Clientelism and Corruption in the Wake of Disasters


Fernando Tormos-Aponte, Wendy Prudencio, Mary Angelica Painter, Brevin Franklin


Puerto Rico’s history of crises provides an opportune context for analyzing corruption in times of disaster. This article forwards a conceptual understanding of the phenomenon of pork-barrel spending and disaster resource allocations as instances of corruption. The article expands the traditional focus of pork-barrel spending on legislative appropriations to include disaster aid. In our view, electorally motivated disaster resource distribution is a form of clientelism that enables corruption on a larger scale. Drawing from data on energy restoration crew deployments and election results, we use the case of Hurricane María power restoration efforts to point to the electoral consequences of the partisan distribution of disaster resources. We find a relationship between the timing of crew deployments and support for the party in power, suggesting the plausibility of our theory. Our findings motivate the need for policies that mandate transparency in disaster resource allocation and more equitable distribution of resources. [Keywords: corruption, disasters, Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico, clientelism, elections, energy, power restoration]

This article was originally published in CENTRO Journal Summer 2022 Volume 34 Number 2 SPECIAL ISSUE. Beyond Corruption: From Colonial Practices to Emancipatory Futures

The severity of the current global climate emergency is rapidly increasing, with tropical cyclones and heatwaves becoming more intense and frequent (Mendelsohn et al., 2012; Perkins-Kirkpatrick and Lewis 2020). The climate emergency increases demand for essential services while threatening the infrastructures that provide energy and other resources (Perera et al. 2020). Cyclones combine with other events, such as extreme weather events (e.g., heatwaves), health crises (e.g., COVID-19), and fiscal crises, to form compounding disasters (García et al. 2020; Garriga‐López 2020; Matthews 2019). In this context, swift and equitable government responsiveness holds the potential to reduce loss of life, create economic stability, and maintain social cohesion, among other impacts of disasters. Yet, resource mismanagement and instances of corruption in the context of disasters inhibit governments’ ability to respond to climatic disasters (Rahman 2018), delay recoveries (Nguygen 2017; Islam and Amati 2017), and diminish the availability of disaster recovery resources (Wenzel 2020; Yamamura 2014). 

Beyond geophysical threats, the ways in which institutions prepare for and react to disasters shape how those at the frontlines of these events experience them. Misgovernance and instances of corruption in the context of disasters motivate the tradition among critical disaster scholars to refer to disasters as “unnatural.” The notion of unnatural disasters brings attention to how the actions or inactions of governance institutions shape how people experience disaster, as well as the pace and extent to which communities recover. Disaster scholars also document how marginalized communities bear disproportionately larger burdens due to misgovernance, government neglect, and corruption in the context of unnatural disasters (Abramovitz 2001; Bullard 2008; Wisner et al., 2004). 

Scholars present compelling arguments on the merits of focusing on grand corruption schemes (Atiles 2020a). These authors argue that focusing on small-scale instances of petty corruption that individuals incur may distract needed attention from grander schemes of corruption that systematically deny broad sectors of a population access to public goods and resources, can finance vote-buying efforts, and help consolidate the power of elites. Grand corruption schemes have the potential to yield enough resources to finance clientelistic machines (Singer 2009) and, thus, enable and cement the rule of elite groups implicated in corruption schemes. In addition, they argue that anti-corruption efforts narrowly focused on petty corruption tend to penalize and pursue actions against members of the public sector while ignoring complicity in the private sector and failing to acknowledge the role of the private sector in corrupt schemes more generally (Atiles 2020a). Legalistic approaches to anti-corruption may also distract from corrupt schemes that are widely perceived to be illegitimate but nevertheless legal (Gupta 2017; Pardo 2018) and the broader systemic and structural nature of corruption of the powerful (Atiles 2020a). 

While we find these arguments in favor of focusing on grand corruption schemes compelling, we argue that seemingly minor instances of corruption also merit attention. Further, focusing on grand corruption schemes and petty corruption need not be mutually exclusive. Petty corruption may enable grander corruption schemes. Unequal allocations of disaster relief and preparedness resources in ways that demonstrate partisan biases while neglecting marginalized groups are among these seemingly minor instances of corruption. Disaster relief resource allocation processes have electoral, as well as life and death, implications. In Puerto Rico, energy restoration crew deployments during the Hurricane María power outage demonstrated a partisan bias, as communities supportive of the ruling New Progressive Party (NPP) (known in Spanish as the Partido Nuevo Progresista-PNP) waited for less time for power restoration crew deployments than opposition party strongholds (Tormos-Aponte et al. 2021). 

Further, highly socially vulnerable communities waited longer for power restoration crew deployments (Tormos-Aponte et al. 2021). The ruling New Progressive Party officials can use disaster resource allocations to reward communities for electoral support or secure electoral support for upcoming elections (Gallego 2018; Garret and Sobel 2003). These corrupt practices and clientelistic relationships, consisting of distributing resources and providing services in exchange for political support, have the potential to enable the continuity and electoral viability of elites implicated in grand corruption schemes. 

