The process of impoverishment of workers in Puerto Rico had its genesis way before 1898. However, events that followed after 1898 amplified this process to a greater level. According to Cesar (25), the Census of 1899 showed that 85.9 percent of the families in Vieques were landless. Vieques is an island-municipality found in the northeast of Puerto Rico. The main event that aggravated the process of impoverishment was the United States invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898 when Spain ceded the island in a brief and relative bloodless war. Prior to this invasion, coffee and sugarcane were the islands main cash crops with coffee accounting for 41 percent of the cultivated acreage and sugarcane comprising of 15 percent. The bulk of the exports were absorbed by European, Cuban and Spanish markets (84%) while the United States absorbed about 10 percent (Fernandez 26). The sudden removal of the island from the sphere of its traditional markets and its inclusion in the US tariff and navigation system led to the penalization of Puerto Rico’s coffee in the European and Cuban markets, and this loss was not absorbed by the US market.
After the invasion, the island transited to agrarian capitalism. This led to a shift towards sugar cultivation leading to a decline in coffee farming. According to Bergad & Cesar (74), this shift created many social dislocations and produced a marked deterioration in the material conditions of the rural working classes towards the end of the 19th century. During the early 20th century, the process of land concentration further aggravated the rate of rural landlessness. Also, population increased due to the immigration of workers for the sugar industry. Increasing population led to a rise in the number of landless workers. For example, in 1920, 95 percent of the rural population did not have land (Cesar 28). The Great Depression greatly affected workers in Puerto Rico. Basic commodities were scarce and this aggravated extreme poverty conditions among working families. While wages remained lower in Puerto Rico, prices for goods imported rose significantly. Therefore, capitalist and market-driven forms of exclusion by US corporations have been the reasons for the continued impoverishment process that has occurred over the decades.
Bergad, Laird W, and Cesar, Ayala J. Rural Puerto Rico in the Early 20th Century: Land and Society. Latin American Research, 2001; 37(2): 65-97.
Cesar, Ayala J. From Sugar Plantations to Military Bases: The US Navy’s Expropriations in Vieques. Centro Journal, 2001; 13(1): 23-43.
Fernandez, Luis Martinez. Puerto Rico in the Whirlwind of 1898: Conflict, Continuity, and Change. OAH Magazine of History, Spring 1998, pp. 24-29.