Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
WHEN Columbus landed in Porto Rico on his second voyage in 1493 and took possession in the name of Their Catholic Majesties, he saw about him evidences of one of the causes of economic difficulties which persists today. Throughout the island's history it has been visited on an average of once in thirty years by a disastrous hurricane. Once or twice, in particularly unfortunate years, two hurricanes have occurred. Though buildings which are well constructed easily withstand these storms, the trees and plants upon which the livelihood of a largely agricultural population must depend continue to suffer.
History records that the Spaniards had exhausted the island's gold mines by 1536 and that Charles V then authorized a loan of 6,000 pesos to encourage the planting of sugar cane. In the four centuries which have intervened no other important mineral resources have been discovered. Cane, tobacco, coffee, coconuts and, in recent years, citrus fruits have had to bear the greater part of the burden of keeping alive a population now estimated at about 1,500,000.
To these original difficulties -- recurrent hurricanes and the almost complete absence of mineral wealth -- others were added during the four centuries of Spanish rule. African slaves were imported to replace an Indian population which preferred death or exile to submission. A census taken in 1531, only 38 years after the discovery of the island by Columbus, showed a total adult population of 3,040, of which half were negro slaves. "The effect of the institution [of slavery] extended . . . beyond the number directly held in bondage. It gave a patriarchal complexion to colonial society and agricultural organization, traces of which still persist. Moreover, nominally free labor, as not infrequently happens when servile labor exists, was assimilated in some degree to the status of its unfree competitors. . . . The more intelligent peasants left the country for the towns where they might enjoy the advantages of civilization. The rest stayed because they could not get away. Thus developed the jibaro [cf. 'hill billy'] class, as badly off in 1900 as in 1765."[i] Other factors went into the making of the jibaro. It is sufficient to say, however, that he was in 1898 and is today much like the mountain white of the Appalachian chain -- illiterate and easy-going, versed in folklore, speaking a survival of the mother tongue of three centuries ago, shrewd, inclined to be suspicious of strangers, but the soul of hospitality when his confidence has been won.
Further complications existing in Porto Rico when the American régime began were a long tradition of autocratic government tending to operate in accordance with the principle that "to them that hath shall be given;" the resulting inexperience of the great body of the people with the uses of democracy; widespread infection from hookworm and malaria; and a rate of fertility which, despite a high death rate, has brought about a 53 percent increase in population during the American occupation.
The mistakes made at the very outset of the American administration of Porto Rico served to aggravate some of the existing problems. This statement is made in the full knowledge that in many respects it is unfair to the high idealism and honesty of purpose with which the responsibilities of government in the island were assumed. It is made, moreover, despite the fact that more men of the highest type were selected by Washington for service in Porto Rico during the first ten years of American administration than in the twenty years since.
The fact is that the American people were not ready effectively and intelligently to assume their new responsibilities. In the light of present-day knowledge, no people anywhere were ready.
In the field of education, for instance, the United States at the close of the last century was nearing the peak of what may be called a "bull market." An inheritance from the Protestant doctrine that every man, woman and child must be able to read the Scriptures in order to determine for himself "the Way of Life" had given rise in the fertile soil of the New World to a mushroom educational system in many respects sadly unmindful of the basic needs of its constituency. President Eliot had re-stated the ends which American education should serve and his counsel was just beginning to influence the minds of educational leaders. Immigration was providing the labor which, in many branches of industry and agriculture, was not being trained at home. The foundations of the "white collar" ideal had been well laid.
There were some unfortunate results from the fact that the United States took over responsibility for the government of Porto Rico at just this stage of the development of American education. Some attempts were made to adjust the newly established educational system to the social and economic needs of Porto Rico, but the early educational administrators -- able and far-seeing men, as their subsequent careers testify -- were subjected to a pressure within and without the island which resulted in the final establishment of a system discouragingly like that then enjoyed by industrial Massachusetts. The best device for rating state school systems -- Ayres index number method -- placed the schools of Massachusetts first among those of the nation in 1900. They were good schools for that state, at that period in educational history. They were poor schools for an agricultural state and especially poor schools for Porto Rico.
