Puerto Rico’s Forever Exodus

What does the history of emigration—and the policies that compelled it—mean for the de facto colony today?

February 22, 2018

"Fiesta Boriqua" in Humboldt Park, Chicago's predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood (Creative Commons)

Out-migration is such an enduring aspect of Puerto Rican history that one might say that the country’s most valuable export is its people. But the exodus sparked by the 2006 recession, and exacerbated in recent months by the thousands of Puerto Ricans who have left and continue to leave in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, sets a historical precedent. More Puerto Ricans—around 5.4 million—now live in the United States than in Puerto Rico, with around 3.3 million residents. The continued depopulation of the Caribbean island appears unstoppable. What explains this ongoing emigration, and how can it be addressed? To answer this question, we must first understand more about the history of emigration from Puerto Rico, the policies and practices that reinforced it, and its impacts.

Development, Population, and Emigration in the 20th Century

After the United States forced Spain to relinquish Puerto Rico in 1898, many of its inhabitants were compelled, either by economic necessity or by policy, to emigrate. From the perspective of the United States, Puerto Rico offered a seemingly endless supply of poor but experienced agricultural laborers and subsistence farmers, which U.S. agribusiness hoped to exploit for mainland labor markets. In his 1901 report, Puerto Rico’s first U.S.-appointed governor, Herbert Allen, reported that the island “ha[d] plenty of laborers and poor people in general.” These potential emigrants “were the very poorest class of laborers,” and if they were permanently relocated, the economy would not suffer since thousands of Puerto Ricans “will flock in to fill their places.” Allen’s successor, William Hunt, reported that Puerto Rico’s “field laborers…are the most industrious portion” of the population, and that “their powers of endurance and continuous effort are wonderful.”      

The conditions for Puerto Rican emigration to the United States in the early 20th century were ideal: an expanding mainland labor market for agricultural workers, a labor surplus in the colony, and colonial subjects who were non-citizen nationals with unrestricted rights to work and reside in the United States. Meanwhile, unemployment in the U.S. mainland remained low, around 5%, until the Great Depression. In 1900, labor recruiters descended on Puerto Rico hunting for agricultural workers.

Between 1900 and 1901, over 5,000 Puerto Ricans signed labor contracts and were shipped to Hawaii. Puerto Rican farm laborers were recruited for work in California and Arizona, and many were shipped to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and other countries in South America. In 1901 José de Diego, a prominent Puerto Rican independence advocate, denounced the deceptive and aggressive tactics of the recruiters: “Some American companies, in the horrendous industry of exploiting the good faith and misery of our country people, took thousands of unhappy peasants to Hawaii, [the] Yucatán, and some other far country.”

The U.S. Army generals who ruled Puerto Rico from 1898 to 1900 surveyed and inventoried the island’s human and physical resources. The “future of the island is bright,” they remarked. But they agreed that such a future could only be assured after “Americans with their ideas, energy and capital invade the island.” Governor Allen reported that Puerto Rico needed “men with capital, energy and enterprise” to build factories and sugar plantations. Malthusian economists of the time attributed Puerto Rico’s grinding poverty to a primitive economy that could not sustain uncontrolled population growth. Colonial officials promoted capitalist development on the island through a campaign of surplus population removal and large-scale external investments in sugar and tobacco cultivation and processing.

In 1917, frustrated U.S. General Frank MacIntyre even proposed relocating Puerto Ricans to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic as a permanent remedy for “overpopulation in Puerto Rico.” He advocated for the United States to “colonize” Santo Domingo with 50,000 to 100,000 Puerto Ricans, who had also been granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. But his plan of forced deportation of the new U.S. nationals went nowhere.

At the same time, the United States moved aggressively to usurp economic power from landowning Puerto Rican elites. This transformation was made possible through changes in land tenure policy, the imposition of tariffs, a discriminatory tax regime, and other fiscal policies. On the eve of United States’ entry into World War I, Puerto Rico’s diversified agricultural economy, which included a sizeable subsistence sector, was well on its way to becoming a mono-crop export economy, dominated by absentee U.S. sugar corporations. As U.S. capital flowed into Puerto Rico and profits grew, unemployment levels and poverty on the island remained high.

U.S. multinationals soon dominated the Puerto Rican local economy. By the 1930s, five mainland firms controlled over 80% of the island’s sugar trade. But economic growth failed to alleviate unemployment. After three decades of capitalist development under U.S. colonial rule, unemployment had increased from 17% in 1899 to 36% in 1929. At the time, the future governor Muñoz Marín complained that Puerto Rico had become “a land of beggars and millionaires."

