Article begins

Why Puerto Ricans were plunged into darkness, but their cloud kept running.

In the warming cauldron of the Caribbean Sea, it spawned; a maelstrom of spiraling cloud meteorologists named Fiona. On September 18, 2022, it made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane over the occupied American territory known as Puerto Rico, nearly five years to the day after its elder sibling, María, devastated the archipelago in 2017. Hours before its whirling shadow darkened Puerto Rico’s shores, Fiona’s outermost tendrils of wind and rain obliterated the island’s electricity grid. Fiona, a Category 1 storm (at 165 km/h), was feeble by comparison to María (at 270 km/h), but just as effective at decimating the island’s aging energy infrastructure. Puerto Rico plunged into darkness.

The private company LUMA Energy succeeded the state-operated Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) in the summer of 2021, promising greater reliability and resilience. But a year of intermittent blackouts and skyrocketing energy prices has left Puerto Ricans disillusioned with the Canadian-American company’s management of their crumbling energy grid. In response, Puerto Ricans are protesting in the streets against LUMA Energy and the US-appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico (known colloquially as La Junta) for its hand in privatizing the archipelago’s power infrastructure. Just as Puerto Ricans ousted former Governor Ricardo Rosselló through massive demonstrations, the people are demanding the cancellation of LUMA Energy’s contract with the local government.

A perfect storm of anti-imperial sentiment is sweeping over the archipelago, spurred by multiple intersecting disasters and their tumultuous aftershocks: a government debt crisis, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane María, COVID-19, the 2020 earthquakes, climate change-fueled drought, corruption, a housing crisis, cryptocolonialism, and Hurricane Fiona. At the front lines of many of these protests are disenchanted youths inspired by social media, anti-colonial politicians like Juan Dalmau, and the music megastar Bad Bunny (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio).

In his most recent album, Un verano sin ti (a summer without you), the reggaeton artist comments on the blackouts plaguing the archipelago in the wake of LUMA energy’s mismanagement and greed in a track called “El Apagón” (the blackout). Bad Bunny experiences the energy crisis firsthand when he visits the island on tour, the grid being so unreliable that he has to commission diesel generators to supply power to his concert venues. As the track’s lyrics indicate, however, “El Apagón” is about more than electricity. When Benito says, “Puerto Rico está bien cabrón,” he is simultaneously celebrating and critiquing the colonial conditions of life in the archipelago, where Puerto Ricans live in poverty double that of the poorest state in the United States: Mississippi. The artist goes on to blame the pro-statehood government (PNP) for its role in the LUMA disaster, a prophetic critique given current Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s decision to support the renewal of LUMA’s contract on December 1.

If the power grid fails, mechanical flywheels transition power to the facility while a fleet of diesel generators rev up from hot standby to full operation.

When the long awaited music video dropped, viewers were surprised to find that it included an 18-minute documentary featuring independent journalist Bianca Graulau, who reports on housing injustices in the archipelago and the accelerating displacement of Puerto Ricans by foreign realtors and cryptocolonists. For Bad Bunny, the blackout is not only electrical, it is also political.

In the aftermath of LUMA Energy’s spectacular grid failure, some Puerto Ricans of means kept their lights on, thanks to solar panels or diesel generators, but most households remained without reliable power for months after Hurricane Fiona struck. Proponents of the energy company cite the exceptional nature of hurricanes in its defense, claiming it is unrealistic to expect the grid to be more resilient. Meanwhile, many of Puerto Rico’s data centers experienced no blackout. Like Bad Bunny’s concerts, Puerto Rico’s cloud was designed with the electricity grid’s unreliability in mind. While Puerto Ricans were in the dark, illuminating their way with candles or flashlights, the cloud thrummed on without so much as a hiccup.

La Madre de Dios

Since the autumn of 2020, I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Puerto Rico’s disaster-resilient data centers―digital warehouses brimming with computer servers for local data storage. Despite an upsurge in activity spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, a horrific bout of earthquakes, and the battering of three major hurricanes in recent years, Puerto Rico’s cloud has not experienced any significant downtime (an industry term for service interruption).

Data centers are hyper-redundant infrastructures by design. Digital capitalism’s ceaseless operation is assured by a dizzying chain of fail-safes ready to spring like dominos carefully arrayed in sequence. If the power grid fails, mechanical flywheels transition power to the facility while a fleet of diesel generators rev up from hot standby to full operation. Electricity is always flowing, whether the power grid that energizes the data center is reliable or not. The cloud is always afloat, even if it must guzzle kerosene to keep its lights on.