In practice the new educational system ignored four centuries of Spanish culture and tradition except for special aspects which -- sometimes wisely, but often mistakenly -- were thought to be incompatible with what was called "Americanization." It laid much emphasis on books and on conventional schoolroom procedure. It did not in practice recognize the needs of an undeveloped agricultural population suddenly thrown into startlingly intimate contact with a wealthy and powerful industrial society. It tended to create white collar men and soon found, in view of the low status of labor in the island, that everything conspired to make it unfortunately successful in that direction.
The case was of course not so simple as these brief lines suggest. A number of other factors came into play, in ways more easily understandable now than then, to make sound educational development difficult.
What was true of education was also true of other aspects of government. In 1900 the bi-cameral legislature was more commonly regarded than it is now as the universal optimum for such bodies. In that year it would have been even more unsafe than now publicly to question the creed that the last word in the science of government anywhere in the world was written by the framers of the American Constitution.
Hurricanes, limited natural resources, over-population, the jibaro! And added to these problems a governmental system cut to fit the frame of Uncle Sam and, despite crude alterations, certain at many points to chafe and hamper the normal growth and activity of the new nephew.
Early in the American administration the new contact with the industrial world began to effect changes in the island. The most dramatic of these resulted from the attraction of northern capital to the long-established but poorly organized sugar industry. Efficient use of these absentee-landlord dollars required that the ownership or control of agricultural land be consolidated in order to feed the ever-growing appetite of modern machinery capable of consuming sugar cane a carload at a time and needing twenty-four-hour operation for greatest economy. The typical small farmer could not hope to compete with such high-pressure operation, and he was tempted in increasing numbers to sell his holdings at the high prices which the new industry could afford to offer. An officer of one of the great sugar corporations has suggested that the farmer might have invested the proceeds of his sale in sugar stocks and thus have shared in the enormous profits which others made. If he had done so, he would have provided the only example in history of such adjustment!
What actually happened to the majority was typical of what has always happened in such situations. Contrasted with the small cash income which the small farmer previously had won from the soil by much painstaking labor, the proceeds of the sale of his land had all the color of wealth. He moved to the city and bought a home. Here he soon learned how great is the gap between a small cash income, supplemented by the many items which enter uncounted into the usual farm situation, and a larger cash income which must provide all. Eventually, in many cases, his small capital was dissipated and he and his family were forced down a step or two in the social scale, becoming dependent for livelihood on employment in a labor market where competition is perhaps keener than anywhere else on American soil.
Small wonder that during this process he should come to feel that he had been the victim of a ruthless alien force! To understand his point of view fully it is necessary to remember that the capital behind the industry which had purchased his birthright came largely from outside the island, that the generous returns on that capital were going to the North or to Europe to enrich a group of absentee-landlords who tended to look with ill favor on his projects for taxation to support schools, build roads or improve the health service, and that the same tariff which increased the profits on the sugar investments of this absentee-landlord group added to the cost of the articles which he must consume in order to live.
These are not the only sources of Porto Rican dissatisfaction with the development of the sugar industry. One of the large corporations distributed a bonus equal to 100 percent of a year's pay to its salaried staff in 1928. Its farm laborers, whose average annual earnings are calculated[ii] for the island as a whole at not over $168.75, did not share in this distribution. It has been claimed that a bonus to the laborers would merely have resulted in their failure to report for duty until this windfall had been consumed, but this does not explain the failure to use a part of the sum distributed in much-needed improvements of the conditions of living and of labor.