We do not aim to test this theory, but rather, to theorize and propose a conceptual understanding of clientelistic disaster resource allocations as a form of corruption that can yield electorally favorable outcomes for incumbent elites. This article provides original empirical evidence that suggests the plausibility of the notion that ruling elites stand to gain electorally from their disaster resource allocations. Both major parties in Puerto Rico experienced dramatic reductions in electoral support in the 2020 election. Yet, we find that the New Progressive Party experienced greater reductions in support in areas that waited longer for energy restoration crew deployments.

As climate change exacerbates the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events and unnatural disasters, disaster-related power outages will follow. These unnatural disasters open up opportunities for the micropolitical processes of corruption that enable grand corruption schemes. The disproportional impact of unnatural disasters on marginalized groups makes it imperative to curtail corruption in disaster resource allocations. One conclusion derived from the finding that corruption is commonplace in disaster contexts (see Leeson and Sobel 2008; Yamamura 2014) is that eliminating or significantly reducing disaster relief spending is necessary for curbing corruption in the context of disasters. Yet, we take issue with this assertion as it shifts responsibility for collective well-being away from government institutions. Even as we are encouraged by and supportive of the emergence of mutual aid and autogestión projects in response to government neglect of marginalized communities in disaster contexts, we reject the notion of mutual aid as a substitute for the role of government in disaster management. We echo our colleagues who take aim against this false dichotomy of mutual aid versus government-led disaster management and recognize the importance of both (Roberto 2017). Instead, we argue that monitoring and alternative disaster resource allocation approaches hold the potential to enhance government responsiveness to marginalized and vulnerable communities in the wake of disasters, reduce government corruption, and improve disaster recoveries and preparedness.

To this end, we conceptualize the phenomenon of pork-barrel spending as a form of corruption. We expand the traditional focus of pork-barrel expenditures on legislative appropriations to include other forms of pork. This article proposes the thesis that pork-barrel spending and clientelism can enable other forms of corruption that are larger in scale relative to the allocation of pork. Pork barrel spending may contribute to the concentration of power, thereby enabling the continuity of the systems in which corruption occurs. Yet, their electoral impact in Puerto Rico remains under-examined. Insofar as clientelism enables corruption and the systematic negligence of those who lack the means to elicit government responsiveness, it also enables a systematic form of oppression and structural violence (Gupta 2012). 

This article proceeds as follows. First, we present our conceptual understanding of corruption and clientelism. The following sections contextualize the concepts of corruption and clientelism in relation to disaster resource allocation processes. We proceed with a brief history of corruption in Puerto Rico. Lastly, we use the case of disaster mitigation resource allocation during the hurricane María recovery as an illustrative case of pork-barrel spending. 

Corruption and clientelism

Governments can engage in corruption in numerous ways. Corruption is commonly referred to as the “misuse of public office for private gain” (Rose-Ackerman 1999) or the use of political status for private gain (Schultz & Søreide, 2008; Leeson & Sobel, 2008). Various scholars, however, have engaged in debate on the definition of corruption. Anthropologists have argued that corruption is a category of transgression whose boundaries are often blurred (Muir and Gupta 2018; Gupta 2012). What is categorized as corruption is always a performative judgment (Muir and Gupta 2018). 

This article focuses on a specific kind of corruption: clientelism. Clientelism refers to “the proffering of material goods in return for electoral support” (Stokes 2007, 605) or “the direct exchange of a citizen’s vote in return for direct payments or continuing access to employment, goods, and services” (Kitschelt and Wilkinson 2007, 2). Clientelistic acts need not be illegal to be perceived as corrupt (Muir and Gupta 2018; Singer 2009). Clientelism can encompass a wide variety of forms, including, but not limited to, one-time payments for a person’s vote, the distribution of government jobs through patronage relationships, and giving political allies access to welfare programs, government subsidies, or other favors in exchange for electoral support from them and their networks (Piattoni 2001, Kitschelt and Wilkinson 2007). 

Scholars differentiate between grand schemes of corruption and petty corruption. While Singer (2009) defines grand instances of corruption as selling policy concessions, regulatory decisions, or procurement contracts, Atiles (2020a) adopts a more expansive notion that includes granting high salaries to public officials, revolving doors, debt restructuring deals, the unaccountable issuance of public debt, tax-haven policies, corporate welfare, the elimination of social welfare, and the lack of governmental accountability. 

Corruption is clientelistic when it yields electoral benefits for those who engage in corrupt acts. In our view, clientelism includes instances of distribution of government resources in ways that exhibit a partisan bias and yield demonstrable effects on electoral outcomes. This notion stands in contrast with more narrow notions of clientelism as a phenomenon limited to instances in which party officials extract promises of electoral support in exchange for resources. Instead, this phenomenon is known as conditionality. 

