Did US Policy Wipe Out Puerto Rico’s Small Farms? This Book Says No


A new book challenges the notion that small farms in Puerto Rico disappeared after the U.S. takeover in 1898. The book, Agrarian Puerto Rico: Reconsidering Rural Economy and Society, 1899-1940, was written by Professor Laird Bergad (The Graduate Center, Lehman College) and UCLA Professor Cesar Ayala.

In an interview with The Graduate Center, Bergad said that “nearly every work written” on Puerto Rico’s early 20th century history blames U.S. imperialism for land loss among farmers. But Bergad and Ayala’s research showed that small farms didn’t disappear following the Spanish-American War. Instead, those farms simply weren’t counted by the 1920 census, which ignored farms smaller than 3 acres with less than $100 in production.

A footnote in census documents led the authors to this startling revelation. They used tax records to verify the finding.

Widespread landlessness was indeed a phenomenon, but the book blames 400 years of Spanish colonialism, not U.S. policies. “In 1899, 72 percent of all rural families in Puerto Rico did not own land,” Bergad said in a recent online talk sponsored by The Graduate Center’s Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies.

Spanish colonialism has been romanticized, but “it was not benign. It was ruthless. It was backwards. Spain was a capital-poor country, a technologically poor country, a country that could not create the kinds of economic opportunities that were created for people after it was taken over by an advanced industrial imperialist and colonialist power.”

Bergad emphasized that he’s not “justifying American colonialism.” But the conventional narrative of “victimization” ignores the “sector of Puerto Rican society that made out quite well, in an economic sense,” under U.S. rule.

The book also counters the “mythology” that large-scale “absentee” American sugar companies stole land. Despite the presence of those companies, Puerto Rican farmers “controlled the bulk of sugar production,” Bergad said. Moreover, “the island’s economy did not simply revolve around sugar, although it was the major earner of foreign exchange.” Tobacco and coffee were also important. And because these products came to U.S. markets from a U.S. territory, they were exempt from U.S. tariffs. This gave them a competitive advantage over Cuban and Dominican products.

Another benefit of U.S. rule was that agricultural workers were paid in cash. Under Spanish rule, they’d been paid in chips redeemable only at landowners’ country stores.

Truck farming, in which small farmers sold produce in urban markets, also contributed to rural economies. “The data suggests that there was more land planted in food crops for domestic consumption than planted in sugar or coffee or tobacco,” Bergad said.

Bergad said the era’s lack of mass opposition to U.S. rule vindicates the notion that there was “no real deterioration of socioeconomic conditions.” Rather than railing against the “evils of colonialism,” Bergad urged researchers to examine how life changed: “I hope, as all professors do, that this work of ours raises more questions that it answers and stimulates future research.”