The period between the U.S. military occupation in 1898 and the approval of the Foraker Act in 1900 was a harsh time for the residents of Puerto Rico. The island’s economy and political destiny were on hold. The Puerto Rican people suffered both personally and financially through the difficult transition.

The island’s economy was dragged down by the crisis in the sugar industry and the weight of the U.S. naval blockade. Many lost their jobs and the prices of food and basics shot upward. After the Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898), Puerto Rico products became foreign imports for Spain and Cuba. This adversely affected the coffee and tobacco industries, because the tariffs that had to be paid to enter those markets were much higher than they were before 1898. Additionally, business owners’ expectations about U.S. markets were frustrated. The U.S. market was not opened to businesses in Puerto Rico. Under the military government, Puerto Rican products were treated as foreign imports, with the high tariffs that came with that designation. In Washington, little importance was placed on the issue of extending trade agreements to the new Caribbean possessions.

Two economic decisions by the military government worsened the economic conditions. Governor Guy V. Henry, Brooke’s successor, approved a one-year moratorium on debts. This measure, though it helped farmers, was devastating for business owners. Without capital in hand, they could not face the fierce competition from U.S. businesses. The other measure was the official change of currency. The exchange rate represented a depreciation of current and future earnings for businesses at the rate of 60 cents on the dollar for each provincial peso.

On top of the economic crisis was the social discord of old grudges. The “seditious parties,” also called “los tiznados,” attacked the homes, estates and stores of the landowners and business owners. It was a common practice for them to burn the debt books, so it was believed that the groups’ main motivation was to get out of the debts with the usurious and opportunistic business owners and land owners. The history of “los tiznados” is clear evidence of the social inequality of the era. Additionally, on August 8, 1898, Hurricane San Ciriaco struck the island, devastating the coffee plantations. All of Puerto Rico was slow to recover from San Ciriaco. The coffee zone, however, would never return to the economic prominence it once enjoyed. The hurricane was followed by a terrible famine, which had pernicious effects on the already poor health of the Puerto Ricans. Without work, without food, without housing and without health, the new century started off as bad or worse for the rural working class.

The economic, political and social situation alarmed the island’s political leadership. Still inexperienced in U.S. politics, the leaders were somewhat blind. Facing the stagnation of trade, Luis Muñoz Rivera, Eugenio María de Hostos and Julio Henna traveled to Washington to make the Puerto Rican case to Congress, but without success. Leaving the local leaders out of the political discussion, Congress began an ardent debate about the imperialist policies of President McKinley. On April 12, 1900, the Foraker Act was approved. It was the result of agreements between the factions in Congress, without consultation with the Puerto Rican people or leadership.

The law created an elected House of Delegates, but it imposed an Executive Council of 11 people appointed by the president of the United States. The Legislature, though it appeared to have broad powers, was subject to the governor’s veto and review by Congress. The creation of the Executive Council limited the separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative branches. The political organization of the Foraker Act caused much ill will. The judicial system was at the mercy of a committee named by the president. Puerto Ricans did not elect the governor or members of the cabinet. In economic terms, a limit of 500 acres was established on property ownership by any business, but no penalty for non-compliance was established. Free trade between the U.S. and Puerto Rican markets was also established, and a 15% tariff was imposed on rum and sugar.

The elections of 1900 would mark an interesting political course on the island. But, above all, it showed that the Foraker Act was not sufficient to establish an efficient organizational structure for the island. The constant economic, political and social crises demanded greater political autonomy; autonomy that the U.S. Congress was not disposed to grant. The hopes that many had for the transition did not materialize.

Author: Yanelba Mota Maldonado
Published: June 15, 2015.

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