The prescription? More emigration. In 1929, then-Governor John Beverley stated, “emigration is the most urgent remedy recommended to relieve the present pressing situation of our countrymen.” He estimated that 80,000 Puerto Ricans had settled in New York, and called on the federal government to provide subsidized transportation to increase the number of migrants. However, the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico remained unaffected by either migration or capital inflows.

In fact, a 1930 report by the Brookings Institution concluded, in contrast to previous policy assessments, that “relatively rapid economic development” had driven overpopulation. This was an astonishing admission that contradicted the widespread axiom among policymakers—that development stabilizes population growth and generates higher rates of employment. According to Brookings, this anomaly was particular to the “tropics” where the population “multiplies to the subsistence limit as determined by the low standard of living.” Contrary to such xenophobic conclusions, it was in fact the ceaseless siphoning of wealth out of the island that drove widespread poverty. Governor Theodore Roosevelt Jr.—son of President Theodore Roosevelt—reported in 1937 of dire circumstances. “Poverty was widespread and hunger, almost to the verge of starvation, common. The island was disease-ridden. Tuberculosis had reached an astonishingly high rate,” he wrote.

After World War II, the federal government and the colonial state aggressively promoted emigration to the United States in response to these problems. A 1946 U.S. Tariff Commission report on Puerto Rico’s economy concluded that the island would not be able to sustain itself without an even larger scale exodus. “Only the emigration of 1,000,000 people and a sharp diminution in the birth rate among those remaining permit the island to even approach economic self-support,” the Commission stated. Emigration “must be pushed intensively.”

According to Clarence Senior, a consultant for Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor, the island once again became “a happy hunting ground for private fee-charging recruiting agencies” who came looking for workers. In 1947, Puerto Rico outlawed recruiters who had been found guilty of price gouging, banned contract labor fees, and began to regulate and enforce formerly- disregarded private labor contracts. Meanwhile, the colonial state began contracting migrant labor through its Farm Labor Program, which became an important source of workers for commercial agricultural farms in the mainland United States, and continued as late as 1969.

At the same time, Puerto Rico began to transition from a distressed agrarian economy to a dynamic foreign-financed manufacturing economy. An important series of industrialization projects, dubbed Operation Bootstrap, allowed mainland corporations to transfer profits to the United States free from federal taxation. The United States celebrated Operation Bootstrap as a brilliant success, an economic miracle that rapidly brought Puerto Rico into the modern era. But the crucial factor driving investment decisions was the availability of cheap labor in Puerto Rico.

In fact, economic growth in Puerto Rico depended on a well-conceived program of population control, and an aggressive campaign to encourage Puerto Ricans to relocate to the United States. The importance of mass migration to the success of Operation Bootstrap is difficult to exaggerate. Between 1950 and 1960, the period of most rapid economic growth, “Puerto Rican migration to the United States was considered one of the greatest peacetime population movements recorded in contemporary history,” according to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Over 377,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S. between 1946 and 1954, mostly to New York City and Chicago, and by 1964 the figure had increased to 470,000. According to a 1951 study by Senior, the U.S. Labor Department consultant, without migration, Puerto Rico’s population would be 14% larger and unemployment would have doubled. Yet during this period of robust economic growth, from 1947 to 1965, the official unemployment rate remained at 12%. In 1971, U.S. Civil Rights Commission concluded that the failure of Operation Bootstrap to reduce unemployment “was at the very basis” of Puerto Rican migration to the United States. By the mid-1970s, Operation Bootstrap had run its course, and for the next three decades Puerto Rico’s economic growth was sluggish—ultimately leading to its collapse in 2006.

Puerto Rico Today: An Ossified Commonwealth Collapses

Puerto Rico’s economy collapsed after the federal government terminated Section 936, a tax law that had converted Puerto Rico into one of the world’s most lucrative investment sites for U. S. multinationals, especially pharmaceuticals. External investments began to dry up after the announcement of the law’s termination, and the local labor market collapsed. By 2016 the labor participation rate plummeted to 42.3%, and Puerto Ricans started leaving in what would soon become a historically unprecedented exodus. Between 2006 and 2016, the island’s economy shrank by 15.2%, while total employment fell by 28.6%. Puerto Ricans, particularly educated ones, once again embarked on a journey to the United States in search of work.

To offset the decline in external investments, the colonial state recklessly issued an almost endless stream of triple tax-exempt municipal bonds, and soon Puerto Rico’s accumulated debt had reached a staggering $73 billion. On June 29, 2015, Governor Alejandro García Padilla shocked municipal bond markets when he announced that Puerto Rico lacked the financial resources to meet its debt obligation. The federal government feared that politically influential hedge funds and large institutional investors would suffer huge losses if Puerto Rico failed to repay the debt.

