Puerto Rico 1898-1920s
In this chapter we will see the immediate effects that the American invasion had on the Puerto Rican economy. It also describes the transformation of the sugar industry under the new colonial government. In addition it explains the birth and development of Puerto Rico's labor movement and its relations with the sugar industry
I-The arrival of the New Master-The US
1. The beginning of the misery.
For all accounts and purposes the effects of a possible invasion by the United States had an adverse effect on the island even before it happened. Right after the United States became involved in the Cuban-Spanish War the vibrations were felt in Puerto Rico at once. Only two months after the mysterious explosion of the American frigate, The Maine, and the formal declaration of war against Spain, the United States imposed a naval blockade on the island. The blockade would be a strangling noose on Puerto Rico's economy. It halted all trade thus paralyzing the whole insular economy. While some Puerto Rican historians attribute the invasion of Puerto Rico to nothing more than "war fever and imperialism", incited by the times, others like Morales Carrión suggested economic advance and military strategy as the primary reasons. (see Morales Carrión. p. 131.) In any case, the anticipation first and the actual invasion later shot down a promising economic future for Puerto Rico. As I asserted before, by this time the United States handled over 50% of the island's exports, sugar being the principal commodity.
But the 1890s were new and exciting times for Puerto
Rico, politically as well as economically. This new era was one of prosperity.
Coffee was the crown jewel of the economy, sugar a distant second. Picó
called this time "La Hora de la Montaña" (The Time of the Mountain).The
numbers revealed that in the last decades of the1890s coffee exports netted
Puerto Rico close to 14 million pesos, while sugar only 4 million. But
with the arrival of the Americans the reign of coffee would come to an
In the United States Brazilian coffee was preferred over the Puerto Rican bean because of its taste and because it was much cheaper. Therefore there was no future for Puerto Rican coffee in the US market, although this product was highly sought after by the Europeans. (see Morales Carrión. p. 104) The reason why coffee exports dropped so dramatically could, at the beginning, be summarize with one word: taxes. Cuba and Spain hiked the tariffs on Puerto Rico's exports close to 300% after the war finished. Without these markets Puerto Rico's coffee could not be placed in Europe, thus mortally wounding the industry. But the invasion was just the first calamity. In 1899 the island was shaken by a powerful hurricane named San Ciriaco. San Ciriaco destroyed almost all of the coffee haciendas in the island. The losses, between property and products, ran into millions of dollars and the toll in human casualties was in the thousands. (see Picó. p. 150) One's bad luck is anothers' fortune. In this case coffee's death was sugar's resurrection.
2-Sugar's New Kingdom -A Castle Built on Misery
The intentions of the United States regarding the Caribbean are well documented. Since Thomas Jefferson became president of the US he expressed those intentions without any reservations. Also well documented are the various schemes and attempts organized for achieving those purposes. (see Morales Carrión. p.168. & Picó. p.223 & s.s.) Let me begin this section by quoting William McKinley. This quote will eloquently express the views of the US on the Caribbean during the war years:
"While we are conducting the war, we must keep all we can get. When the war is over we must keep what we need."
The sugar industry also suffered but not so severely. The US provided aid to the island to help in its plight. At the same time some US politicians in Washington were looking for ways to get the money pledged in aid back to the US :
"Reject the Republican bill, pleaded Senator Pettus, because of the reimbursement provision...'puts the United States in the unseemly attitude of generously relieving the suffering of some of its citizens...and then taxing those people to get back a generous donation. That is a thing which this government never did before and I hope Senators will not allow such a thing to be done. It is illegal and hardly decent.'..."This quote shows the attitude that many in the US would take regarding Puerto Rico's affairs. Everything done for the island had to be recovered no matter its nature.
