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R. Craine

Puerto Rican Masses Starve While the Politicians Feud

(January 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 2, 11 January 1943, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There is now a wholesale exodus of Puerto Rican governmental officials who are going to Washington to present their cases regarding the acute food shortage on the island. In it is revealed the situation of the Puerto Rican masses forty-five years after the United States took possession of the island. Although most newspapers and statesmen blame the present crisis on the war and the curtailment of shipping to and from the island, the truth is that forty-five years of American rule is responsible for a situation which is now coming to a head.

Even when there were enough ships sailing to Puerto Rico, bringing in rice, beans and salt cod, and taking away the cash crops, sugar, rum, tobacco and coffee, hunger was the daily lot of the people.

Every commission ever sent down by the United States government to investigate conditions has reported on the semi-starvation level at which most of the population exists. In 1930, for example, the Red Cross reported that one-eighth of the population was in immediate danger of dying of starvation.

Poverty-Stricken Masses

And how could it be otherwise, when in “normal” times, according to government statisticians, Puerto Rican workers needed about $1.35. a day to feed a family of five (on rice, rotten fish and rotten meat) but had an income of only $150 a year!

Today conditions are even worse! Half of the population of nearly two millions is dependent on relief or is unemployed. About 250,000 persons have no income whatsoever! This affects about half of Puerto Rico’s 340,000 families.

The average income today is about $200 a year, but the minimum requirement for food alone is about $2.25 a day. This does not take into account other living expenses – for shelter, clothing, medication, etc. One newspaper man reports that the cheapest kind of beef sells for 59 cents a pound, the smallest and cheapest eggs are $1.00 a dozen, onions are 40 cents a pound. Drugs and medication against malaria, the island’s most prevalent disease, are practically unobtainable.

Depend on Sugar

Today’s situation is not so much the outgrowth of the war (although it has served to aggravate it) as it is the result of American occupation. Until the United States took over the island, Puerto Rico was able to raise most of its own food. Gradually, however, the large corporations took control of agriculture, driving the Puerto Rican farmers off the best lands, which were converted into huge sugar plantations so that now sugar is the island’s basic crop.

Today the whole economy of the island is dependent upon the production and sale of sugar – and the population must depend upon imports for its food and other necessities.

The curtailment of shipping space caused by the war has meant that Puerto Rico has not been able to export its only cash crop, and has been unable to import the food items upon which its people subsist. In addition, the conversion of the island into a military base, and the large number of American soldiers there at the present time, has meant that whatever food does reach the island is used by the military.

Feud Over Tugwell

Those who are chiefly responsible for the critical situation are now trying to utilize it for their own ends. Governor Tugwell, appointed by the President last year, seems to be the main target of the attack by the sugar interests. Tugwell has been under attack by the reactionary elements of the country because upon his appointment he made some very “radical” proposals.

One of these was that the 500-acre law be put into effect, that is, that the gigantic plantations be broken into smaller farms, and, secondly, that the island begin to raise crops other than sugar in order to become more self-sufficient. These proposals were especially favorable to the native landed interests, who sought to curb the power of the big United States sugar corporations, which practically owned the island. These proposals were never put into effect (as Labor Action predicted last summer) since the sugar barons had sufficient means to prevent this.

Led by Bolivar Pagan, resident commissioner, the anti-Tugwell group blames the American governor for the food shortage. As unofficial representative of the sugar interests, he has come to the United States to demand the removal of Tugwell.

On the other hand, Munoz-Marin, president of the Puerto Rican Senate and leader of the Popular Party, represents the native landowners who would benefit by the Tugwell program. He has therefore come to the United States to defend Tugwell. But no one has yet appeared who will defend the people of Puerto Rico!

In Washington two committees have been set up to hold hearings on the food situation in Puerto Rico. We have already been given an inkling of how cynically and brutally the United States Congress will deal with the problem of getting food and relief to the hundreds of thousands of victims of the actual famine. Last month a congressional committee approved a bill for $15,000,000 to aid the Puerto Ricans grow their own food, but it attached a rider to this bill. It saw in its power to appropriate money an opportunity to take a sock at a political opponent. So, forgetting about the urgency of the situation, the committee decided to withhold all funds as long as Tugwell remains governor.

Caught in the conflict between the American and Puerto Rican property interests, and the corresponding conflict between the different government agencies are the Puerto Rican masses, whose condition grows worse from day to day. They know that the present situation is the accumulation of the economic ills the island has suffered for the last half century. They know, too, that even if Munoz-Marin’s proposition that Puerto Ricans elect their own governor is carried, the food problem will still remain.

The conflict between the two groups of exploiters over who shall wring the profit out of the sweat and toil of the Puerto Rican workers cannot end in an improvement of their conditions of life. Apart from the immediate shipment of food and medication to the island the only solution for them is liberation from both the American and native exploiters. Freed of these, and as the owners of their own land, the Puerto Rican people feel that they will be able to feed themselves.

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