Prior scholarship argues that corruption and clientelism might be linked due to the high cost of financing clientelism (Singer 2009), which prompts party officials to resort to corruption to finance clientelism. This article adopts a more expansive view of the ways in which corrupt acts yield electoral gains. In our view, corrupt acts need not extract a commitment of electoral support to yield electoral gains. Favoritism in the allocation of public goods, services, and resources can yield electoral gains. Further, corruption can help consolidate elites (Osburg 2018) and obstruct political participation (Hetherington 2018). Thus, insofar as acts enable private gains amongst select groups and yield electoral gains, we consider them both corrupt and clientelistic. While these acts, such as favoritism in the allocation of government resources, may not solely finance clientelism purely defined as “vote-buying,” they nevertheless may yield significant electoral gains. These electoral gains can enable the electoral continuity of parties implicated in grand corruption schemes. As Osburg (2018) observes, engaging in corruption can facilitate the ongoing power of elite groups. In this view, we depart from Singer (2009), who holds the notion that petty corruption is unlikely to yield sufficient funding for vote-buying and, thus, not associated with clientelism. In our view, corruption studies should continue to examine instances of petty corruption given their life and death implications and their ability to enable grand schemes of corruption. 

Disasters are among the contexts that are particularly prone to corruption and partisan favoritism in resource allocations. Previous scholarship documents this phenomenon and the extent and mechanisms by which political parties engage in clientelistic and corrupt practices in disaster relief processes. The following section reviews extant knowledge on the partisan allocation of disaster preparedness and recovery resources. 

The politics of disaster resource allocations

            Literature on disaster resource allocations examines the impact of party politics on government disaster spending, services, and responsiveness. Critical disaster scholars and political scientists document how governments tend to neglect marginalized groups during disasters (Bullard, 2008; Collins, 2010; Kammerbauer & Wamsler, 2017; Muñoz & Tate, 2016; Pastor et al., 2006) while being responsive to politically supportive groups (Thomas et al., 2019; Aldrich, 2015; Hicken et al., 2018; Sainz-Santamaria & Anderson, 2013; Reeves, 2011; Garrett & Sobel, 2003; Cohen & Werker, 2008). For instance, in the case of hurricane María in 2017, communities supportive of the ruling NPP elicited faster government responsiveness and were assigned power restoration crews faster than non-supportive localities (Tormos-Aponte et al. 2021). In the case of Japan’s 3/11 disasters, communities with ties to powerful politicians recovered at faster rates (Aldrich 2015). Politically driven decisions over disaster resource allocations have life and death implications. 

            Disasters are often seen as opportunities for elite economic and political gain (García-López 2020; Hilhorst 2013; Klein 2018; Pelling & Dill 2010). Disasters are contexts in which elite actors seek to seize opportunities for-profit and political parties see opportunities for adopting unpopular measures due to the state of shock in which the population impacted by the event is subsumed, a phenomenon known as “disaster capitalism” (Klein, 2007; Gunewardena & Schuller, 2008; Klein, 2018; Letelier & Irazábal, 2018). Previous scholars find that political officials may seek to allocate disaster relief resources in ways that reward electorally supportive regions (Gallego 2018). Electoral ambitions can drive these favorable resource allocations and yield electoral consequences.

Voters tend to reward incumbents for their responsiveness and favorable disaster resource allocations (Reeves, 2011; Gallego, 2018; Cole et al., 2012; Healy & Malhotra, 2009). In some instances, disaster aid is used for reelection campaigns (Yamamura, 2014). Thus, while disaster resource allocations might not extract commitments of electoral support from voters and vote choices might not be monitored as is traditionally observed with clientelism (Stokes et al. 2013; Szwarcberg 2012), they may nevertheless yield favorable electoral consequences. Therefore, favorable disaster resource allocations can be clientelistic and corrupt insofar as they enable private gain and yield electoral outcomes that entrench party-aligned elites.

          In the wake of disasters, government responsiveness, including politically favorable disaster relief resource allocations, can yield electoral gains through several mechanisms. What governments choose to do or not to do (Dye 2012) has electoral and broader political consequences, a phenomenon known as policy feedback. Policy feedback loops, creating a perpetual cycle of information in and then policy output. In these circumstances, policy feedback can be negative or positive. Positive feedback builds perpetually, leading to future policy change, while negative feedback preserves the status quo (Baumgartner and Jones 2002). In the case of disaster response, the action of policymakers towards rebuilding and recuperation after disaster strikes can lead to policy stagnation or change.

The courses of action or inaction that governments take or do not take in preparation, during, and in the wake of disasters make up their policy towards disasters. Among these courses of action, disaster resource allocations and disaster responsiveness can be particularly politically consequential. As Pierson (1993) notes, policies can incentivize individuals to act in ways that secure favorable future policies and secure prior gains. Policy feedback can yield progressive outcomes, as is the case with welfare policies that enable the political enfranchisement of historically marginalized groups. Yet, policies can also have negative consequences, such as healthcare policies that place significant hurdles and administrative burdens (Herd and Moynihan 2019) on their intended beneficiaries (Campbell 2003; Michener 2019) or the over-policing of Black youth in the United States (Weaver and Geller 2019).

The policy of allocating disaster resources unequally can yield feedbacks that curtail the political participation of communities neglected during disaster recoveries while motivating the electoral participation of those advantaged during disaster recoveries. Hertel-Fernandez (2019) notes the recent emergence of the use of policies to bolster the political resources of their allies and demobilize the political power of their opponents among conservatives in the US.

Corruption takes place in the context of disasters through various mechanisms. The following section reviews extant research on corruption in the context of disasters, the circumstances under which it takes place, and the policy implications of this literature. 