Data centers in Puerto Rico tend to be located near the coast, where undersea fiber optic cables connect the island into the global net via landing stations in Miami, Barranquilla, and beyond. Given this proximity to the sea, data centers in Puerto Rico are surrounded by towering concrete walls to mitigate the risk of storm surge or tsunamis. The perimeter of these facilities is typically crosshatched with storm drains or cisterns to divert rainwater away from vulnerable electronics.

Credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Photograph of a street at night
Lights from cars are seen on an otherwise dark street in the Condado community of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 19, 2022, after the passage of Hurricane Fiona.

I shadowed technicians in these storm-resistant data centers, accompanying them on their daily routines as they maintained cloud storage services for the archipelago’s government, businesses, and residents. I helped them install computer servers into racks, disentangle messy cables, “seed” cables into connection ports, and fiddle with air conditioners to keep servers cold and dry enough to function in the hot and humid Caribbean air.

“They called her ‘the Mother of God’,” technician Raúl Santiago Reyes told me, as we sipped coffee and shared sweet tufts of pan sobao in the breakroom. “I know the names for the hurricanes are randomized every year and there is a list they follow, but you can’t help but feel like she was destined to be named María.”

As we finished our shift, heaving aging servers onto specialized carts for disposal, I couldn’t stop thinking about Raúl’s biblical remark. How could something so destructive be named after someone so revered? This juxtaposition of grand creatrix and grand destroyer reminded me of Taíno petroglyphs I spotted along the Río Saliente of Jayuya in Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior. For the island’s Indigenous people (Taíno), the Juracán (Hurricane) is thought to be an enraged aspect of the mother deity, Atabey. This furious avatar, known as Guabancex, was said to carve the wind into a spiral with her rage, unleashing the Juracán to punish the wicked, but also to sow the seeds of renewal and regrowth. Guabancex, a revered destroyer and bringer of life, not so unlike Raúl’s Madre de Dios.

“The data centers were the only places on the island that had power,” Raúl explained the following week, opening up about his life after María, his face barely visible behind a snug N-95 mask and fogged-up face shield. “So we let the government in, and people from nonprofits, so they could use the call center to coordinate rescue ops, repairs, and supply runs.”

“How did you get back and forth from work?” I asked, uncoiling some ethernet cables.

“I didn’t,” Raúl started, pulling up photos of the hurricane saved to his device. “They let my family come here. We stayed down here in the breakroom for the first few months until the flooded roads to the mountains were cleared.”

“That was kind of them to do,” I replied. “Aren’t there rules against that sort of thing?”

Raúl nodded, “We take care of our own. They had no other choice.”

I listened to Raúl recount how his privately owned and operated data center had become a sanctuary for his family and an unofficial headquarters for state officials and nonprofits scrambling to rebuild and save lives. As our shift ended, Raúl and I signed out with security in the spacious lobby. “One more thing that might interest you. This lobby, I convinced the management to open this part up to the public. Normally, we can’t for security reasons, but they agreed to open it to people to charge their phones and we set up a public Wi-Fi router for them.”

“That’s beautiful. I’ve never heard of a data center doing anything like that.”

Raúl gestured to the open space around us, “It was packed in here for weeks. It felt like my congregation back home – our manager was like the pastor. The people were grateful. We gave them a sliver of hope.”

I let his story soak in as we ventured out into town for a post-shift beer at a local chinchorro. On an outdoor patio under the shade of coconut palms, we sipped golden-striped cans of Medalla and ate cheese-filled empanadas and chatted about the dark days after Hurricane María. This would not have been possible just a few weeks before when a more extensive coronavirus lockdown was in effect, on the executive order of Wanda Vasquez, the interim governor who succeeded Rosselló after his people-driven resignation.

After a long while, Raúl leaned forward to ask, “And what about you?”

I scrolled through photos sent to me by relatives and saved on WhatsApp. I told him about my extended family who live in the mountainous part of Guaynabo and how after María struck, the road was covered in mud, downed power lines, and fallen trees. It took several weeks for the neighbors to band together to get the steep road cleared.

Raúl scratched his chin, “Then you understand. Even though you live in the States, you understand because this is your home as much as Boston is.”

