During the past two decades Puerto Rico has been advertised throughout the whole world as a model case of an underdeveloped country that has pulled itself up from rags to riches. The indices of progress offered by the image builders of Puerto Rico are impressive indeed.
A death-rate of 18.4 per 1,000 in 1940 was reduced to 9.9 per 1,000 by 1950 and further to 7.6 per 1,000 in 1954. Life expectation was raised during the same period from 46 to 69 years. Public health programmes have put an end to such endemic diseases as malaria while education and the distribution of out-houses in the countryside have practically eliminated other peasant diseases., The number of hospital beds was increased from 3,800 in 1942 to 8,435 in 1958, and all in all, the medical services received by the underprivileged classes have come more nearly to approximate those which private hospitals offer to the wealthy people.
Per capita income has increased over the years from $121 in 1940 to $339 in 1952 and to $630 in 1960. Moreover, decent housing is now provided to at least 28,693 families who had previously lived in slums which were considered among the worst in the world. A land reform programme, started in 1942, has provided land in small plots to 55,717 families who had formerly been forced by circumstances to live as squatters on the farms of private landlords. Among these, 16,541 have built comfortable two-room cement houses with the help of a self-improvement and mutual aid programme under which the government provides the materials on a credit basis and the community provides the labour organised in co-operative gangs.
In the field of popular education, illiteracy has also been reduced to about 18%, while opportunities for higher education have been opened to sectors of the population which had in the past been deprived of them by the lack of economic means. About one-fourth of the national budget is dedicated to public education, and another significant part goes for public health and public services. The number and quality of roads have improved considerably throughout the years without ever reaching a point near to the satisfaction of the needs. Mean· while, the style of the opulent society has been eagerly adopted by numerous groups whose homes lack none of the most enticing gadgets and furnishings. Motor cars, televisions, radios, deep freezes, bars, telephones and many other items from which social prestige is derived in a status seeking society, have now become “musts” for a good many people.
There are, however, those who claim that the image of development in Puerto Rico is little more than a propaganda mirage created by a Madison Avenue type selling campaign. In support of their position they offer the fact that some 80% of Puerto Rico’s annual investments are derived from American firms and that Puerto Rican enterprises are rapidly disappearing in the face of com· petition from more highly capitalized and modernized American enterprises. These plants are attracted to the island not only by tax exemptions and other Government-promoted incentives but also by comparatively cheap labour.
The social structure derived from these developments in Puerto Rico is one in which American managers and entrepreneurs occupy the higher power positions in the society; with Puerto Rican “supporting characters” – clerks, entertainers, caterers, and promoters of quaint touristic attractions, of gambling and prostitution – in the middle; and the overwhelming majority of the population in the lower positions selling their work in the cheap labour market.
The figures of family income advertised by the government show an average income of $3,367 per year. These figures have been analysed by Eladio Rodriquez Otero, a former professor of Political Science expelled from the University, probably because of his political ideas. Rodriquez Otero finds that more than 88% of the Puerto Rican families are receiving less than the announced average of all the families. Close to one-half of all families are receiving less than $1,000 a year while about 17,000 Puerto Rican families are kept but one step away from starvation by government handouts of surplus food. Another significant fact mentioned is that about 14% of the labour force in Puerto Rico is chronically unemployed. The rates of underemployment are unknown. These figures are more significant if one considers the fact that around 50,000 Puerto Ricans are impelled to leave the island annually to enter the American labour market. There, their point of entry is on the fringes of the slum where they acquire the social identity of Negroes which the American society gives them and which many refuse to accept. Their bargaining power, because of loose organisation, is far lower than that of the Negroes.
At home, the rate of dependents to potential workers is increasing since the migrants are recruited from the ranks of the active members of the working force.
There are no doubt two sides to the (Horatio Algier) success story of Puerto Rico and the negative side is hardly if ever shown in public. We would like, however, to focus on the question of collective attitudes, values and commitments on the part of the people whose existence bas been affected by the so-called transformation of Puerto Rico. For that purpose we would like to use the conclusions of a study (to be published elsewhere) of “Social Change in a Puerto Rican Agrarian Reform Community”.
Up to 1943 the people of the particular community studied bad lived as squatters in an hacienda type of arrangement. This arrangement involved! a sort of self-sufficient type of productive organisation ruled benevolently by a near feudal lord’ on the basis of face-to-face personal paternalistic principles. If the squatter were to get sick, the landlord would bring him medical attention and medicine up to a certain point. In addition, the landlord would employ the children of the squatters for menial household chores and pay them in food, clothes and a little cash. Often he would baptize the son of a squatter and enter into a relationship of compadre with the child’s parents. He might well take a daughter of a squatter as a mistress and in many informal ways maintain a close relationship with the farm labourers.
This community was released from the clutches of the hacienda system by the Land Reform Programme, which gave each family a quarter of an acre of land in permanent title. The title-four programme of the land law allocated extensive tracts of land to be organised on a co-operative basis with provision for the redistribution to the workers of all the profits of the sugar harvest every year.