Corruption in the context of disasters 

Scholarship on disasters documents numerous instances of corruption and calls for further research on this phenomenon. Corruption often takes place in local governments and is intensified after disasters during the delivery of aid due to the confusion surrounding recovery efforts (Nguyen 2017; Escaleras & Register 2016; Green 2005). For instance, Islam et al. (2017) identify reports among disaster-impacted communities of local government mismanagement of disaster relief, including money, clothes, and food, among other items, during the distribution of aid in the wake of cyclones that disrupted Bangladesh between 2007 and 2013 (Islam et al., 2017). Nguyen’s (2017) study on disasters in Vietnamese communities found that government corruption occurs through the windfall of resources due to the immediate access to funds and the lack of transparency caused by the disruption of a disaster. 

Previous analyses examine the relationship between disaster relief spending and corruption and conclude that there is a strong relationship between them (Cordis and Milyo 2015; Escaleras and Register 2016; Leeson and Sobel 2008; Shughart 2011; Yamamura 2014). In a study conducted on disasters in Brazil, Brollo, Nannicini, Perotti, and Tabellini (2013) found that an increase in federal transfers after a disaster resulted in greater political corruption. Moreover, Escaleras and Register (2016) explain that disasters can disguise acts of corruption. Others used public choice theory to suggest that individuals put themselves in areas prone to disasters to obtain some of the disaster relief windfalls and that disasters provide an incentive for public officials to engage in corruption (Boettke et al. 2007; Leeson and Sobel 2008; Shughart 2011; Yamamura 2014). 

Yet, research in this camp suffers from several limitations. Studies on this question often rely on publicly available data on corruption convictions, such as the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section data (Department of Justice, n.d.). Yet, corruption does not often result in criminal convictions (Leeson and Sobel 2008; Escalares & Register 2016), and it is often not illegal despite being popularly illegitimate. Acts of corruption can be missed, are lawful, or are not prosecutable in court (Alexander 2017). The availability of evidence of corruption is among the greatest challenges to conducting this type of research (Nguyen, 2017; Alexander, 2017). 

Studies in this camp tend to take disaster spending to be the cause of corruption as opposed to the context in which it occurs. Thus, the logical policy implication that stems from this line of research is that if corruption emerges as a direct result of disaster spending, the way to curtail corruption is to eliminate disaster spending. We contend that disasters consist of the context in which corruption takes place. While some contexts may be more prone to corruption than others, we question whether forwarding policy recommendations aimed at curtailing disaster aid stems from a normative commitment to reducing the role of government in meeting societal needs as opposed to evidence-based analyses on the effectiveness of different anti-corruption policies. Such studies, as well as richer examinations of the varying mechanisms that might drive corruption in contexts of disasters, are needed to curtail it. Further, we take issue with the notion that governments should eschew their responsibility for allocating resources for and supporting the coordination of disaster recoveries. 

This camp has gone further and argued that disaster relief fosters and incentivizes corruption (Yamamura, 2014; Boettke et al. 2007; Leeson and Sobel, 2008). Another conclusion that follows from this line of research is that disaster-impacted communities are encouraged to put themselves in harm’s way to maximize their gains from disaster relief spending (Shughart 2011). This assertion is based on the assumptions that disaster relief aid actually reaches disaster-impacted communities, that communities have a reasonable expectation that they will receive disaster relief aid, and that their interest in gaining access to disaster relief funds outweighs their desire and interest in remaining safe. These assumptions, however, do not hold in the case of the hurricane María recovery in Puerto Rico, among other cases, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of the United States claimed that there were communities that were impossible to reach and admitted that its aid delivery was grossly insufficient (García-López 2018). Further, about 60% of FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program assistance applicants were denied assistance (García 2021). Hundreds paid for the Federal and local government’s negligent response with their lives. In this and other cases, an incentive for putting themselves in harm’s way did not exist. 

Averting corruption can be difficult without knowing if changing the disaster aid process will alleviate any acts of corruption (Cordis & Milyo, 2015). Cordis and Milyo (2015) found no certainty that public official corruption could be impacted if changes were made to the process in which disaster aid was received and distributed. To lessen corruption, Schultz & Søreide (2008) suggest the procurement of resources be done before a disaster to deter corruption during the disaster relief. Schultz & Søreide (2008) explain that the risk of corruption during disasters can be avoided by having records of the available resources, training procurement specialists in “local knowledge,” monitoring, and real-time evaluations. Schultz & Søreide (2008) also suggest that high sanctions deter those who engage in corrupt activities. Bobonis, Cámara Fuertes, and Schwabe (2016) suggest that monitoring and timely audit programs can be used to dissuade government officials from engaging in corruption as well.

Yet, numerous challenges plague anti-corruption efforts, including definitional issues and the unintended consequences of legalistic approaches previously discussed. Adopting new laws to curb otherwise legal acts may not yield desired outcomes, as those engaging in them may innovate ways of circumventing new laws (Smart 2018) or as the scope of acceptable action is reduced to encouraging illegality (Shore 2018). Ultimately, legalistic approaches to addressing corruption may distract people from acts widely perceived as corrupt but that are nevertheless legal, as Gupta (2017) and Pardo (2018) note. Further, exchanges that lack a clear logic of quid pro quo but may yield electoral advantages are often challenging to censure “because they are thoroughly entangled with legitimate interpersonal relations and commitments” (Ansell 2018; Muir and Gupta 2018, 8). 

