Agrarian reforms were an integral part of the economic development of Latin America and the Caribbean for much of the 20th century. Examples of agrarian reform laws are: Mexico (1917), Bolivia (1953), Cuba (1959), Chile (1965), Peru (1970), Venezuela (1970), Nicaragua (1979), and others. Each one is different in its implementation, execution and results. The central fact behind these reforms in practically all of Latin America and the Caribbean was the hegemonic power exercised by crowns over their colonial possessions. This imperialist domination maintained an unequal relationship with those who worked the land that did not allow for the socio-economic development of the sector. The population was kept under conditions of extreme poverty and basic subsistence consumption. This led to the emergence of social and labor revolutions that undermined the control of the colonial powers and began a new period after the wars of independence. During this new era, agrarian reform plans arose that consisted of distribution of agricultural land by the governments to the residents of rural areas. The goal of this distribution was the socio-economic development of the sector by making people the owners of the land so they could move beyond subsistence and achieve greater productivity through agricultural production.

The case of Puerto Rico is not unlike the changes that occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean in terms of agrarian reforms and the processes that went along with their establishment. The Puerto Rican example has many elements in common with those reform processes, but with a political, social and judicial model different from those of Latin America and the Caribbean. Among the elements in common are the hegemonic rule that the Spanish crown had over the island prior to the U.S. military invasion (in the Spanish-American War of 1898) and the living conditions of the population in general were subsistence consumption and exploitation of rural workers — who represented the largest sector on the island — by the large Spanish land owners. It should be noted that during this era there were numerous protests and uprisings against the Spanish government and the economic powers that kept the land owners above the population. The Grito de Lares was an example of these revolts.

After the U.S. occupation of the island, the U.S. regime established its political and economic control through the implementation of the Foraker Act (1900) and, later, the Jones Act (1917). Through devaluation of Puerto Rican money, the dollarization of the island, the shipping laws and Puerto Rico’s dependence on imports from the United States (including financial products), the appropriation of land owned by Spanish and Puerto Ricans began by the new owners. U.S. political power was solidified through the previously mentioned laws with the establishment of a government that largely responded to the interests of U.S. businesses. Industrial production was aimed exclusively at planting sugar cane, which represented the largest export from the island and was more than 80 percent controlled by foreign U.S. capital. As the socio-economic and political power of the United States advanced, the working conditions of the poor Puerto Rican workers worsened. By the beginning of the 1930s, the effects of the Great Depression were felt among the Puerto Rican population: higher levels of unemployment, lower salaries and increased prices for imported products, on which the local economy depended. Even with governmental intervention through the New Deal introduced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, conditions for Puerto Rican residents did not change significantly. This led to increased protests, labor strikes and resentment toward the U.S. sugar plantation owners. These uprisings were forcibly repressed by the local government controlled by the United States. The difference from the experience of Latin American and Caribbean countries is that they were able, in one way or another, to organize strong social movements that led to independence for their nations, while attempts in that direction in Puerto Rico were flattened by repressive mechanisms of foreign domination and were not strong enough to follow the Latin American and Caribbean model.

The ineffectiveness and short duration of the governmental plans orchestrated from the United States at the beginning of the 1930s led to the creation of a local plan that was broader and more effective. This was called the Chardon Plan and was promoted by Carlos Chardón, Rexford Tugwell and Luis Muñoz Marín. Among the main ideas of this proposal were reducing the power of the sugar mills, diversifying the agricultural sector and distributing productive lands among the farmers, to encourage local production. The Plan put into place the 500 Acres Law that was promulgated by the Organic Acts (Foraker, Jones) and prohibited agricultural corporations from owning more than 500 acres for production. That law was not respected by the U.S. sugar corporations. The proposal faced fierce opposition by the sugar companies and was never put into practice, but it was an essential document in the birth of the agrarian reform.

Through the legislative power and various judicial processes for noncompliance with the statue, a judicial case reached the United States Supreme Court, resulting in a decision favorable to the people of Puerto Rico (1940). It was then that the Lands Law (1941) was created by the Puerto Rico Legislature and put pressure on compliance with the 500-acre restriction. The Lands Authority, created by the Lands Law, established the conditions for distributing land and began the Puerto Rican agrarian reform. This process began with the purchase of land by the government from large sugar corporations. The main objectives of the reform were: to distribute land to families of farmers; train them on agricultural methods; establish farms that operated as cooperatives; and diversify agriculture to get away from the monoculture of sugar cane.

Despite the fact that the Lands Law and agrarian reform meant advances in the conditions of Puerto Ricans’ lives, the economic expectations were not met, mainly because the exclusive production of sugar cane, a seasonal crop, did not decrease. Instead, many farmers sold their parcels and moved to the urban areas to participate in the new production processes that emerged in Puerto Rico: the industrialization that would signify the death of agrarian reform.


Author: José Ramón Rey
Published: January 29, 2016.

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