Another large corporation maintains two clubs for its employees -- one for "Americans" and one for Porto Ricans. Islanders are not admitted to the "American" club. On the occasion of a visit to the sugar mill by some officers from the army post in San Juan, the Porto Rican officers were separated from the rest of the group and, at a baseball game which was part of the program, were seated on the opposite side of the field. A high official of the company admitted, when questioned, that the situation was unfortunate, but added that it was made necessary by the presence on his staff of employees from the Southern states. This is an explanation which does not explain. It is as though Mississippians were to insist that all South Carolinians ride in "Jim Crow" cars while in the Gulf state because some South Carolinians are negroes. As a matter of fact, it is the opinion of the writer, based on his personal observation, that a larger percentage of continentals from the Southern states marry Porto Ricans than of continentals from the North.
Another of the changes brought about in Porto Rico by closer contact with the industrial world is worthy of note. On the occasion of the visit to Washington of a legislative commission from the island, a very few years ago, an important member of Congress stated to one of the delegation: "It is as well to be frank. I shall not favor any further extention of self-government to Porto Rico until you show in your legislation more friendliness to American interests in the island." "What do you mean by American interests in the island?" he was asked. "American investments there, of course." "But do you not consider the welfare of 1,500,000 Porto Ricans, upon whom you have conferred American citizenship, to be 'American interests,' also?" In fairness to the American Congressman it should be said that the question struck home. It had not occurred to him before that there were other aspects of the sugar industry than those of chief concern to the stockholders from his own constituency.
As much should be said for the stockholders themselves. Among them are men of philanthropic interests, but their public services are quite naturally rendered in the places where they reside -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc. They react as absentee-landlords have reacted everywhere and always.
Even divine prescience, without accompanying omnipotence, could not have completely avoided some of the pitfalls into which Porto Rico has stumbled under American control. There is a natural tendency in an ambitious people suddenly released from external restraints to try to copy the social pattern of other countries, which may or may not fit the local situation. Let us go outside the field of government for a moment and examine the labor movement in Porto Rico.
At the time the United States acquired Porto Rico the American labor movement had already a history of generations of bitter struggle behind it. In that fact lay the secret of the disciplined strength of the American Federation of Labor. Porto Rican labor sought to step into this well-organized movement without the advantage of having a similar background. It had northern labor's guidance, but in some degree it was delayed in learning from its own experience by the financial assistance received from the United States in its early campaigns. It was on the right track, but at times it moved too fast for its own or the island's good. The mistakes, however, have begun to be righted. Today Porto Rican organized labor sees more clearly and is better disciplined because of the very injuries it has done itself in the past. Through its able leader, Don Santiago Iglesias, who is also Secretary of the Pan-American Federation of Labor, it is taking an important part in the sane development of the labor movement throughout Latin America. It is natural to wonder, however, whether just as much could not have been achieved at smaller cost.
These are some of the annoying realities which from the outset forced themselves upon the attention of those concerned with the administration of Porto Rico. What might have been termed, in the phrase of a generation later, "a noble experiment" gradually came to seem full of thorny problems in which the factor of nobility was not oppressively conspicuous. The consciousness of the great responsibility which one nation assumes in undertaking to guide the destines of a smaller and weaker began to be dulled.
A friend of Porto Rico, anxious to do something for the island, approached the prospective candidate of one of the great American political parties just before the convention which later gave him the presidential nomination. He explained that he had come as the advocate not of an individual but of a state. He urged upon the candidate that, if nominated and elected, he select as Governor of Porto Rico a man qualified for the position and not merely a creditor whose account for personal or party service could be satisfied by the salary which goes with the office. The candidate replied: "I shall do my best. You know, however, that a political party always gathers about it a number of faithful wheelhorses, who must be recompensed for their services. Some of them we should not dare to foist upon our constituents at home and we must find positions for them elsewhere!" The candidate in question happened to escape the test, because he failed of election. But other and more successful candidates at other elections have occasionally named officials to serve in Porto Rico in accord with the formula which he so pointedly outlined.
These occasional departures from the earlier and higher standard might have been less serious if Porto Rico had been an unspoiled political Eden. But this certainly was not the case. An incident described to the writer by one who participated in it will serve to illustrate.