History of corruption in Puerto Rico

Corrupt acts have been documented in Puerto Rico throughout its entire history under United States rule (Bobonis et al. 2021; Clark 1972). Efforts to curtail corruption have had mixed results. Both of Puerto Rico’s majority parties, the New Progressive Party (NPP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) (known in Spanish as the Partido Popular Democrático-PPD), have been implicated in corruption schemes involving local, territory-wide, and federal funds. Corruption throughout Puerto Rico’s history exhibits ebbs and flows. Puerto Rico experienced heightened corruption during periods of reduced electoral competition under the extended rule of the PDP in the 1950s and 1960s (Bobonis et al. 2021). Corruption decreased during the period of increased electoral competition in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Still, it grew steadily in the subsequent three decades when there was a heavier reliance on federal transfers, peaking under the administration of the NPP governor Pedro Rosselló (Bobonis et al. 2021). Efforts to curb corruption in the early 2000s reduced misconduct, but only for a short period, as studies show that corruption increased following the collapse of Puerto Rico’s economic model (Bobonis et al. 2021; Segarra Alméstica and Enchautegui Román 2010). Throughout its history under United States rule, Puerto Rico has had well-developed patronage systems and clientelism at local and territorial levels of governance (Bobonis et al. 2021; Cordero Nieves 2012; Santana Rabel 1993), a problem that persists in present times (Pérez-Chiqués and Rubin 2021). Segarra Alméstica and Enchautegui Román (2010) document a disproportionate increase in corruption at the municipal level relative to the territory-wide level. Studies also report instances of corruption in the wake of disasters, such as pork-barrel spending with FEMA funds in the wake of Hurricane Georges in 1998 (Duany and Pantojas-García 2006). 

Puerto Rico’s reliance on federal transfers under its colonial status has been linked to the prevalence of corruption (Bobonis et al. 2021). The end of the US Tax Code incentives under section 936 subsumed Puerto Rico in an economic recession from which it never recovered (Caraballo-Cueto and Lara (2017). This financial crisis may have affected the extent of local capacities and willingness to monitor and prosecute acts of corruption, as observed during prior recessions (Bobonis et al. 2021). While federal transfers increased in the wake of the phasing out of the US Tax Code section 936 tax incentives, these were used to subsidize public utilities and not offset the debt crisis (Aponte-Garcia and Orengo Serra 2020). Previous analyses assert that elected officials used public utilities to secure electoral support, including the provision of free electricity as a way of securing electoral support, appointments of political cronies to Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) administrative jobs, and using PREPA employees to turn out voters (Smith-Nonini 2020). 

Further, as Puerto Rico’s economic crisis worsened, politicians leveraged PREPA, due to its good standing with financial rating agencies, to issue further debt to cover operating costs and engage in clientelistic spending (Merling et al. 2017; Smith-Nonini 2020). In the wake of Hurricane María, the Puerto Rico government negotiated controversial contracts with inexperienced firms (Cobra and Whitefish Energy) (de Onis 2018) to complement the PREPA power line crew workforce, which had been reduced through austerity measures in the preceding years. The tendency to award lucrative contracts to inexperienced energy firms was again observed with the privatization of PREPA’s energy distribution and transmission infrastructure through a contract with LUMA Energy. 

Corruption scholars recognize the difficulty of detecting corrupt acts (Bobonis et al. 2021). The case of power restoration resource allocations is one such instance in which evidence of corruption is complex, yet not impossible, to collect and where neglecting marginalized communities is legal albeit popularly illegitimate. In the next section, we use the case of power restoration crew assignments during the hurricane María recovery in 2017 to illustrate the dynamics of clientelism in the context of disasters and point to a way in which scholars can detect systematic inequalities and irregularities in disaster resource provision. 

Disaster resource allocations in the wake of Hurricane María

Puerto Rico has a lengthy history of public and private sector corruption. The two largest Puerto Rican political parties, the NPP and the PDP, recurrently relied on PREPA, the only electricity provider in Puerto Rico during Hurricane María, to finance pork-barrel and clientelistic spending, including mega-projects, rewarding supportive constituencies, funding electoral campaigns, and backing high-interest loans with predatory lenders (Smith-Nonini 2020). Over the last 30 years, PREPA had a history of purchasing low-quality oil and charging the consumers for “high-quality” oil (Kunkel & Sanzillo 2018; Smith-Nonini, 2020). Lenders overlooked these corrupt schemes and “bet” on PREPA by providing continuous financial support due to PREPA’s “solid record with financial ratings” (Smith-Nonini 2020; Kunkel and Sanzillo 2018). These schemes left PREPA financially impaired, owing over $8 billion to bondholders (Kunkel & Sanzillo 2018) while failing to transition away from its dependence on fossil fuels for energy generation. Political parties in Puerto Rico captured PREPA and allowed its politically appointed leaders to prioritize converting oil generating plants to natural gas, over-investing in renewables (Smith-Nonini, 2020). PREPA was used to enhance political agendas among the parties that traded power, the NPP and the PDP, by providing contracts that benefit politicians and “more opportunities to perpetuate the system’s overdependence on centralized fossil fuel generation” (Kunkel & Sanzillo, 2018). Scholars have called on restructuring the Fuel Office to improve PREPA’s contracting practices (Kunkel & Sanzillo 2018). 

