Three days before Ricardo Ramos resigned as chief of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, he blamed the government bureaucracy as a critical source of PREPA’s incompetence.
In a moment that received little attention and which is best described as the embattled Ramos’ cri de coeur, he told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that “over 50 percent” of PREPA’s employment comprised political appointees – not the kind nominated by the governor but the kind elected officials of every political stripe in Puerto Rico utilize to provide employment for their people or mi gente.
For politicians, PREPA “even in its current bankruptcy is like the jewel of the crown in Puerto Rico,” Ramos said, adding “PREPA traditionally has been a company where politicians or parts of government can get their family members to get work.”
Step right up! We’re now getting to a fundamental truth of why Puerto Rico’s recovery has been slow and bumbling. It’s because of the popularity of the political class’ friends and family plan. Add to that an inexperienced Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in his debut as an elected official – no need to start at he bottom here – and you have the elements for a perfect storm.
While it’s true that the double whammy of Hurricanes Irma and María is a once-in-100 years disaster requiring massive federal assistance and federal response has been inept at best, cruel at worse, it’s also a fact that Puerto Rico’s patronage-based public employment and bloated bureaucracy have played a big role in the difficulty of returning to normal.
The twin hurricanes exposed – desaropó, as we say in Spanish – the complete failure of Puerto Rico’s political class in gubernatorial regimes of the past 60 years to protect and serve the citizens of Puerto Rico.
A government built on excessive political favors doesn’t know how to flip the switch to get the electric power authority or the water authority or the transportation agency or the education department or the – fill in the blank – to work again.
The political appointees Ramos spoke of, known in Puerto Rico as batatas or sweet potatoes, are not employed to make taxpayers’ lives easier. That’s not in the job description. Stories of the torturous treatment of taxpayers as they navigate government are legendary in Puerto Rico, so much so that when I worked for the now defunct San Juan Star readers called the newspaper or wrote letters to the editor to call attention to their lack of telephone, power or water service; to help plug a leak in a street pipe or a pothole; sometimes to push for any response at all.
Pass the Sweet Potatoes
The batatas collect a paycheck, and many of them don’t even show up for work. Comes an unprecedented hurricane, and few people know what to do. That’s why Puerto Rico had 150,00 pre-storm public employees on an island of 3.4 million people – and declining – versus fewer than 100,000 full-time state workers in Florida, with its 21 million residents. Do the math.
Gov. Rosselló finally came to grips with his bumbling bureaucracy after 40 days and nights of people suffering without light, water, adequate housing and food by asking his entire cabinet for resignation letters. Had he not been so green and gullible in public affairs and management, he might have arrived at that realization sooner.
Puerto Rico Se Levanta
As Puerto Rico crawls out of recovery, let’s hope the island rebuilds with an eye to a leaner, more responsive government in which employees’ skills, talent and merit play a bigger role than pala or political patronage.
If Puerto Rico is to stand tall, that’s how “Puerto Rico se levanta.”
˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor
Below is a transcript of the two-minute exchange between Ramos and Sen. Lee, which also can be found here on C-SPAN.
U.S. SENATOR MIKE LEE: Do you think politics has played a part in PREPA’s failure?
FORMER PREPA CHIEF RICHARD RAMOS: Historically?
LEE : Yes, historically or currently.
RAMOS: Historically, I can attest that certainly there’s been an uh … it’s very hard to manage PREPA, being a big corporation which is part of government. … even in its current bankruptcy PREPA is like the jewel of the crown in Puerto Rico regardless of the bad service and the bad conditions. And certainly there is too much intervention in terms of government officials — may I be … please don’t feel bad but it gets a lot of attention … politicians in order to get attention they do a subsidy and actually subsidies have killed PREPA. Too many subsidies in order to get votes.
LEE: … What about in employment. How many political employees are currently employed by PREPA?
RAMOS: PREPA traditionally has been a company where politicians or parts of government can get their family members to get work.
LEE: Do you have any idea how many?
RAMOS: Percentage wise certainly over 50 percent.
LEE: We’re talking about many hundreds of political employees currently working there …
RAMOS: They’re not political appointees by the governor. What I’m saying is that, historically, PREPA historically has served as the place for employment of the families of political figures since … [end of video].