The United States confronted the economic disaster caused by the Great Depression with great energy starting with the elections of 1932. The new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his work team, launched in 1933 a vigorous campaign of economic rehabilitation called The New Deal. In the words of Fernando Picó, the New Deal was a “plan of national economic renovation” in which the “strategy consisted of reinvigorating economic life through public works projects that would provide jobs.” The New Deal established a more active role of the government in the economy, without competing with the private sector. The state became the guarantor or social security through different types of social and economic aid: it provided employment, food, and housing. The state did not only provide for workers, it also created legislation and agreements with the private sector that guaranteed the survival of many companies and businesses. This was the beginning of the welfare state.

The economic crisis in Puerto Rico also demanded immediate action on the part of the metropolis’ authorities. Within the North-American economic restructuring plan, funds were assigned to Puerto Rico in order to create a plan of emergency aid. These funds translated into the creation of two federal agencies: the PRERA (Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Act) in 1933, and the PRRA (Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration) in 1935. Their objective was not to restructure the political and economic systems of the island, but rather to alleviate the extreme poverty, unemployment, disease, and hunger. The funds assigned to the PRERA went to build infrastructure projects, which provided employment for thousands of workers. Food was also distributed and preventive measures against malaria were put in place. Nonetheless, the economic crisis and extreme poverty proved to be acuter than what the subtle palliative could withstand. Both agencies addressed immediate necessities, but they did not have the reach to transform the sociopolitical structures responsible for maintaining indigence.

Different prominent figures of the island called for a further-reaching plan that would pose long-term solutions to the root of Puerto Rico’s economic problems. Among these figures were Luis Muñoz Marín, a senator for the Liberal Party, and Carlos E. Chardón, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Both had advocated in the past for the restructuring of the sugar cane industry. Muñóz Marín and Chardón belonged to a generation of young people educated in United States’ Universities. Muñoz and Chardón believed that absentee sugar companies were synonym with poverty and backwardness. The modernization of the economic and political system of Puerto Rico was, therefore, necessary. Some reformists such as Muñoz and Chardón had actively participated in the programs launched by the PRERA and the PRA. As a result, they familiarized themselves with the governmental federal programs and saw the urgent necessity to change the structures that kept the island in a constant state of poverty and dependency.

The combination of economic and political interests in between sectors of the United States Congress and the island’s liberals allowed Chardón to design a plan for national restructuring known as “The Chardón Plan.” This plan identified large estates, single-crop farming, and absenteeism as the three principal problems that needed to be solved through the intervention of the federal government. It aimed to enforce the 500 acres limit of land ownership stipulated by the Foraker Act and it proposed to create a public corporation in charge of purchasing land and running sugar mills. The Chardón Plan also proposed that the land not used for sugar production should be divided among Puerto Ricans who did not own land. The plan contemplated the progressive industrialization of Puerto Rico through a coherent union between the education system and the economic needs of the island.

Due to the political configuration of the country (“The Coalition,” formed by the Socialist Party and the Republican Union in the legislature, and Robert H. Gore in the Governor’s residence) the New Deal and the Chardón Plan did not find a favorable environment on the island. Since their inception, the establishment of both programs was surrounded by struggles and political intrigues. This combination of hostile forces would continue until the 1940’s election introduced a completely new era. Fernando Picó pointed that even if for a moment the Chardón Plan only encountered obstacles, in the long run, it was very fruitful. He explained that: “its ideology nourished the political program of the Popular Party during the 1940’s campaign.” The motto of the Popular Democratic Party —Bread, Land, and Liberty—was a synthesis of the Chardón Plan, just as it was the public clamor of the most affected by the collapse of the economy.

Author: Yanelba Mota Maldonado
Published: February 23, 2016.

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