Pedro Pierluisi, governor of Puerto Rico, has been in Madrid this week to participate in a business forum and strengthen ties “not only historical, but also commercial” with Spain, he said during an interview with elDiario.es at Casa de América. In the midst of his visit, Puerto Rico suffered a major blackout. Regarding the incident that plunged more than a million people into darkness, Pierluisi assures that work is already being done to avoid these cuts, which are due to the fact that the island’s electrical system is still very weak. after the passage of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
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The governor has been convinced that one day Puerto Rico “will become the 51st state” of the US. Although he cannot predict when, he does predict that this fight will be “tough”. Pierluisi has downplayed the demolition of a statue of Juan Ponce de León in the Puerto Rican capital coinciding with a visit by King Felipe VI a little over two months ago: “It really was a minor protest. There was no big commotion. They basically did damage to that statue.”
What situation is the country in after the worst part of the pandemic?
Last year was a record year for tourism in Puerto Rico. The main reason is that Puerto Rico distinguished itself in the midst of the pandemic. The US government treated us equally and we showed that when they treat us equally we can be the best. We were the US jurisdiction with the highest percentage of vaccination. Our tourism came mainly from the US and they saw Puerto Rico as a safe destination because our statistics were better in general terms than the rest of the nation. In vaccination, number one; in lethality, quite low; in numbers of cases, quite low.
Something new in Puerto Rico is that we have a very significant number of properties that are being rented on a short-term basis. That does not exist in the Caribbean. It is the only island in the Caribbean that has such a large infrastructure of this type of accommodation that it complements the hotels. Last year tourism was impressive and this year looks the same.
Has the arrival of Biden meant any kind of change with respect to the previous Administration?
I became governor at the same time that Biden becomes president, but the change is obvious. All of our claims have been addressed. I have no complaints about the Biden Administration. Upside down. The bureaucratic obstacles and the requirements that Puerto Rico had and that the states do not have were eliminated and now the federal funds for the permanent works are flowing.
I want to be fair in the analysis. In the first years after the hurricane, the same thing happens with the earthquakes, the help was not small. We are talking about 25,000 million dollars [unos 23.000 millones de euros] that entered the economy of Puerto Rico, but it was an emergency. In the case of the electrical network, they were patches. Raise the lines as you can, the poles as you can, but it wasn’t a permanent job. Put a blue awning on the houses to protect them, but it was not the repair of the homes. Since last year, permanent works such as roads, water and sewage systems, housing are beginning to be seen. Thousands of homes have already been repaired.
Now we are seeing that permanent work that is going to give us a very good footing for our economic growth.
Will Puerto Rico one day become the 51st state?
I’m sure you do. I can’t say when. It is a tough fight. Our demand is for equality. We have been American citizens for 105 years and we are still treated unequally and discriminatorily in the nutritional assistance program, in the health programs, Medicaid and Medicare. The treatment is not the same. And it doesn’t make sense because our people get on a plane and move from one day to the next to any state because we are not immigrants, we are American citizens. That has to be corrected.
On the political side, which is the hardest, we do not vote for the president of the nation of which we are citizens. We have no voting representation in the Congress of that nation. This doesn’t make sense either. The battle is tough because you have to convince a majority in the US House and Senate to support this and that’s not easy.
We had a plebiscite in 2020 and 52.5% of the population asked for statehood. Now in Congress there are two projects related to our status and a consensus is being sought because it is as if they are competing with each other. What will probably happen is that Congress calls on the people of Puerto Rico to vote on various options, not only statehood but also free association and independence.
My prediction is that if there is a vote called by Congress again, statehood will prevail and then Congress will have to act.
“This particular protest was a bit strange and it wasn’t against the king.”
A few months ago, coinciding with a visit by King Felipe VI, a statue of Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, was demolished in downtown San Juan. Was this an act to claim your independence?
It was really a minor protest. There was no big commotion. They basically damaged that statue. I think they were complaining more about Juan Ponce de León as a historical figure, like what he did or didn’t do back then in Puerto Rico. It was a somewhat strange protest and the statue was quickly repaired.
Juan Ponce de León was our first governor. I know there is a claim. I myself do not like the current status, it is a colonial status. And in the times of Spain, to a large extent, we were also that, a colony. I have to say that at the end of the 19th century, Puerto Rico managed to have representation in the Chamber of Deputies. The vice president of the Chamber of Deputies was Ramón Power y Giralt, from Puerto Rico. We had democratic participation in Spain towards the end of our political relationship with Spain.
There are times when the protests that may be taking place are against the colony, such as the 400 years of Spanish colonization. Now there is the same claim, but against the US and that motivates protests. This particular one was a bit strange and it wasn’t against the king. We walked through that area and the people were very friendly with the king. I was overjoyed. They received him with great affection and he acted in a very exemplary way. Very humble. He called my attention to that, we are not used to it, we do not have nobility or royalty.
This week there has been a major blackout on the island again. What has happened?
This blackout is similar to one that occurred in June of last year. Nothing like this had happened since. An explosion has occurred at a substation in the immediate vicinity of two of our main power plants. Two that use natural gas. Between the two they generate a mega.
What happens in our system, and it is one of our weaknesses, is that it is an integrated system. When you have an explosion like this, like in June of last year, the system protects itself. All plants and all equipment are protected and shut down. So the restart process is gradual and takes time. Apart from that they have to correct the fault in the substation that blew an important switch. Why? That is being investigated. I tend to think that it is again due to the fragility of our electrical network.
How long does it take for everything to turn back on?
What has happened is unfortunate. it happened last night [en la noche del jueves al viernes] and I gave instructions from here, from Spain, that the goal had to be that, in 24 hours, the service would be restored to the vast majority of LUMA subscribers. [el consorcio privado responsable del suministro].
The solution here is the one that is ongoing. On the one hand, use 9,000 million dollars [unos 8.300 millones de euros] to rebuild the power grid. And on the other, change the generation system towards renewable energy sources. Also change our system to have microgrids, that you can have some areas that are autonomous and that what just happened does not happen, that everything is turned off.
He has come to Spain to participate in a forum with more than 50 businessmen from the island to study business opportunities and strengthen ties. Why have you chosen Madrid as a meeting place?
It seems natural to me that we come to the capital. A few months ago, the king visited us. During the visit, I promised to come. This mission was already underway by our economic development department, but I wanted to come personally. It was my way of returning the visit of the king, who welcomes the strengthening of ties, not only historical, but also commercial between Spain and Puerto Rico.
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It has been a very productive week. We had a forum at the Spanish Chamber of Commerce, the US ambassador to Spain participated and publicly confirmed that Puerto Rico is a priority for President Joe Biden, that the reconstruction of Puerto Rico is a priority for the Administration of President Biden and that is just words higher for the investment community in Spain. Spain is well known in the area of construction and large Spanish companies have carried out large reconstruction projects in Puerto Rico. So now we welcome you.
Also in the energy area, Spain is a leader. This week I was with Carmen Sampol [consejera delegada del grupo Sampol], at the international airport of Adolfo Suárez. Sampol provides all the thermal energy for the airport and generates energy there for the electricity grid in Spain and has plans to expand its presence in Puerto Rico. On the other hand, Iberia has announced that it is increasing its direct flights to five a week.