The bright future of the sugar cane industry would be built on top of the corpses left behind by coffee's collapse. Shortly after the hurricane Puerto Rican politicians and coffee producers would plead with the US for the creation of an agricultural bank, like the one in Cuba, pleas that went unanswered. Instead, the US allowed private American individuals to develop a private banking system. The people running it had one idea in mind: to make sugar a profitable industry. Therefore all loans for coffee were denied while those for the sugar industry were approved. This resulted in an instantaneous modification in the patterns of land distribution and tenure. Dietz' remarks best explain those changes: "The big sugar haciendas became bigger covering the coast's valley. Sugar production was introduced to the mountains and the interior too...the area devoted to sugar production grew dramatically: from 72,146 cuerdas in 1899 to 145,433 in 1909..."
Although the primary aim of the land re-distribution
was to extend the sugar production the concentration of land in private
hands expanded. (see Table 1)
1899 1910 1920
500 and up
Total Farms 39,021
Cultivated Acres 482,272 --------- 719,970
*For 1899 only, distribution of cultivated land.
Source: Dietz. p. 124
Another position that needed change was the law pertaining to land ownership. The Jones Act of 1900 clearly stated that hacendados could not own more than 500 acres. But that was not enough for the US investors' future plans:
"As men like Frank Dillighgan (Secretary of the South Puerto Rican Sugar Company) and Lorenzo Armstrong (Vice-President of the Fajardo Sugar Company) put it to Congress, to make money in sugar you had to own a large track of land... you could make big profits in sugar, but the Americans argued that you had to own or control at least 3000 acres of land. And that was against the law! ."The truth was that this law was never enforced which opened the door for another tragedy: the displacement of the Puerto Rican peasant. In order to get possession of the land needed for the sugar haciendas a process of displacement/relocation of the peasantry started between 1898-99. Since only wealthy people could get financing a large number of small land owners lost their property to debts. Also land was in such high demand that the price was very high. This prompted the rest of the small and medium land owners to sell their land in order not to lose it. The new owners evicted all agregados (sharecroppers) and/or anyone else living in the property. This accomplished two things at the same time; it gave the Americans ownership of the land and create a vast reserve of unemployed people:
"...The returns benefited only the few, while the many, now landless and displaced, formed a great reservoir of cheap labor...in Puerto Rico the process of uprooting the peasantry has been so rapid that chaotic conditions had inevitable results..."President Taft and the Congress tried to make it easier for the sugar giants. In 1910 a new bill was introduced in the US Congress aimed at increasing land tenure tenfold, from 500 to 5000. Although it was defeated this was of no consequence to the industry for, as you will see, the sugar industry never obeyed any land laws.
The American Sugar Companies began to take control of the industry shortly after the invasion. In 1899 two of them were already producing: The South Porto Rico Sugar Co. and The Central Aguirre & Ass.. By 1910 two more added themselves to the final list, the Fajardo Sugar Co. and the United Porto Rico Sugar Co. which, together with the previous two, took control of the Puerto Rican sugar establishment. By 1928 the American companies controlled the sugar production in the island. With the arrival of the Americas the Hacienda System was substituted by a new production system: The Plantation. By 1929 US companies owned close to 80% of the land destined for sugar production:
"By 1928, over 60% of the sugar harvested was milled by the American companies that controlled more than 150,000 acres of the land in Puerto Rico."The new American sugar giants owned or controlled land throughout the island but their largest mills were located in the coastal regions. (see Table 2) Although these companies were, primarily, sugar producers they developed a diversity of sub-companies related to the sugar industry.
The American giants elaborated an intricate system that allowed them to control all aspects of the sugar production process. Everything was under their control, from seeding to transportation, and everything else in between.
Sugar Companies of American Capital
Listing of Various Holdings.
|Company Name||Subsidiary Companies||Sugar Mills Owned|
|South Porto Rico Sugar Co.
Fajardo Sugar Co.
|Russel & Co. (Communication &
Loiza Sugar Co.(1919)
Central Aguirre Assoc.
|Fajardo Sugar Growers Corp.
Fajardo Development Co.
(owned 80 miles of railroad and
its own telephone system)
Ponce & Guayama Railroad, Co.
United Porto Rico Sugar Co.
|Luce & Co.
Santa Isabel Sugar Co.
Owned private Railroad & Communications.
Central Pasto Viejo
Source: Diffie & Diffie. Porto Rico: A Broken Pledge. pp. 46-53.