Institutional investors and hedge funds, who own most of Puerto Rico's outstanding debt, wanted the U.S. government to force Puerto Rico to fully repay these bonds, which were purchased for pennies on the dollar. In 2016, the federal government imposed a financial control board through the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) of 2016, which has the power to extract wealth from Puerto Rico to indemnify bondholders. The financial control board quickly moved to impose harsh austerity measures, which included curtailing public services, closing schools, downsizing government operations, and firing public employees to generate savings for debt repayment. Puerto Rico was thus stripped of its fiscal autonomy from the United States.

The ensuing unemployment spike left many Puerto Ricans with little option but to abandon their homeland. U.S. Census Bureau data show that net out-migration to the United States totaled 144,000 from mid-2010 to 2013. By March of 2016, the island’s population had declined by 10% from its peak of 3.8 million in 2004.

Hurricane Maria made a bad situation intolerable. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College has estimated that between 2017 and 2019, Puerto Rico could lose up to 470,335 residents, or 14% of its population. These projections were quickly superseded as over 300,000 Puerto Ricans landed in Florida after the hurricane—over twice the number of Cubans who arrived in Florida during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. The out-migration totals since Hurricane Maria exceed the number that left the island during the entire previous decade of economƒas ic stagnation and recession. The scale of the human exodus even surpassed the Hispanic Research Center’s recent dire predictions that the population would decline to 3.4 million by 2030. As of this writing, Puerto Rico’s population has already plummeted to 3.3 million. Fertility rates have been declining steadily while death rates have increased, further exacerbating the island’s rapid depopulation.

With high unemployment, recruitment firms have returned to Puerto Rico, as they did in 1900 and 1947. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post report that U.S. firms are recruiting not only cheap labor, but also experienced and educated workers unable to find employment in once-thriving industries and businesses. Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan for 2018 does not offer any hope for the immediate future. The plan projects that the economy will shrink by 11% and the population will decline by an additional 8% during the year.

Puerto Rico’s formula for capitalist development has failed beyond rehabilitation. Corporations are no longer investing in Puerto Rico to feast on a bounty of profit-maximizing incentives. While capital inflows have virtually stopped, population outflow continues unabated. Every day, hundreds if not thousands of island-based Puerto Ricans join the diaspora. Unlike previous migrations that were part of an economic growth strategy, post-Hurricane Maria migration is one borne of uncertainty and desperation. The scale and rapidity of depopulation has no parallel in Puerto Rican history, and bears a disturbing resemblance to a movement of people who have been forcibly displaced by war. The island’s demographic reconfiguration portends significant changes for ongoing U.S. colonial rule of Puerto Rico.

But Puerto Rico’s crisis cannot be resolved under the current structure of colonial rule. Puerto Rico cannot attract external investments, and the federal government has openly demonstrated a callous disregard, if not disdain, for the welfare of its U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. Both the pipe dream of statehood backed by the right-wing Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party, PNP) and support for the ossified commonwealth status as promoted by the centrist Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party, PPD) have been completely discredited as a result of the local and federal governments’ inept management of the crisis. Puerto Rico has been stripped of its fiscal autonomy, cannot access U.S. capital markets, and remains shackled by a debt that it can never repay. The elected politicians and their appointees in the state bureaucracy have been exposed as incompetent, if not venal.

Ironically, Puerto Rico is also a victim of the demise of U.S. empire. During the middle of the 20th century, or heyday of the so-called “American Century,” Puerto Rico received substantial military funding, and the federal government subsidized a huge insular bureaucracy that provided employment for scores of thousands of Puerto Ricans. Favorable federal tax laws for corporations with subsidiaries operating in Puerto Rico generated internationally competitive profit rates for U.S. capital.

But during the past two decades, Puerto Rico has been battered by the forces of globalization, demilitarized in the aftermath of the Cold War, and now abandoned by the federal government. The colony no longer works for the United States nor for Puerto Ricans. The island is irrelevant to an empire in decline. Through mass exodus, Puerto Ricans have demonstrated that neither statehood nor commonwealth status are politically feasible. In a federal government dominated by resurgent white supremacist ideals, statehood for brown, Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans would be anathema.

For Puerto Ricans, there is a growing realization that colonialism must end, and it must be replaced with a new political regime: a regime with the legitimate sovereignty and autonomy that Puerto Ricans have been denied for 120 years.

Pedro Cabán is professor and chair of the Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies Department of the University at Albany.

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