The Foraker and Jones Acts established a relationship of tutelage and political subordination and outlined economic boundaries for Puerto Rico. Both laws established a relationship of dependency on big U.S. economic interests. The invasion also made possible the flow of foreign capital that shifted the Puerto Rican economy toward sugar cane monoculture dominated by capitalist production methods. The coastal landscape filled with cane fields, and the land was controlled by absentee and local moneyed interests. Subsistence farming was strangled and the social fabric suffered the blows of big sugar.
Before the U.S. invasion, coffee production dominated the economy. The aromatic product was sold in the European and Caribbean markets. However, on August 8, 1898, Hurricane San Ciriaco struck the island and devastated the coffee farms. Natural causes and materials impeded the coffee region from recovering. In fact, it never again returned to the economic prominence it once enjoyed. Without capital and without a harvest, many of the small coffee growers joined the ranks of hired workers or emigrated. As a U.S. colony, Puerto Rico lost its access to the Spanish and Cuban markets. Puerto Rican coffee became a foreign product and high tariffs were imposed. Cuba increased tariffs because its own coffee production and trade were rising rapidly. The U.S. market could not replace the loss of the other trade opportunities. Puerto Rican coffee was at a competitive disadvantage with South American coffee that was preferred by U.S. palates.
Sugar production took the leading role from coffee under U.S. capitalists, and island natives were investing in the industry and learning it. The dramatic increase in sugar cane production was the result of an expansion of the industry thanks to modernization of techniques for growing and processing cane. The large sugar mills installed the most innovative technology of the era and gobbled up the coast and central valleys. The area devoted to sugar cane production grew from 72,146 cuerdas in 1899 to 145,433 in 1909 and 237,758 in 1929. Much of this land had previously been dedicated to ranching or subsistence farming. The central sugar mills took up far more than the 500 acres allowed by the Foraker Act and the Jones Act. The absence of enforcement measures for violating the limit or the means for supervising the size of the plantations allowed owners to violate the 500-acre limit and made the law ineffective.
The South Porto Rico Sugar Company and the Fajardo Sugar Company were the giants among the absentee capital that dominated the economy, gobbling up land and keeping the workers in poverty. Unquestionably, sugar cane production was a productive and profitable business as the government was a puppet of the large interests, and the island had fertile land, a favorable climate and abundant and cheap labor. The wealth, however, did not stay in Puerto Rico and did not bring better pay and living conditions for the working class. In fact, this period was marked by misery, hunger and illness.
As mentioned before, after the natural and economic devastation of Hurricane San Ciriaco, the only option for many was to leave for Hawaii, Cuba or Santo Domingo. The largest demographic movement, however, was from the interior to the coasts. San Juan, Mayagüez and Ponce saw an increase in population. By 1910, housing was scarce and health and waste disposal situations were alarming. Although mortality rates were reduced, thanks to advances in medicine, diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and uncinariasis (intestinal parasites) continued to plague the population.
Despite the sugar industry’s fat profits, salaries were miserly. During the dead season, misery increased. It was common to look in vain for other work. Necessity forced other members of the family — women and children — to join the labor market. Because the economy was focused on exports and land ownership was concentrated, land that had previously been used to grow food was now almost non-existent. The daily diet changed drastically. The people were malnourished and lacked essentials. Dependence on the external U.S. market meant that workers paid high prices for basic consumer goods.
Paradoxically, education improved notably, with an increase in literacy. The educational system suffered a reverse, however, when it was used as a means of Americanization. Classes conducted in English and swearing allegiance to the U.S. flag were introduced in the curriculum without considering the socio-cultural reality of the students and educators, nor their training.
It is important to mention two other areas of trade: tobacco and needlework. After sugar production, the second most important industry was tobacco. U.S. investors were interested in the industry and established tobacco production in the mountainous region of the island: Cayey, Comerío, Aibonito, Cidra, Naranjito. The largest and most important of the foreign companies was the Porto Rican American Tobacco Company. By exploiting domestic workers, they controlled prices and hurt small businesses. The needlework industry was the third economic sector. It developed rapidly during the 1920s. Owners of needlework businesses, mostly New Yorkers, found a gold mine in Puerto Rico: cheap, skilled labor. The workers were women and girls who worked long hours in their homes to add to their miserable pay. Once they completed an order, with sweat and empty stomachs, it was collected by an agent of the trading house.
The injustices and common stories shared over coffee after a hard day’s work in the cane field or while stripping tobacco leaves gave rise to organized labor. The casinos were the first organizations where awareness began to arise, from reading European labor literature. Santiago Iglesias Pantín, a Gallician immigrant, carpenter and anarchist, was a key figure in the founding of the Federation of Workers, which was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The labor movement was strongly active between 1915 and 1919. The sugar cane strike of 1917 was an important step toward maturity for the group. The workers tenaciously confronted the employers, although they did not achieve all of their objectives. The experience led the leaders of the Federation of Workers to choose the route of political activism and the Socialist Party was founded in 1915. Gradually, this party became a decisive political force, with Santiago Iglesias Pantín as its leader. The big economic interests, along with the laws that governed the island, proved to be formidable enemies of the rights of workers in sugar cane, tobacco and needlework, however. It would be a long road to achieve the fair working conditions the people deserved and demanded.
Author: Yanelba Mota Maldonado
Published: August 26, 2015.
This post is also available in: Español