Sugar Production And Land owned
By American Companies
Central Canovanas .
Santa Isabel .
Central Pasto Viejo
170,000 Tons. aprox.
|South Porto Rico, Co.
Fajardo Sugar, Co.
Central Aguirre, Ass.
United Porto Rico, Co
* Besides the land they owned, this companies rented over 76,000 additional
These companies, owned by foreign stock holders, not only concentrated land but what was much worse, the money made by them flowed out of the country. This would accomplish two specific objectives: the disappearance of the small and medium land holders and the growth of the big capital foreign companies. .
Comparative of the Concentration of Capital
in Sugar Mills 1909 and 1919
|less than $ 5,000
5,000 to 20,000
20,000 to 100,000
100,000 to 500,000
500,000 to 1,000,000
more than 1,000,000
Source: Silvestrini. p. 427.
The figures in table 5 clearly show two phenomena: the vanishing of the small landholders while the big sugar industries grew invariably.(see also Tables 1& 2) Another way the big sugar companies employed to get the rest of the sugar cane they needed was to contract independent sugar cane growers or colonos. The colonos played a very significant role in the production capabilities of the big companies. James L. Dietz asserts that by the end of the 1920s the colonos utilized 48.7 of the land and produced 35.5 of the sugar-cane harvested. (see Dietz. pp.131-132.) These colonos, the last of the small and medium land owners, sent their crop to the big mills' centrales to be processed. Historian Blanca Silvestrini explains how this process of exploitation worked:
"The price was set by the amount of sugar obtained from each 'quintal' (100 pounds). The centrales would sell the sugar, in the colonos name at New York prices, then it would subtract the expenses: transportation, marketing, plus a commission, etc. Since the colono had no money to pay the cost and expenses of the year before without getting the money from the sales, they would have to borrow heavily from the centrales at a very high rate of interest."4-Expansion and Profits.- Sugar a Very Sound Investment.
Form 1900 to 1927 sugar production and sugar prices increased continually. With few exceptions, this was even more remarkably true during the years of World War I. Together with this went the profits for the big companies or better still, for its stock-holders. Available figures show the magnitude of the profits made by three of the four American giants; The Central Aguirre, the Fajardo Sugar Co. and the South Porto Rico Co. paid returns to its stock-holders way beyond their imagination. A Report, written for the Puerto Rican Senate, by Esteban Bird in 1941 shows the profits made and paid by these companies:
"...Central Aguirre is a veritable Drake's treasure. Since 1920, it has paid dividends on common stock of 30% or better....Six years it paid 40% or better...The Fajardo Sugar Co. also shows brilliant dividend history...from 1910 to 1919 it paid 10% three times; four times it paid dividends below 10%...in 1920, however, this company paid a dividend over 100%...South Porto Rico Sugar Co. has pay a regular dividend of 8%...it paid 10% or better during nine years, and in 1920 paid 120%..."
Puerto Rico Sugar Exports from 1901 to 1927
Source: Annual Report of the Government of Puerto Rico. 1927.
After a closer look at table 6 it becomes obvious that even in
those years when the sugar price went down production went up at the same
time. Even taking account of the deviations of the war years, sugar
prices were for the most part healthy.
II-The US Sugar Industry Vis a Vis the Puerto Rican Labor Force.- 1900-1920s.
1.The Birth of the Puerto Rican Labor Movement, its Leader, and its American Flavor.-
In chapter one I discussed the different ways in which the Puerto Rican labor force manifested itself during the tenure of the Spanish conquerors. Nevertheless the seed planted in the late 1890s seems to have borne fruit and by the end of the century labor began to show the face of an organized sector. The arrival of the new invaders would make possible the legalization of the labor movement. The bulk of the sugar-cane labor was made up of a combination of elements: on one hand the displaced agregados, the former coffee workers, and in many cases former colonos that either lost or sold their lands to the big sugar companies. Although the new colonial government would allow the existence of labor organizations this did not signify that it would recognize the plight of the sugar-cane worker.