The Unionist Party, by far the largest of the three parties then active in Porto Rican politics, was in convention. One of its prominent men, José de Diego, was demanding the adoption of an independence plank. The great leader of the party, Muñoz Rivera, felt that the movement was unfortunate but feared that de Diego and his following might secede and thus convert the majority party into a minority. In this crisis he visited the Governor and asked what would be his attitude were the Unionists to write an independence plank into their platform. "This is a democracy," he was told. "I shall rule with the majority." Confronted by the danger that failure to accede to de Diego's demands might result in robbing the party of its majority position and of patronage, the political staff of life, which the Governor assured him would be given the majority however it might proceed, the great leader yielded. Independence thus became a plank in the Unionist platform by the decision of an American Governor appointed by the President of the United States!
The writer does not wish to suggest that Porto Ricans have not the right to seek political independence if they so desire. Nor, on the other hand, does he doubt the liberal intentions of the Governor in question. The story is cited to substantiate the opinion of the writer that what has been referred to as an "independence" movement at various times in the brief history of American administration of Porto Rico is, except in the minds of a mere handful of its exponents, nothing of the sort. It is, rather, another form of the same thing which the Northerner often complains about after a brief visit to the South. The Alabaman who has found in a few Northerners a fantastic notion that the outcome of the "War between the States" was in large measure due to an inner conviction of sin which finally broke down Southern morale is likely to surprise the next Northerner he meets. Similarly, the Porto Rican lady of distinguished ancestry who buys her clothes in Paris in the course of her annual visits to Europe is likely to express an enthusiasm for independence after hearing a presumably cultured guest from the North remark at a dinner at the governor's palace: "I am amazed to see how many of the native women dress with as much style as we do!"
When the Porto Rican political leader declares eloquently and forcefully that the island demands "liberty or death," he may be understood to be asking for Porto Rico the liberty to elect its own governor, as every state in the Union does. In short, he means -- as did Patrick Henry -- liberty to make one's own mistakes for oneself in preference to having another make them for one.
A further handicap to the effective administration of Porto Rico has been touched upon already but deserves further attention. It is the nature of local politics. The responsibility for existing conditions must be shared by all sides. Official representatives of the Federal Government have occasionally given examples of political methods worthy of the envious admiration of the boys of the old eleventh ward. They have been exceptions, to be sure, but they have had far-reaching effect throughout the island. On the other hand, the local inheritance from a cacique system, developed under Spanish rule and rooted in the poverty and illiteracy of the jibaro group, has been a persistent obstacle to reasonable standards of public service in practical politics. Happily this obstacle has been rapidly diminishing. Indeed, the relatively slight improvement in the status of this poor white group which has occurred to date has resulted in a disproportionately rapid amelioration of political conditions.
A local leader of the Unionist Party, commenting on the so-called fuerzas vivas (or agricultural tax protest) movement which occurred just prior to the 1926 legislative session, stated in a private conversation that its great significance was the evidence it gave of a growing body of public opinion to which the legislature dared not remain deaf. He said: "It has been true -- increasingly so, the farther back I look -- that a local boss or cacique, holding sufficient political or other power to crush out all signs of effective opposition, determined what should or should not be done in his district. No other local voice than his carried much weight with the legislature." And he went on to express his confidence in the continuing social, economic and political development of the island in a word picture which is so general in its application to social progress everywhere as to be well worth recording: "Our politicians remind me of logs floating on a stream. As they whirl and twist, catch on a snag or are temporarily stranded along the shore, they call on all to witness the clarity of vision with which they are guiding the river onward towards the sea."
Three major political parties existed from the beginning of American control over Porto Rico or came into being soon thereafter. The most powerful of these has been the Unionist, which descends from the years of bitter struggle to wrest a greater measure of autonomy from Spain. Second in point of voting power came the Republican, the members of which were brought together during the early years of American rule by the common goal of statehood for the island. The third party, known as the Socialist, was in fact a labor party and is also a development under American rule.
