Tobacco growers and resistance to American domination in Puerto Rico , 1899-1940

Working Paper Number: 17

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Puerto Rico's absorption into the United States market after 1898 created new and dynamic economic and political opportunities for the island's farmers. In the highland regions of Puerto Rico, the expansion of the tobacco market resulted in a boom in tobacco cultivation that transformed the region and provided an arena for political participation and activism. Farmers throughout Puerto Rico, including tobacco growers, understood that the American government was a colonial one, but they also understood that el amo de la tierra es el amo de la patria (the master of the land is the master of the nation) and so chose to become involved in democratic organizations to exert control over their economic sector and influence decisions that directly affected their economic interests. Scholars of Puerto Rico have, since the 1930s, described the effects of the American occupation as a simple dichotomy based on colonial relations of production between the island and the mainland, in which Puerto Ricans were either victims of an abusive imperial power or observers of phenomenal changes in their daily lives. But they were neither victims nor observers. Instead, Puerto Ricans took advantage of the democratic guarantees provided by the colonial government to become advocates for change.

Tobacco farmers accepted or resisted the changes in the tobacco sector, all with the intention of increasing their possibilities of economic success. In contrast to the sugar economy, tobacco cultivation was a Puerto Rican owner-operated, small-scale commercial enterprise, even in the face of massive influx of private and corporate American capital. Tobacco growers chose to participate in an economic sector that provided both monetary rewards and sustenance, and by doing so became contributors to the productive wealth of the island. In the highland tobacco regions, growers chose to become involved in democratic organisations to exert control over their economic sector and influence decisions that directly affected their economic interests. Through their participation in local agricultural societies, island-wide cooperative societies and the Asociación de Agricultores Puertorriqueños (AAP), tobacco growers became an effective political force. They constantly applied pressure by participating in protests, strikes, political campaigns and lobbying efforts to demand fair prices for their product, economic incentives and social programmes. In return, insular and federal officials responded to such pressure by altering legislation, providing economic relief, and including Puerto Ricans in their decision making. This suggests that the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico , rather than being one-sided, destructive and abusive, was instead nuanced, complicated and constantly redefined.