When the US troops disembarked in Puerto Rico, in 1898, Santiago Iglesias Pantín was still jailed in San Juan. After being freed by the Americans he would start a peregrination throughout the island preaching the labor gospel. A good friendship developed between Iglesias and one of the US commanders. This friendship afforded him two important luxuries: the opportunity to freely preach his message, and the protection of the US troops:
"...preaching his doctrine of social justice and worker's liberation, to the amazement and wrath of many landlords. Even if the army leader little understood what he was saying, the army obviously liked to have the youthful, passionate orator on their side as they took over the country."Iglesias admire the history of struggle of the American workers and their achievements. Iglesias and his closest followers pledged loyalty to the invaders in exchange for their support and protection. Under the American umbrella Iglesias would for the first time establish a labor organization. In October 1898 The Regional Federation of Puerto Rican Workers (F.R.W.) was born. Soon after its beginning the R.F.W. won its first battle in favor of the Puerto Rican worker. The then governor of Puerto Rico, General Henry, signed the law of the 8 Hour Day. Although the law was passed it was not enforced for many years. (see Morales Carrión.p.177 and Scarano. pp.536-537)
Everything appeared to be fine at the beginning of
the R.F.W.'s existence but it did not last long. After less than a year
the R.F.W. split over political differences and loyalties to the Americans.
Out of this division a new labor organization emerged: the Free Federation
of Workers (F.F.W.) was formed in June 1898. A point worth making is that
on that same day the Socialist Workers Party was also created. The politicization
of the labor movement would later undermine some of the gains made by the
labor movement. Historian Fernando Picó maintains that the chief
reason why the F.F.W. became so powerful came from the ties that would
develop between them and the A.F.L. (American Federation of Labor). Iglesias
developed a very cordial relationship with the A.F.L. founder and President
Samuel Gompers. Iglesias even became a paid representative of the A.F.L.
in Puerto Rico.
Historians attribute to this relation the fact that the F.F.W. organized itself in the same fashion as the A.F.L.:
"...in the communion between the new-born Puerto Rican Labor movement and its counterpart, Iglesias developed a very important role, this is highlighted by the historians García and Quintero Rivera:Why did Iglesias travel to the US? And why did he strive to form these ties with the A.F.L.? Historian Morales Carrión affirmed that the relationship developed between Iglesias and Gompers meant the reversal of Iglesias' labor ideology. Furthermore, it also meant the full adoption and Americanization of the Puerto Rican F.F.W. Through Gompers Iglesias achieved not only the status of the legal and only representative of the Puerto Rican labor movement, but also the recognition and support of the President of the US , Theodore Roosevelt. From that movement on the F.F.W.. became, as Morales Carrión labeled it " A tool for the Americanization of Puerto Rico.":
"in September 1900 after a failed strike that cost him a brief stay in jail and "destierro" barred from the workers centers, Iglesias traveled to the US joined the carpenters' Union and in December attended the annual A.F.L. convention. There he asked, in the name of the Puerto Rican workers, for the translation of the A.F.L.'s constitution to organize the Puerto Rican workers..."
"By 1908, the free federation had two roles: to promote the cause of trade unionism and to Americanize Puerto Rico. Iglesias wrote to Gompers in that year: 'The labor movement in Puerto Rico has no doubt been, and is, the most efficient and way of conveying the sentiments and feelings of the American people to the hearts of the people of Puerto Rico..."Iglesias played all his political cards with Gompers and the American political establishment. His support among them was so strong that when he was jailed and sentenced to three years in prison the uproar and pressure levelled by them was so strong that the sentence was dismissed.
But Iglesias and his closest followers in the F.F.W.
did not realize that the situation and needs of the Puerto Rican Worker
were completely different from those of the American worker. Puerto Rico
was merely a colony, while the American worker enjoyed all the protections
of the US Constitution. (see Morales Carrión. p. 176-185)
2-Labor and Politics.- The F.F.W., the Socialist Party, and the Workers.
From the beginning the labor movement attached itself
to politics. First through Iglesias' connections in the A.F.L. and the
US government; second with the creation of a political wing for the union:
The Socialist Workers Party. It did not take long for the union, through
the party, to throw their hat in the political arena. The political activism
of the Puerto Rican labor movement contradicted its American style of doing
"Since early in the Federation's history they fought with the dilemma of whether syndicalism or political activism would work better."