This history of misgovernance of PREPA is indicative of the tendency among Puerto Rico elected officials to pursue petty corruption while remaining willfully neglectful of this kind of grand corruption scheme. Atiles (2020a) identifies this tendency in Puerto Rico of selectively prosecuting petty corruption cases, disproportionately targeting marginalized groups, while failing to address the systemic and structural nature of the corruption of the powerful. This selective prosecution of petty corruption while neglecting grand schemes of corruption is by design, as the Anticorruption Code for the New Puerto Rico (Law 2 of 2018) narrowly defines corruption as a public sector issue. Yet, in our view, the failure to address grand corruption schemes is also the result of the unwillingness within the Puerto Rico executive branch to use existing policy instruments at their disposal. The case of the grand corruption schemes that misgoverned PREPA showcases how corruption is normalized, and the public’s attention is directed away from corruption’s systemic and structural nature.  

We argue that corruption’s structural and systemic nature is entangled with people’s daily lives. The generation and provision of energy demonstrate the degree to which the state has become implicated in the minute texture of everyday life (Gupta 2012). Energy is a community’s lifeline. Losing energy reduces people’s chances of surviving extreme weather events (Anderson and Bell 2012). Misgovernance, inequality, and corruption increase disaster fatalities (Anbarci et al. 2005; Kahn 2005; Escaleras et al. 2007). Yet, energy is unequally distributed despite its vitality for human life (Bednar and Reams 2020). The unequal distribution of energy mirrors longstanding socioeconomic inequalities. Energy inequality is pervasive and persists in times of disaster. Clientelism further complicates and undermines the delivery of goods, leading to undersupply as governments withhold goods from their opponents while privileging supporters (Bates 1981; Hicken 2011; Robinson and Verdier 2013). Thus, corruption, including its clientelistic forms, can delay disaster recoveries (Nguygen 2017; Islam & Amati 2017) and exacerbate existing inequalities. 

This article calls attention to processes often referred to as petty instances of corruption for several reasons. First, petty corruption used in clientelistic ways enables broader forms of corruption. The electoral gains obtained through clientelistic practices can allow the political continuity of corrupt officials as well as subsequent and grander corruption schemes. Second, petty instances of corruption can have consequences that are not petty. The case of energy restoration crew deployments provides a clear example of the non-petty consequences of petty corruption. We turn to this case in the following section. 

The health, economic, and global implications of power outages are well documented (Anderson & Bell, 2012; Casey et al. 2020; Shuai et al. 2018). Power outages are associated with excess deaths (Anderson and Bell 2012), can lead to interruptions in the global supply chain (Aton 2017; Shughrue et al. 2020), and have pervasive adverse economic effects (Shuai et al. 2018). Puerto Rico’s archipelago-wide power outage had fatal consequences (Cruz-Cano and Mead 2019; Milken Institute School of Public Health 2018) and disrupted the global medical supply chain. 

Disaster resource allocations are politically consequential policy decisions. These allocations not only have short-term consequences over who survives the event but also broader impacts on subsequent elections. Unequal allocations can shape the conditions that enable corruption and strengthen the position of party officials who engage in it. In the following section, we provide evidence that supports the notion that power restoration crew deployments during the 2017 hurricane María recovery impacted the subsequent Puerto Rico elections in 2020. 

Electoral consequences of partisan disaster resource allocation after María

The 2020 Puerto Rico elections were historic, as they followed numerous political controversies and disasters that hit Puerto Rico. In the summer of 2019, Puerto Rico’s then-governor, Ricardo Rosselló, resigned due to protests erupting after years of financial mismanagement and the poor governmental response following hurricane María and the 2020 earthquakes (Robles 2020). After such devastating outcomes for Puerto Ricans, we expect some political shifts.

To understand the effects of poor government response to Hurricane María, we use government response data and election outcomes to find some correlation between response and elections. PREPA maintained a datalog of when service brigade crews tasked with restoring power were sent to various addresses across the archipelago. This data provides a proxy for government response to the power outages caused by Hurricane María. Additionally, we use electoral data for the 2016 and 2020 from the Comisión Estatal de Elecciones in Puerto Rico. This data includes vote shares for all political parties from 2016 to 2020, providing a basis for analyzing shifts in political support.

Using data on government response and electoral outcomes, we calculated the difference in support for the two main political parties, the NPP and the PDP, from 2016 to 2020. We found significant declines in support. Support for the NPP decreased by 4.0%-7.7% from 2016 to 2020, depending on the election (gubernatorial, legislative, or mayoral). The PDP also saw a decline in support across Puerto Rico, but to a lesser extent (3.2%-4.8%).

