Recently, news of a blackout hit the world press: the giant blackout that affected more than 50 million people in the northeastern USA and Canada. It lasted more than 24 hours, paralyzing transportation, causing massive traffic jams, and trapping people in subway tunnels and elevators. There were also multi-million dollar economic losses.
Immediately upon learning the news, the ineffable President Bush Jr. issued public statements calling for calm. There was nothing to fear, this was no terrorist act. Along these same lines, the mayor of New York asked citizens “to take it in stride.”
Underlying these “upbeat” declarations by government officials, aimed at keeping their citizens calm, there seemed to be a real intent to hide the true causes of this catastrophic blackout. After the reassurances came the accusations: “It wasn’t us, it was our neighbors who did it!” They tried to accuse Canada, spreading “news” that the technical fault originated on Canadian soil and only later affected the USA. However, this accusation had to be retracted when later investigations showed a very different story.
First of all, the fault occurred in Ohio, not in Canada. Second, it was due to an overload caused by extra demand brought on by a heat wave. But – and this is the key point – it happened because thousands of kilometers of high tension transmission lines were past their useful lifetime, and even though these lines were extremely unreliable, they had not been replaced or brought up to date.
Almost immediately there was a storm of public declarations. For example, Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and former energy secretary under Bill Clinton, said, “We are a superpower with a Third World electric power grid.” But then came the most interesting part: He stated flatly that while he was energy secretary he had travelled the country and, on learning about the near-obsolescence of vast and crucial parts of the power grid, he had warned of the chaos which could ensue. But, he said, he had invariably come up against an absolute refusal by the private electric companies to make essential investments in new technologies to modernize their plants and update the distribution network.
It is worthy of note that the Niagara Mohawk Corp., which was blamed for triggering the blackout, forms part of the Select Energy group, which, in turn, is part of the Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities holding corporation, which effectively controls the electric power supply for a vast part of the U.S.
Perhaps due to these statements, the CIA then insinuated that perhaps the blackout may indeed have been caused by acts of sabotage.
Some reflections: Richardson was “slightly” mistaken when he called the U.S. power grid “Third-World-like.” The so-called Third World is not a uniform whole, nor is the situation of people around the world identical. Some two billion human beings, a third of the world’s population, totally lack electricity and safe drinking water, according to UN figures. But, of course, this permanent “blackout” is not the kind of news that “sells,” so it will never be the lead item on any major network newscast.
For “Third World” countries that do have electricity, their situations are not identical, even though, unfortunately, thanks to neoliberal-type capitalist globalization they are becoming quite similar. In this, Gov. Richardson is right. In all the countries where basic services become privatized, the ill-fated utility users — now simply “customers” — have ended up on the short end of the stick. They find themselves at the mercy of transnational corporations who fix at whim rates and conditions of (bad) service for what once were called “public utilities,” but which are now nothing more than cutthroat, profit-driven businesses.
As in Aesop’s fables, we can draw several morals from this story. The first is that none of this is new. It is something new for the “giant of the north,” which is getting a taste of its own medicine, something which much of the rest of the world has had forced down its throat on prescription of the IMF, the World Bank, and associates. The second moral is that it is once again proven that a country’s strategic utilities (energy, drinking water, telecommunications, transport) must not remain in the hands of private enterprise, which, far from seeking the public good, only look to increase profits.
Only the State, through its powers, can offer essential democratic guarantees of management and control. This concept is basic for the exercise of national sovereignty.
This is yet another reason why in Uruguay we defend state-owned enterprises.
Carlos Flanagan is international secretary of the Communist Party of Uruguay. Translation by Owen Williamson.