In spite of the close links between the F.F.W and the A.F.L. historians agree that the first years of the Puerto Rican labor movement followed European labor blueprints. That is to say that they adhered to the internationalist and socialist sentiments prevailing in the Old Continent. This is what Picó wrote about this: "...they quoted the Europeans' labor justice literature, including Marx' and Engels' writings." And true to these beliefs the first confrontations between the Federation and the US colonial authorities were fierce.
That was the reason why Iglesias and other federation leaders were jailed and prosecuted. The Federation, through the party, ran its first candidates in the 1902 elections and in 1904. Although they showed certain signs of strength it did not lead to any victory. After a visit from Samuel Gompers, in 1904, the political activism of the Federation was reduced, but only for a while.
The Foraker years were years of vacillation for the labor movement. On the one hand some wanted to remain true to the trade ideals; on the other some believed that they could achieve faster changes through the legislative process if they had some control of it. This created a rift not only among labor but the political spectrum cracked too. The Unionist Party and the Socialist Party looked at the Puerto Rican labor reality from divergent points of view. The Socialist Party were heavily opposed by the hacendados and the leadership of the Federation:
"...were not exactly pro-labor nor did the labor leaders share the party's interest in the defense of Puerto Rico's personality and its sense of cultural regionalism. They rather preferred to wed the class struggle to the rights identified with American citizenship. During the Foraker Era the Federation was concerned with social injustices and increasingly uneven distribution of wealth, the question of political rights was secondary."In reality there was a big wall of distrust and misapprehension between sugar labor and politics, both colonial and local. Union leaders did not trust politicians from any political side of the street. Here is Ronald Fernández on this matter:
"On the contrary, labor still distrusted many Unionist leaders every bit as much as it distrusted the US plantation owners. In the eyes of many labor leaders members of the Unionist Party wasted their time in futile efforts at political changes...and supported the economic interests that were exploiting the masses. José De Diego, a Unionist leader, was in fact an attorney for the US sugar interests.."But the workers did not trust the Socialist Party to defend their interests any better. One has to remember that in the F.F.W. sugar workers were not a very strong constituent. Therefore when Iglesias made his deals with the US government and the A.F.L. the interest of sugar workers were not in the forefront. The situation of the sugar worker in the F.F.W. is best described by Esteban Bird's report, The Sugar Industry in Puerto Rico:
"Membership in the sugar-cane unions fluctuates heavily with the dead and busy season...the latest estimates show that union sugar cane laborers are a moderate percentage of the total labor..."In an analysis of the figures from the Census Bureau Gervasio García calculated that although the agrarian workers made the largest segment of the Puerto Rican Labor force, from 1899 to 1907, the were the least represented in the F.F.W.
Workers Organized Under the F.F.W.
2,832 ( 1.3%)
165 ( 11.8)
449 ( 8.8)
975 ( 61.0)
248 ( 10.6)
63 ( 1.7)
83 ( 4.9)
130 ( 9.0)
809 ( 16.0)
427 ( 27.0)
23 ( 1.0)
977 ( 27.0)
63 ( 4.0)
Source: Gervasio García. p.45
Another factor that entered the labor-politics equation was the fact that Iglesias was, in agreement with A.F.L. policies, only interested in the economic outcome of the matter. Thus, any issue that deviated from this outcome was of not very much importance. Also between sugar-labor and the F.F.W. was the undeniable loyalty of the Federation to the colonial government.
As I stated before, Iglesias and other members had turned the Federation into an arm of the Americanization machinery for their political gains. Here is what Morales Carrión wrote about the deals made by Iglesias with the US Government:
"In a parallel document handed to President Taft on November 27, 1909, the F.F.W. opposed self-government on the grounds that it would bring 'slavery, ignorance and disgrace to 90% of the population.'."In this document the F.F.W. basically admitted that suffrage had to be limited only to literate Puerto Ricans which disregarded the huge masses of illiterate peasants. (see Morales Carrión.pp.182-184.)