I recall feeling disarmed by this remark. We ethnographers like to think we are immune to the gaze we inflict on others in our pursuit of knowledge, even if that pursuit is motivated by a just cause or a desire to help the communities we study. As a Puerto Rican raised in the metropole of the United States, with the privilege of seldom experiencing a blackout and with the right to participate in national elections, I could not help but feel that Raúl was wrong. How could I ever understand? Like so many diasporic Boricuas on the mainland, I worried about my family’s safety in the dark months following María and Fiona―but worrying is not the same as living through it.

“I want to,” I said carefully. “I want to understand.”

Credit: LAURA ADORNO MONSERRATE
Photograph taken outdoors showing damage done by a hurricane
Devastation wreaked by Hurricane María in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

Insurrección energetica | energy insurrection

The tale of Puerto Rico’s cloud is instructive as recovery efforts are underway following Hurricane Fiona. While hurricanes are a natural condition of life in the Caribbean going back to the pre-colonial Taíno times, climate change (a consequence of colonial capitalism) is intensifying the frequency and strength of these storms. Many fatalities and much of the displacement and destruction that followed Hurricane María might have been prevented if the archipelago’s infrastructures were better designed to withstand tropical storms. US imperialism and imposed fiscal austerity all but guarantee, however, that Puerto Ricans will continue to suffer because they cannot control their own political or infrastructural destinies. Puerto Ricans have weathered tropical storms for millennia; the disaster facing Puerto Rico is colonialism, not hurricanes.

Rather than submit to what seems insurmountable, Puerto Ricans like Raúl and Bad Bunny Benito are fighting for the survival of their people, doing what they can to help their communities. For Raúl and the company that he works for, that means opening network and power resources to the community, breaking all the norms that provision the internet as a securitized commodity. For Benito, that means amplifying the voices of Puerto Ricans entwined in a colonial relationship with the United States and living amid LUMA Energy’s blackouts. My friends, family, and research participants on the island, are with Yarimar Bonilla when she argues that “resilience” is not enough. Puerto Ricans need something more concrete than hope or perseverance to break “El Apagón,” a state of infrastructural neglect and imperial abandonment that has defined the archipelago’s history since the United States conquered the island in 1898.

In the heart of the island’s highland interior, hope springs up from a community garden. There is a spindly tree fashioned from solar panels that has become a symbol of hope and resistance. This is Casa Pueblo’s solar forest in Adjuntas, a case study in liberatory possibility and a real-world illustration of solarpunk, a utopic, anti-imperial and grassroots-centered genre of speculative fiction fueled by solar energy. Casa Pueblo are one of the principal forces behind Puerto Rico’s growing energy independence movement, which the nonprofit’s leader, engineer Alexis Massol González characterizes as “an energy insurrection.” Rather than rely on the privatized energy grid, Casa Pueblo and other organizations are calling for a solar revolution in Puerto Rico, which would democratize energy through the creation of microgrids to keep communities powered even after hurricanes strike or power grids fail.

I spoke with technicians at PREPA-operated solar farms along the island’s more arid southern coast who are looking to the sun for renewable energy to supplement fossil fuels such as natural gas. While the farms I toured are hampered by limited energy storage capacity and a need to feed electricity back into the fragile national grid, Casa Pueblo’s solar insurrectionists hope to liberate the island from grid dependency household by household. The tension between these solar farms and the solar microgrids run by residents and nonprofits in the mountains show us that “El Apagón” is not an electrical problem, but a political one, what Dominic Boyer might call energopolitics.

In 2019, a grassroots uprising resulted in the resignation of a sitting governor. This current movement to revolutionize energy infrastructure is seen by many as one step toward wider liberation and decolonization.

This article was corrected on January 26, 2023. In the third to last paragraph, it originally referred to Arturo Massol-Deya as the founder of Casa Pueblo, and this has been changed to refer to the nonprofit’s leader, Alexis Massol González.

Authors

Steven Gonzalez Monserrate

Steven Gonzalez Monserrate (he/him/his) is a PhD candidate in the History, Anthropology, Science, Technology & Society (HASTS) program at MIT. His dissertation project, “Cloud Ecologies,” is an ethnography of data centers and their wider environmental and political impacts for communities in New England, Arizona, and Puerto Rico.

Cite as

Gonzalez Monserrate, Steven. 2023. “La Nube sin Apagón.” Anthropology News website, January 5, 2023.

More Related Articles

The Social Contract under Scrutiny

Miranda Sheild Johansson, Gwen Burnyeat