Urgent Call for Debt Relief After Hurricane Shatters Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands
Interview with Eric LeCompte, executive director of the Jubilee USA Network, conducted by Scott Harris
The destructive power of Hurricane Maria, which smashed tens of thousands of homes and knocked out electric power and phone service for most of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents, was the worst storm to hit the island in nearly a century. When the federal government’s response was late to initiate rescue operations and provide emergency food, water and fuel, criticism bubbled to the surface. But very few observers, however, would have predicted that in the midst of such a serious humanitarian crisis that President Trump would have launched a twitter war against the people of Puerto Rico, essentially labeling residents as lazy. Among the public officials Trump attacked were San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, accusing her of playing politics and being a poor leader.
When the president arrived for a visit to Puerto Rico two weeks after the storm on Oct. 3, he congratulated himself and his administration for its response to the disaster. In a bizarre moment, Trump then said the island should be “very proud” of its low official death count of 16, comparing the situation to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, based on the number of people who had died, implying that Puerto Rico’s current crisis wasn’t a “real catastrophe.”
But the disastrous situation in Puerto Rico pre-dates the ravages of Hurricane Maria. Sixty percent of the Island’s children live in poverty and its people have been dealing with a decades-long economic crisis that amassed $72 billion in debt, triggering the largest bankruptcy process in U.S. history. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Eric LeCompte, executive director of the Jubilee USA Network, who discusses island religious leaders’ and his group’s advocacy of debt relief for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, after the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.[Rush transcript]
ERIC LECOMPTE: In particular, we definitely want the bankruptcy process in Puerto Rico to continue to move forward. That process is going to take into account the devastation of the hurricane and ensure a higher cut in terms of the debt. In terms of the aid that comes from the United States that comes from the federal government, we want it to be robust in the form of grants that goes in terms of relief aid to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands. We don’t want Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands to have to get more debt in order to finance its reconstruction and recovery.
It’s also absolutely imperative that the aid that comes in is sufficient to rebuild Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in ways that are going to be able to withstand what seem to be more powerful and more frequent storms in this moment of our history.
And the final piece that we and our partners in Puerto Rico are advocating and it actually impacts many of the Caribbean Islands that have been devastated by the storms – from Puerto Rico to the U.S. Virgin Islands to the countries of Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica – is that we really believe it’s incumbent on Congress to pass greater laws around budget transparency, responsible lending and borrowing because these types of laws prevent financial crisis. These types of laws actually secure protections in the markets not only for the U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, but also in U.S. states and foreign countries because much of the world’s debt is actually contracted through New York law.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Eric, what is the prospect that we’ll have a Republican-controlled Congress and Donald Trump as president be predisposed to sign into law some of these debt relief measures, given the hostility we’ve seen particularly from the White House.
ERIC LECOMPTE: Well, in terms of Puerto Rico, the bankruptcy process that in effect passed last year with strong support from Republican leadership and Democratic leadership and then signed into law by President Obama. And not only did that legislation delay debt payments for Puerto Rico in particular, that legislation is also what created this super-bankruptcy process, the only bankruptcy process in U.S. history that has the ability to restructure all of Puerto Rico’s debt.
So, in terms of Puerto Rico, they have access to this debt relief process right now, which is very positive. Unfortunately, we are dealing with a different situation with the U.S. Virgin Islands, where it is much more difficult for them to access this legislation. And whatever relief package comes together for the U.S. Virgin Islands, in some way, Congress needs to deal with the debt. At this point, we don’t know what that could possibly look like, but we’re trying to engage Congress to include that in the package for the U.S. Virgin Islands because they absolutely don’t have the resources to pay debt at this point.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Eric, what would you recommend for people who are very much alarmed and their hearts going out to the people of Puerto Rico struggling with this disaster? What’s an effective way they can help in the short term and the long term?
ERIC LECOMPTE: Well, in the short term, it’s absolutely critical that we do let Congress know that being able to resolve the situation in Puerto Rico also means that we have to resolve the financial crisis. Listeners can go to our website, www.JubileeUSA.org, and we have a petition that’s up which actually is going to the International Monetary Fund, in order to secure debt relief and protections for Caribbean countries devastated by Irma and Maria, like Antigua and Barbuda and the island of Dominica – developing countries totally devastated by Hurricane Maria. And that petition also goes to the White House, the Congress and to those involved in the bankruptcy process and governance on the island of Puerto Rico, calling for debt relief as well as to ensure that the island gets the proper aid and grants.