In the end politics won the battle for control of the labor movement. After 1910 the political sun of the F.F.W. and the Socialist Party began to ascend again. In 1914, in the sugar region of Arecibo, El Partido Obrero Insular defeated the Unionist Party. In 1915 a new Socialist Party was founded and by now there was no doubt that it was a force to be reckoned with. Some historians have argued that Iglesias, with the support of Gompers, took on the sugar industry between 1915-1916. That won him a seat in the Puerto Rican Senate in the elections of 1917. But other historians contend that Iglesias became an ally of the sugar industry forsaking all of his labor principles. One of the supporters of this avowal is historian Miles Galvin. In his book, The Organized Labor Movement in Puerto Rico, Galvin wrote:
"By 1912 Puerto Rican labor's official spokesman- in cooperation with representatives of the Insular Legislature, the sugar corporations, and the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce- was attempting to convince the US Congress that what was good for the sugar corporations was good for the workers...'when a country - as is the case of Puerto Rico - is entirely dependent on one industry, the prosperity of that industry becomes the property of the working people.' It was symptomatic of labor's metamorphosis that Iglesias had become the spokesman for the sugar industry in Washington."As for the political effectiveness of labor, once in the midst of political power, the results received mixed reviews which for the most part were viewed as ineffective and unproductive:
"Organized labor's attempts to achieve protection via legislation proved as frustrating as had their early efforts at bargaining...'Sugar interests have taken charge of the Legislature and the Bureau of Insular Affairs, and rendered the people impotent to help themselves.'."Galvin goes on to quote the President of the Puerto Rican Senate, Sr. Antonio Barceló, who calculated the political power of the four American sugar companies as "...greater than the government of Puerto Rico."
With the arrival of the new colonial order to the island the hopes for an improvement in the quality of life transcended expectations for a large segment of the population. Many Puerto Ricans thought that the Americans were going to give Puerto Rico the same preferences given to Cuba. But those hopes were soon shattered. As we have seen, even before the actual invasion, the naval blockade impose on the island by the US crippled the already fragile economy of Puerto Rico. Once the US was fully in control things got even worse. Human elements and the forces of nature combined their efforts to accomplish one common goal: the demise of the Puerto Rican economy.
Two of the most ravaging changes made by the military government were: the freezing of all local credit and the devaluation of the local currency. (see Santiago-Valle. p. 58.) The immediate results were enormous price hikes in all articles of basic needs:
"Native merchants have advanced their prices to fit the American standard but there was no corresponding advance in wages, therefore a person who previously got fifty cents Puerto Rican- the average wages for a laborer in the interior-..now gets thirty to forty cents."In the first eight years of US occupation the situation in Puerto Rico was deplorable. Together with the increase in prices came a massive wave of unemployment caused primarily by the demise of the coffee industry, the displacement of agregados, and those who lost their lands to the new landlords. This particular aspect of the newly discovered misery could also be attributed to a higher authority: namely nature. In August 8, 1898 hurricane San Ciriaco hit the island with a vengeful fury. It has been estimated that it rained continuously for over 28 hours. San Ciriaco left behind death and destruction. Close to 3,500 people died, tens of thousands were left homeless and the prosperous coffee regions were totally destroyed. The destruction of the coffee region meant no work for thousands of men and women and ruin for many coffee hacendados. (see Scarano. pp. 565-566)
Furthermore, most of the of the peasants displaced by the hurricane moved to the coastal sugar region areas of the island. This levied an extra burden on an already feeble job market. More competition for the same amount of jobs: "In reality the social and economic crisis of 1898-1900 pushed towards misery's abyss more Puerto Ricans than ever before."
Puerto Rican historians have stated that the statistics to produce an accurate picture of the island's unemployment figures were imprecise at best, incomplete at worst. Nevertheless, writes Santiago-Valle: "...enough descriptions and scattered official records exist to allow for some reconstruction and approximation."
On the order hand Dietz emphazised that the data available on unemployment was unreliable. (see Dietz. p. 148) Although between 1906 to 1910 unemployment seemed to improve this was related to the greater number of women that joined the work force.
