The Culture of Electricity - August 5, 2003 (KS)

It is true, that by American Standards, the Dominican Republic is a poor country. However, I have yet to see a homeless person and everyone has enough to eat. Many live as their ancestors did 200 years ago, riding burros instead of cars and living in Thatch houses (often painted very bright colors). Extended families are very important and the concept of sharing is integral to their culture.  

There where riots in Puerto Plata yesterday. Not over Political oppression, but over Electricity. Specifically the "Right" to Electricity. Over the last 30 years, the various governments of the Dominican Republic have done a good job of creating the infrastructure that could provide electricity to approximately  60% of the country's population. This 60% very quickly agreed that they did indeed....want electricity, but few could afford it. 

The process of stealing electricity soon became an art form and it is estimated that 95% of buildings that have access to electricity have it, while only 10% are paying for it. 

While driving along a small dirt road out in the country a few days ago, Barb and I came across two bulky men struggling to hold a homemade wooden ladder vertical, while a skinny 8 year old boy sat on top twisting some 12 gauge wire (just a bit bigger than the wire you use for your stereo speakers) into a high power transformer. These where the local power pirates, who for a small fee (around $5) will permanently wire your house into the local power grid. Although I cannot use their names, I was assured by these two gentlemen that the wooden ladder prevented the boy from grounding out and electrocuting them all. Thousands of people die by electrocution in this small country annually.  The power poles holding up these residential "power lines" are sticks cut so that there is a "Y" at one end and stuck into the ground about a foot. 

What's a poor unstable government to do? The Government owned Power Utility was deeply in the hole and hemorrhaging badly. The people had come to believe that Electricity was a RIGHT, not a Convenience. 

4 years ago, the government Privatized the Power Grid (and made a bit of money for themselves in the process). The new company, ______________ tried a policy of enforcement and many arrests where made. But you can neither arrest 50% of the population nor post a guard on every power pole, so this policy was quit ineffective. 

This year they have taken another tact. Divide the country into Segments. For every 24 hour period, any specific segment receives only the power it has paid for. For example, in Luperon, some of the businesses pay for their electricity, which account for 25% of the total electricity used in the area (segment). Luperon receives 6 hours of electricity a day. This has put the local Ice Cream Shop out of business and the effects in the larger cities like Puerto Plata and Santiago has been much more profound. 

The Dominican Republic is very proud to be hosting the Pan American Games this year. That segment has been receiving 8 hours of power each day, the rest of the time there is no air conditioning or even lights. This is reflecting very poorly on the country as a whole. 

_________ has announced that it is selling its excess power to Puerto Rico. A sensible move from a business standpoint, but one that has infuriated a population that doesn't quit understand the importance of a healthy bottom line. 

Let us turn the clock forward for a moment. In Luperon, 25% of the Businesses pay their bills. These same businesses are now only receiving power for 6 hours a day. Their bills next month will be reduced by 75%, which means that this segment will only receive 2 hours a day, which will further reduce the bills.......... In a matter of months, all of the Electricity produced in the Dominican Republic will be sold to Puerto Rico. An untenable situation.

Yesterday there was a riot in Puerto Plaza, I read that people where shooting guns in the air. Is electricity a convenience or a right?