The decline in support for the two major parties in Puerto Rico, the NPP and the PDP, occurs in a context of broad discontent within the electorate and outward migration. While the NPP has downplayed its loss of support as a result of low voter turnout associated with outward migration, statistical analyses find that the decline in voter turnout is not attributable to emigration (Vargas-Ramos 2018). Previous studies of the decline in support for the majority party point to the loss of legitimacy of the Puerto Rican political class (Vargas-Ramos 2018) and opposition forces’ successful portrayal of the two major parties as jointly responsible for Puerto Rico’s crises and misgovernance, including the fiscal crisis, corruption, and the mismanaged disaster response to Hurricane María (Tormos-Aponte 2020). The extent to which the Hurricane María recovery impacted these electoral outcomes has yet to receive sufficient attention.

Energy restoration crew deployments are among the most important measures of government responsiveness and disaster resource priorities in the wake of Hurricane María, given the territory-wide magnitude and the longevity of the power outages. We use univariate linear regressions to find the relationship between crew deployment (our measure of government responsiveness) and changes in political support, controlling for the 2016 win in each precinct. We control for the 2016 win to account for the notion that voters see incumbents as responsible for disaster management and can punish or reward those in power for their performance (Reeves 2011; Gallego 2018; Cole et al. 2012; Healy and Malhotra 2009). We measure government responsiveness as the median number of days it took for a crew to be deployed to a given electoral precinct, while political support is calculated as the percentage difference in support for a political party from 2016 to 2020.

In areas where the NPP had won the 2016 election, the 2020 NPP gubernatorial candidate lost more support, where restoration crew deployments took longer than in areas with a quicker response. For each additional day delay of crew deployments, support for the NPP gubernatorial candidate declined by 0.29%. Thus, a month (30 days) longer wait in a given precinct would mean a decline of 8.7% in support for the NPP gubernatorial candidate in that precinct. We do not find an association between restoration crew deployment delays at the local level (in areas where the NPP had a mayor or district representative in office during the Hurricane María recovery). Here, we observe the politically consequential nature of disaster resource allocations at the national level and note the plausibility of using these allocations to secure electoral support. Incumbents might be compelled to privilege electorally supportive regions during the deployment of disaster resources to avoid punishment from their supporters in subsequent elections. In the context of Puerto Rico during the 2020 elections, when the margin of victory for the governorship was less than 2%, the deployment of energy restoration crews had the potential to alter the outcome of the elections. 

Table 1. Relationship Between Loss of Electoral Support from 2016 to 2020 and Median Days Until Crew Deployment

Electoral Relationship with Crew DeploymentCoefficientStandard Error
Change in NPP Support – Governor Vote0.29*0.14
Change in NPP Support – Representative Vote0.120.15
Change in NPP Support – Mayor Vote-0.010.04
Change in PDP Support – Governor Vote-0.01*0.01
Change in PDP Support – Representative Vote-0.010.01
Change in PDP Support – Mayor Vote-0.050.03
The coefficient represents the log of both days data and elections data for normality
The coefficient represents the log of days data for normality only
*Statistically Significant with a p-value <0.05

Figure 1. Changes in Electoral Support for the NPP Party 2016-2020 and Median Days Until Restoration Crew Deployment, Controlling for NPP 2016 Precinct Support

2020; Higher numbers in the difference in support equate to larger declines in support for the NPP. Median days until deployment refers to the median length of time (in days) until PREPA deployed a crew to that precinct for power restoration post-Hurricane María; the greater the number of days, the longer it took for PREPA to deploy crews to those precincts. DATA SOURCE: PREPA; Comisión Estatal de Elecciones

Our findings suggest that voters assign greater responsibility to governors than local elected officials (e.g., mayors) for their performance in the process of allocating disaster recovery resources. In the case of Puerto Rico, the territory-wide executive controlled the electric utility, PREPA. The governor publicly demonstrated this power when he asked for the resignation of multiple PREPA directors and hired new directors during the Hurricane María recovery. Local elected officials distanced themselves from the handling of the power outage, as mayors and legislators from both majority parties publicly and privately rebuked the executive branch’s handling of the power outage. While we identify correlations between the changes in support for the incumbent NPP governor and the days until energy restoration crew deployment, further research is needed to understand the extent to which clientelistic disaster resource allocations influenced the 2020 electoral outcomes in Puerto Rico. 


Puerto Rico ranks 4th in the world in citizens’ perceptions of government corruption, with more than 78% agreeing that there is abundant government corruption (Haerpfer et al. 2020). Puerto Rico’s government has elicited one of the lowest levels of satisfaction with government performance globally. Narrow conceptualizations of corruption and clientelism obstruct efforts to address the problem. This article seeks to expand notions of corruption and clientelism to include a broader understanding of the schemes that elected officials can use to sustain their electoral success. Our concern for corruption begets a discussion of the different measures that can be used to curtail it, which we turn to below. 

Privatization has been presented as a solution to clientelism and corruption found in the provision of public services, such as electricity. Further, the abundance of corruption has been cited as a reason for denying Puerto Ricans self-rule (Villanueva 2019) and disaster aid from the U.S. federal government. Yet, privatization has been defined as corrupt (Atiles 2020b), as the line separating the use of public goods for private gain and privatization is indeed a blurry one (Muir and Gupta 2018). Privatization may also set the stage for corruption, as rapid institutional transformation can create legal, ethical, and practical ambiguity conditions that enable the emergence of corruption (Muir and Gupta 2018; Smart 1993). Further, outages in Puerto Rico lasted longer after the Puerto Rico government privatized energy transmission and distribution and contracted an inexperienced firm, LUMA Energy. Privatization prevented the transparency needed to curtail corruption, as LUMA Energy refused to release information that Puerto Rico’s courts and legislature deemed to be in the public’s interest.