* That have no work or go to school
** Estimated from the Population 10 years+
Source: Dietz. p. 149
For the Puerto Rican sugar worker things were much worse:Life for the sugar worker was deteriorating fast. And the fact that the high migration of ex-coffee workers were now competing, with them, for the available jobs made the situation even worse. In fact, there was a surplus of labor for sugar-cane work. This gave the sugar industry the prerogative to set wages. They knew that any action taken by labor could be easily countered by the high unemployed population:
"According to the local Labor Bureau (Negociado del Trabajo), the island's working conditions had deteriorated...'while wages of the field worker- especially of those that worked in the sugar plantations- had been reduced from ten to thirty percent.'...'at the same time, the cost of living was just as high, if not higher...'."
"When asked by special agent Marcus if they- the Guánica Central- shared the war wealth (W.W.I.), one employer explained that Puerto Rico provided no incentive to bring wages in line with the company's 'enormous profits'. Dramatically high rates of unemployment meant employers could always find people willing to break even the most serious strike."Clearly unemployment also undermined any chance for improvement no matter how hard the sugar worker fought for it.
The Puerto Rican sugar worker had never achieved
any meaningful changes through collective bargaining. The feelings of the
sugar worker towards the American sugar hacendado was best expressed by
George Milton Fowles in his book Down in Puerto Rico: "The cause of the
strong anti-American feeling that is found among some classes of Porto
Ricans is due very largely to economic conditions." The sugar worker was
subjected to a demeaning way of life. The treatment received from the sugar
hacendados\centrales was one of contempt and shame. To borrow a quote from
Don Antonio Barceló, when referring to the American view of the
Puerto Rican: "The Puerto Ricans are the Southerners of the Caribbean."
Not only were the workers poorly paid but excluded from any social contact
with the Americans by a virtual segregation. Joseph Marcus, in his report
on the labor conditions in the sugar industry, described the living conditions
of the Puerto Rican sugar worker at a central.
Ronald Fernández put together Marcus' accounts: "Finally, after the streets and sidewalks disappeared, a visitor saw in and around the smokestack the homes of the field and factory workers... a series of square wooden boxes, measuring perhaps ten by twelve feet. None contained windows- pieces of wood covered the opening."
Data from the Puerto Rican Labor Department confirmed that a family of four or five lived in these kinds of shanties. Fernández goes on: "However, to avoid any feelings of relative deprivation, the owners at Guánica and other centrales had a strict rule 'no Porto Rican, however high his position, or however proud his family, or, for that matter, however white his color, may venture here [into the US settlement] for any social life."
From the outset of the reconstruction of the sugar industry the confrontation between the sugar workers vis a vis the sugar industry began. Since many historians agree that figures for an accurate statistical account of early confrontations are not available, an exact description is not possible. Nevertheless, it is clear that the sugar workers began to challenge and defy the sugar industry soon after the invasion. The first documented strike by the sugar workers was in 1905. Although not big in terms of numbers [according to official figures] it alarmed the industry and mobilize the authorities: In 1905 , 'twenty to thirty discontented agitators... preaching incendiarism, were ready to sacrifice the sugar crop of the island... compelling this department to practically withdraw police protection from parts of the island and send them to the sugar cane districts.'."
By the actions taken by the authorities one can deduce that the reality of the situation was far worse than what they admitted and that the situation was far worse than could have been caused by twenty to thirty people.
Again in 1906 the sugar workers mounted another strike.
This one was more organized than the previous one. And like the year before
the response of the government was swift and violent. The sugar industry
began to bring strike-breakers from the never ending pool of unemployed.
With this they hoped to convince the strikers to go back to work. Governor
Winthrop, in his 25th Annual Report explained the strategy: "When the sugar
planters comprehended the situation which confronted them and began to
bring in raw hands who never earned such a high salary, strikers changed
their tactics." In the same report the Governor alludes to some of
the tactics used by the strikers in their struggle: "...and attempts were
made to disable the machinery and set fire to cane fields on several plantations."
