring or changes within the power authority. She thinks island residents are just fed up. “Nobody wanted them in the first place. We knew this was going to be another steal of our money,” she said.
Berríos Polanco agrees. He thinks everyone is weary after the years of natural disasters and political issues. “Most of us are just really pissed off. Because if it’s not one thing, it’s another,” he said. “They ousted the governor in 2019, but someone from his party still became the governor. Electricity is super expensive. Food is super expensive… schools are falling apart.”
He said that Puerto Ricans are resilient, but they’ve had to do it in the face of little government support. “I [wrote] a piece on mental health last week. One of the things that stuck out to me was this psychology professor saying that Puerto Ricans are resilient, but you can’t have resilience without resources,” Berríos Polanco said. “Humans can only go so far when they don’t have food, water, and necessities.”