Find more information and commentary on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and calls for debt relief, by visiting the Jubilee USA Network at JubileeUSA.org.
Hurricane-Ravaged Puerto Rico Could Become a Model for Green-Energy Conversion
Interview with Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
On Sept. 20th, Hurricane Maria flattened Puerto Rico and its electrical grid, plunging the entire island of 3.4 million people into darkness amid a late season heat wave. Two weeks later, just a tiny fraction of the power had been restored, and officials are predicting it will take six months to get the electrical grid back online. But the system that existed before the storm was almost entirely powered by dirty fossil fuels, coal and oil. Despite the fact that the sun shines on the island almost every day, cheap, clean solar power was not being harnessed. The cruel irony is that the burning of fossil intensifies climate change, which generates stronger storms with more rainfall, just like Maria.
By some estimates, the island of Puerto Rico has the potential to become a learning lab for a conversion to renewable energy. Rather than importing coal and oil, which provides precious few jobs, local people could be hired to build out a sustainable energy grid, using solar, wind and other renewables.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, who says the first order of business is to get the electrical grid up and running again. He then discusses some of the opportunities and obstacles that could stand in the way of such a wholesale conversion to renewables on Puerto Rico. [Rush transcript]
TYSON SLOCUM: Puerto Rico has what’s known as a publicly-owned power system, so as a result, the political entities in Puerto Rico have enormous leverage over the future direction of their electrical system, because government institutions have total control over the operations of the utility. The problem in Puerto Rico is staggering debt.
You have a lot of younger, able-bodied people flee the island; the island’s finances in general are in not very good shape, and the utility itself was forced to declare bankruptcy. So to make new investments and especially to contemplate significant new investments in different types of infrastructure, different types of renewable energy, is going to take money that right now Puerto Rico and its utility do not have, so you’re talking about significant outside investment.
I think one of the things the U.S. ought to do to show a commitment to growth in Puerto Rico is to focus on investments that are going to help grow the Puerto Rican economy. And one way you can do that is by focusing on renewable energy, but there’s going to have to be outside capital, whether that’s in the form of the U.S. federal government or private sector actors coming in.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What indications do you see that it’s really feasible to convert Puerto Rico’s energy grid to renewables?
TYSON SLOCUM: What we’re seeing in U.S. electricity markets is a new era of renewable energy dominance. We’re seeing massive growth in the deployment of renewable energy, particularly what’s known as utility scale renewables in wind and solar. These are large-scale renewable installations. The economics of these types of deployments of renewable energy – they are out-competing incumbent fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. This is just a remarkable technological period that we’re in right now where renewables are ascending, and they’re ascending rapidly.
And so, the question is, as we are contemplating changes to our electric grid – particularly in the wake of a devastating natural disaster like what has afflicted Puerto Rico – there’s an opportunity here to lay that groundwork. The government always needs to play a role, especially in the case of Puerto Rico given the special circumstances we have, the government has to play a leadership role in laying that infrastructure groundwork.
And the question is, is the Trump administration just going to focus on a replacement and overlay of fossil fuel infrastructure, or is there an opportunity here for innovation and sustainability?
And I think it is important to have that conversation and to immediately start a feasibility study to assess what kind of renewable energy deployment we can get on to Puerto Rico in the medium term that are going to replace ineffective or damaged fossil fuel infrastructure.
And you know, rooftop solar has been an option, but the economical choice that is better than rooftop solar, is utility-scale solar, and that’s where you have large arrays in some sort of concentrated area; it can be on top of some very large housing development or commercial development, but the larger the system, the economies of scale drive those prices down, and so there is a huge opportunity here to start to consider distributed energy systems, that instead of having a handful of very large, central power plants that historically have been powered by coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy, instead you disperse dozens or hundreds of smaller scale units closer to neighborhoods and communities, that are renewable – solar or wind.
And studies have shown, time and time again, that these decentralized systems actually have greater resilience in the face of most types of reliability events or other types of natural disaster events, because if you’ve got a centralized model, which is the handful of large power plants all connected by large transmission lines, you knock out some of that and huge geographic areas go down, whereas if a storm affects one part of the island but not others, it’s not going to knock out all of these decentralized grids, and so you’re able to have greater resilience.