The 1906 strike was repelled with unusual violence from the sugar industry
and the Puerto Rican authorities, which at times appeared to be one and
the same. The police, with the help of 1500 strike-breakers provoked a
brawl with the strikers. When the disarray ended: "One striker was dead,
several injured, and 113 strikers were arrested." What is worse,
after the strike was over, no changes or benefits for the sugar workers
The first decade of the1900s was marked by the continuous attempts of labor to procure the economic and social advantages that they felt entitled to. Although sugar and labor is our main concern, it is of importance to paint a clear picture of the labor situation in the island.
At the time that the sugar workers were fighting the sugar "cops", other labor unions were up in arms too. During those same years there were strikes in the docks, the cigar industry and the trucking business. This is how Santiago-Valle described the years after the labor strikes: "The four remaining years of this decade seemed to have revealed the final restoration to social order and peace...Although at least twenty three important strikes took place at this time..." Of the outcome of the struggle Santiago-Valle added: "These strikes did not achieve their goals, nor did they become as well known for the presence of social violence."
The strong arm tactics employed by the sugar industry, with the support of the insular government, apparently subdued the sugar workers and other labor movements, for a while at least. By 1910 the labor movement was on the offensive again and again the struggle was on all fronts. In 1914 war broke out in Europe. The years of W.W.I. brought prosperity to the sugar industry beyond expectations. The sugar industry had returns that made every member of the industry, especially the foreign investor, very happy. Everybody but the sugar worker. In 1915 the labor war started, again, in the sugar fields. In 1915 the sugar workers went on strike. Over 8,000 workers stopped production in 34 of the 39 most important sugar plantations for three months. The following year 40,000 striking workers stopped the sugar production of the island for six months. This time around the sugar labor movement proved to be better organized and committed to obtain their objectives. Unlike in the past this time the workers came out of the battle holding some gains.
As in the past the response from the industry and the police was brutal:
"Although the 1915-1916 strikes in the sugar plantations resulted in noticeable pay raises for the laborers of the sector, they were obtained at very high social cost. The ensuing physical confrontations between the strikers and the police were exceptionally bloody."As a result of the brutality shown by the police both Labor bureaus, the federal and the local, launched separate investigations of the events. Both reports confirmed that the police used excessive force and in some instances brutality:
"...whatever the actions of the strikers may have been, there cannot be any justifiable cause for the actions of the police and municipal authorities...the latter having violated the individual rights of the strikers, oftentimes threatening them with unforgivable brutality that in turn resulted in the death of several people..."The report also criticized the incarceration of strikers behind extremely high fines that could not be met. Thus hundreds of strikers would spend many months in jail deprived of their right to due process. From 1900 through the 1920s the sugar worker's struggle was one of rest and recouping their energy. The minimal gains obtained cost them so much that in reality it may have not been gains at all.
A team of researchers from the Brookings Institute
provided, perhaps, the best portrayal of the situation of the Puerto Rican
Sugar workers and their struggle in the first 30 years of US occupation:
"Plantation strikes were accompanied in some instances by intimidation, murder...and other forms of lawlessness and violence...waves of labor agitation...rise and subside as if they were the results of psychic contagion...it is not strange that they have little observable effect upon the material conditions of the working people."
The first twenty five years after the American invasion the economy of Puerto Rico experienced rapid change. Within the first five years the patterns of private property and the development of economic institutions had changed and so did the economy: from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist one. The changes in the redistribution of land, while creating a new and invigorated sugar industry, undermined the coffee business to the point of extinction. As had its predecessors the American colonial government continued and perpetuated in Puerto Rico the economy of monoculture. During Spain's tenure Puerto Rico's economy alternated from the control of the sugar industry to the coffee industry. But the Americans, based on their needs, made sugar the only significant crop to be produced on the island.
In this time the Puerto Rican labor movement began
and developed. The labor organizations that emerged at this time set out
to organize and empower the Puerto Rican working class. But it was so much
influenced by outside guidance that it departed from its principal mission.
Nevertheless it inserted a new element in the social and political arena
of Puerto Rico: the organized labor stuggle.