While some have argued for eliminating disaster aid provisions as a public good and called for placing disaster recovery in private hands, these accounts often fail to consider the assumptions upon which their claims are based. Among these are the notions that private actors are above corruption and that their interest in efficiency and motivation altruism is greater than their interest in profit. Further, privatization may make anti-corruption more difficult, as the same data that enabled our analysis of power restoration crew deployments becomes proprietary data of privately owned corporations instead of information that Puerto Ricans have a constitutional right to access.  

The aspiration to curb corruption must also acknowledge and address the challenges that plague anti-corruption efforts. Atiles (2020a) argues that legalistic anti-corruption efforts in Puerto Rico have failed to address the systemic nature of corruption since the law does not limit instances popularly perceived as corrupt, such as public official salaries, tax havens, the dismantling of social welfare while fostering corporate welfare, the revolving door between the private and public sector, debt deals with predatory lenders, or public sector accountability. These efforts not only failed to capture the systemic nature of corruption, but they also failed to provide mechanisms against the systematic and popularly illegitimate instances of corruption that flourished during the Hurricane María, such as the partisan and neglectful allocation of energy restoration crews. 

Those affected by corruption and clientelism are not passive victims who wait for the state’s benevolence (Gupta 2012) or accept misgovernance insofar as it is beneficial. The ongoing research into corruption throughout the Hurricane María disaster is possible due to the persistent activism and investigative reporting of people resisting corruption in Puerto Rico. These voices observed, experienced, and informed the development of claims that researchers and investigative reporters became involved in providing further empirical verification. In various instances, reports of shuttered warehouses and abandoned shipping containers with spoiled and unused disaster relief supplies emerged from civic reporting and motivated waves of activism. In the energy sector, various communities gathered to fix power lines themselves. 

Some have argued that there are circumstances under which seemingly corrupt and illegitimate practices can enable life or serve as a last resort for the marginalized, and thus, perhaps one should refrain from Manichean judgments (Das 2015; Muir and Gupta 2018). Instead, this camp places corruption in an ethical spectrum and recognizes the blurred boundaries of what is legitimate and illegitimate (Das 2015; Gupta 2012; Sneath 2006; de Sardan 1999). In this view, acknowledging the contradictory nature of corruption allows us to recognize how courses of action among bureaucrats might at once be corrupt and enable life. In the case of energy restoration in Puerto Rico, however, a systematic analysis of power restoration crew deployments found a pattern of preferential treatment to communities that were supportive of the ruling party and to more privileged sectors of the population at the expense of neglected marginalized communities (Tormos-Aponte et al. 2021). Rather than enabling life, the clientelistic nature of the Hurricane María recovery may have made survival less likely. 

Gupta (2012) has warned against ascribing inefficiency to subaltern bureaucrats while neglecting the failure of policy designs. While elite-level bureaucrats can align their practices with the interests of ruling party officials (Bertelli and Grose 2009; Collier and Pattillo 2000), in the case of PR, electric utility officials largely deployed crew deployments in accordance with energy industry guidelines. Yet, in doing so, they also privileged ruling party supportive neighborhoods while neglecting more vulnerable populations (Tormos-Aponte et al. 2021). Disaster resource allocation policies have electoral consequences that can consolidate the power of elites implicated in grand corruption schemes. This finding motivates the need to examine the extent to which corruption, much like racism, does not always need agents actively engaging in it to flourish. Instead, we must question and address the systemic nature of corruption, how policies can be corrupt by design, and ideate the means to change the systems that enable it. 

Author Bios

Fernando Tormos-Aponte ( is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and a Kendall Fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from Purdue University and a BA from the Universidad de Puerto Rico—Río Piedras. Dr. Tormos-Aponte specializes in environmental and racial justice, intersectional solidarity, identity politics, social policy, and transnational politics.

Wendy Prudencio ( is a Ph.D. student in Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She earned a Master’s in Emergency Health Services with a specialization in Emergency Management. She is an NOAA CESSRST fellow and a Lautenbacher scholar. 

Mary Angelica Painter ( is a Postdoctoral Research Associate for the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado – Boulder, where she researches social vulnerability, disaster response, and disaster preparedness. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri – St. Louis in political science, specializing in research methods.

Brevin Franklin ( is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) with majors in mathematics and economics. He is currently a scholar in the Harvard GSAS Research Scholars Initiative with plans to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. His research interests include policy analysis, the economics of migration, and disaster resource allocation.


  1.  The notion of climate emergency is an increasingly popular framing of the problem of climate change that seeks to convey a sense of urgency and a need to engage in consequential efforts to address the issue. See McHugh et al. 2021 for a broader discussion of the adoption and popularity of the notion of climate emergency.
  2. To maximize the robustness of our results, we controlled for normality using Shapiro-Wilk tests on days and election data after controlling for the 2016 win for that precinct.


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