Roy Moore’s Alabama Senate Primary Victory Boosts GOP Christian Extremists
Interview with Frederick Clarkson, senior fellow with Political Research Associates, conducted by Scott Harris
When Donald Trump campaigned on behalf of appointed Alabama Sen. Luther Strange in the state’s Republican Senate primary, he knew that his guy would likely lose. His former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, along with his far-right website Breitbart and former GOP Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin all supported Strange’s opponent, Christian extremist Roy Moore, who won that race with nearly 55 percent of the vote. Moore is now the Republican nominee and front-runner to win the Senate seat vacated by Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a December special election against Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
Roy Moore was twice elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Cour, and twice removed from office for his refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Judicial Building and for defying a Supreme Court ruling invalidating Alabama’s ban on same sex marriage. Roy Moore is well-known for his belief that biblical law supersedes U.S. law – and views that homosexuality should be a capital crime, Muslims should not be allowed to hold elected office and promotion of the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was a Muslim not born in the U.S.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Frederick Clarkson, senior fellow with Political Research Associates, who discuss the significance of theocrat Roy Moore’s GOP Senate primary victory in Alabama, the strength of the Christian right in today’s Republican Party and the threat posed to secular democratic values. [Rush transcript]
FREDERICK CLARKSON: Roy Moore certainly sees the Constitution, the First Amendment, as a vehicle for Christianity. He doesn’t view it appropriate for Muslims to hold office. He specifically denounced the seating of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress. And most interestingly, he calls Islam a false religion. But yeah, he believes that homosexuality and abortion should be criminalized. And he also doesn’t think that the U.S. Supreme Court has the authority to do the things that they’ve done with regard to abortion rights and marriage equality.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Fred, I would ask you what the significance of his victory in the Alabama Republican primary for this open Senate seat means. What is the importance for our listeners to know about this win that he had the other day?
FREDERICK CLARKSON: Well, there are a number of things. One is that he’s demonstrated that the viability and the strength of the Christian Right both in terms of their ideological coherence and their organization strength. And in Roy Moore’s case, the peculiar alliance that is clearly forming between what we’ve always understood to be the Christian Right and what we now know as the alt-right.
It’s a disturbing coalition that clearly was catalyzed by Donald Trump, but it shows that the political strength is there, and it’s populist in that Luther Strange, who was the incumbent Republican, was an established conservative, pro-business, supported by the Chamber-of-Commerce kind of politician. Exactly the kind of politician that Donald Trump had pledged to throw out. The people who elected Donald Trump still want to do that, and even though Roy Moore may seem whacky to some, he’s an anti-establishment guy and that’s good enough for them.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Fred, what does the “Republican establishment” think about Roy Moore? You hear a lot of commentary after this primary victory by Roy Moore that people like majority leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell were unhappy because they thought it would make it more difficult for mainstream candidates to win the general election in other states if Roy Moore-like candidates challenged incumbents in other places around the country.
FREDERICK CLARKSON: Well, I think he’s absolutely right about that. I think the good news for the Republican party is that there really aren’t any other Roy Moore-like candidates. There may be some tea party kinds of figures who are in the House, who might make a plausible run at the sitting senators like Jeff Flake in Arizona, but you know, Roy Moore is a one-of-a-kind character. And he’s won statewide office twice. It’s very hard to find anybody remotely like Roy Moore who has done that. He’s been one of the best known and controversial politicians in the state for a couple of decades now.
And it may be that characters like that arise, but we haven’t seen them yet.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Fred, I would ask you, as you look at Roy Moore and the extremist wing of Christian political activists that he represents, what kind of threat do you believe it presents to our Democratic values here in the United States, today in 2017?
FREDERICK CLARKSON: You know, if you were going to hold a popular referendum on these things, they would lose. But it’s often the case that it’s the best organized faction. The best organized minority that prevails in politics and if you look at Donald Trump and a lot of these characters like Roy Moore, they came to Washington not to preserve it and to build it, but to destroy it.
The way that we think about democracy and public life and the role of government, the broadest swath of us, really. People like Donald Trump and Roy Moore and Steve Bannon are more like each other than other than any of them are like mainstream Republicans and anybody to their left. This is a revolutionary faction who is trying to figure out how destabilize what we think of as democracy and particularly the role of the federal government in preserving and advancing democratic values. That’s pretty much their stated mission. And Roy Moore, if he becomes a U.S. senator, will be in an unusual position to do it.
He can go in and filibuster and put holds on judicial and ambassadorial nominations as much as he wants to. And he can be a real wrecking ball.
Frederick Clarkson is co-founder of the blog, Talk To Action and author of “Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.” Find more commentary on Roy Moore’s extremist religious views by visiting Political Research Associates’ website at politicalresearch.org.