In 1924, alarmed by the rapid growth of the Socialists, the leaders of the Unionists and the Republicans, Don Antonio R. Barceló and Don José Tous Soto, formulated a working agreement between the two parties which to all intents and purposes constituted a new party, the Alianza. A section of the Republicans refused to follow their leader and finally, as a defense measure, joined with the Socialists as the Coalición. In the elections of 1924, which were followed by bitter charges of trickery and fraud, the Alianza swept the island. In 1928, however, their success hung in the balance until almost complete recounts had been made; and even then it was established by only a very small margin. Controversies which followed resulted in a group of the Unionists withdrawing from the Alianza to resume separate identity under their old leader, Don Antonio R. Barceló. At present, therefore, there are the following major parties in recognized standing: (a) The Unionists, made up of a wing of the old party; (b) the Alianzistas, made up of the remaining Unionists and a wing of the Republicans; and (c) the Coalicionistas, made up of the remaining Republicans and the Socialists.
The picture which has been presented, I fear, tells all too little of the wise, courageous and self-sacrificing service on the part of both continental and insular citizens which the island has often enjoyed.
Educational progress in Porto Rico since the American occupation has been without parallel, and credit for it is largely due to the readiness of Porto Ricans to make the sacrifices necessary to secure the best. The product of that educational system is just beginning to take its place in public life in the island. Until now posts of leadership have had to be filled by those whose formative years were lived under the Spanish régime. Another generation will see them replaced completely and this process will bring about changes in political thinking as great as those of the last thirty years.
Another sign of promise for the future is the consideration which has been given in recent years to the advisability of transferring the Bureau of Insular Affairs, through which Washington maintains its official contacts with the island, from the War Department to the Department of State. Such a transfer would undoubtedly result in Porto Rico's receiving the needed consideration of its geographic location and cultural inheritance and of their significance in any program of cultural interpenetration between the two Americas.
The island has long desired to be of service in this field and without either assistance or encouragement has done much more than is generally known. For example, a young graduate of the University of Porto Rico, Miss Luz Maria Ramos, was employed recently by the Republic of Panama to inaugurate a program of home economics instruction in that country. The services of Porto Rico's commissioner of agriculture, Carlos A. Chardon, have been loaned on request to the ministries of agriculture of several Latin-American countries; on the basis of his study and advice new programs of teaching and experimentation have been inaugurated in the republics visited. Many Porto Rican young men and women, products of the insular or of continental universities, have rendered similar service in other parts of Latin America. With their knowledge of the language and the point of view of the Spanish peoples they have seized the opportunities which have come their way as few continental American citizens could have done. Indirectly and perhaps quite unconsciously they have performed important services in the development of inter-American understanding.
More than a quarter of a century of American occupation of Porto Rico passed before the first comprehensive study of the island and its problems became available in the form of an educational survey.[iii] It was more than thirty years before a social-economic survey, in press at the time this article is written, was undertaken.[iv] The existence of these sources of authentic information will, it is hoped, serve to excuse the omission from this article of even casual mention of many pertinent matters, even if it does not also excuse the inclusion of others which might be thought impertinent. What the writer has attempted has been to emphasize a few of the problems resulting from the natural setting, the background of Spanish rule, the shock of transition to American control, the nature of that control, and the changes which have occurred in it as the force of realities tempered the original fervor of altruism.
It is hoped that what has been said will point the moral that there is a fundamental incompatibility between, on the one hand, discontinuous direction growing out of a too immediate responsibility to the exigencies of politics, and, on the other, the commitments which are unavoidably implied when one state accepts responsibility for the future welfare of another. Perhaps the most serious of the political and economic problems of American administration in Porto Rico are those which result from that incompatibility.
[i] "Porto Rico and Its Problems." Washington: Brookings Institution, 1930, p. 540.
[ii] Rosario: "Porto Rico and Its Problems," p. 562.
[iii] "A Survey of the Public Educational System of Porto Rico." International Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1926. X, 453 p.
[iv] "Porto Rico and Its Problems." Washington: Brookings Institution, 1930.