Category: History

by Amy Thornbury


The Rise of the Partido Popular Democrático
and the Demise of the Statehood Movement: the 1940s

Why is it that the United States will not move
decisively toward such assistance as would bring
the possession up to the standards of statehood?
Two million people cannot permanently be kept
in the twilight zone of colonialism.
-- Rexford G. Tugwell, 1943

By 1940, the Partido Unión Republicana was severely weakened and divided. Complex realignments occurred within the group of Puerto Ricans favoring statehood. A conservative group of the Coalition, led by the aging Rafael Martínez Nadal, was alienating a younger, more liberal group of estadistas led by Miguel Angel García Méndez. This latter segment broke off in 1940 to form the Unificacíon Tripartita Puertorriqueña, led by a triumvirate of leaders: García Méndez; Prudencio Rivera Martínez of the Socialist Party; and José Ramírez Santibañez of the Liberal Party. Ramírez Santibañez was elected president of the new party during the convention in August of that year, at which time the party's goal of statehood was announced. Within two years, however, the party was dissolved. The Union Republican Party was further weakened by the death of Martínez Nadal in 1941, which precipitated a bitter power struggle for the succession to the leadership. Celestino Iriarte and José A. Balseiro battled for the party presidency until Iriarte was elected by one vote after two special party assemblies, the first of which resulted in a tie.

Political analyst Robert Anderson explains that the Union Republicans were almost totally ineffective from 1940 to 1965. He attributes their weakness to the deeply ingrained system of party patronage which stemmed from the Republican-Socialist Coalition. The patronage tradition, he wrote in 1965, "is expressed in the bylaws of the party, in the formal affiliation of the party with the National Republican Party, in the extreme vagueness of the party programs, in the relative lack of emphasis placed upon the program in the electoral campaigns, and in the 'political style' of its leadership."

Anderson was not alone in these criticisms. Luis Muñoz Marín attacked the Coalition as well, exposing it, writes Carr, as an "unholy combination, which appeared to be the instrument of a political and economic elite that sought power merely to maintain its members' economic privileges." His attacks helped gain support for the new party he was creating, the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), which was born on July 21, 1940. Muñoz offered to the people of Puerto Rico a party which focused on economic recovery rather than political status: 'Any vote cast for this party,' Muñoz promised throughout the 1940s, 'will not be interpreted as a vote in favor of any given political status.' Muñoz's words were music to the voters' ears. His party initiated a wave of populism on the island. In the 1940 elections, the Coalition was threatened for the first time in eight years and a new era of Puerto Rican politics began

A turning point had been reached; the tide was running in favor of the charismatic Muñoz and away from the tiresome status issue in Puerto Rico. A new governor was sent to Puerto Rico in 1941, Rexford G. Tugwell, who would work closely with Muñoz towards a new status combining elements of statehood and independence, the Estado Libre Asociado, or Commonwealth status. With a unified one-party political system behind them, they were able to accomplish whatever they pleased. A new coalition had been established to replace the old Coalition: the Tugwell-Muñoz "coalition."

Tugwell's inaugural speech on September 19, 1941 announced his concerns about Puerto Rico's unequal treatment within the U. S. system and its poor economic conditions. Economic recovery in the tradition of the New Deal was the first item of business. As Tugwell proclaimed: "To bettering the condition of the poor I shall bring every resource I am able to find. . . . The time is past when absentee capitalists can expect to extract extravagant percentages of gain." Tugwell firmly believed that the decision on Puerto Rico's ultimate status would have to come from the people. He concluded his speech as follows: "Meanwhile I join you in the campaign against the two enemies of all mankind: poverty and slavery

As the U. S. entered WWII in December, 1941, Puerto Rico was once again in the spotlight because of its strategic military position in the Caribbean. Puerto Ricans were drafted into the armed forces for the first time and sent into combat in the fall of 1943. Tugwell was fully aware of the irony which their service presented: "Did they [the soldiers] feel themselves sufficiently part of us [the U. S.] to justify our requirement of involuntary military service? Many Puerto Ricans refused to register for the draft on the basis of their beliefs that the U. S. was not the "champion of freedom and the foe of tyranny" that it claimed to be, since Puerto Rico's treatment appeared to be something quite the opposite. In addition, a U. S. victory would not mean a victory for Puerto Rico in terms of achieving a greater degree of autonomy. In response to this resistance, the U. S. launched a pro-American propaganda campaign in 1943, in which President Roosevelt told Puerto Ricans: 'The principles for which we are now fighting require that we should recognize the right of all our citizens -- whether continental or overseas -- to the greatest possible degree of home rule . . . .' Later that same year, however, the U. S. Undersecretary of the Interior stated that 'the U. S. government will continue to be supreme in Puerto Rico, and that is that.' It is unclear whether Puerto Ricans were actually "fooled" into fighting for the U. S. on the belief that they would soon win greater autonomy. In any case, the war meant many of the same shortages and sacrifices on the island as on the mainland, while simultaneously bringing about economic stimulation as Puerto Rican soldiers sent their paychecks home, and soldiers who were based in Puerto Rico put their money into the economy. Rum production soared as foreign liquor imports were cut off, boosting a large sector of Puerto Rico's economy. Finally, new governmental projects on the island, such as land acquisition and the organization of public authorities, were accomplished much more quickly than had been anticipated.

On Capitol Hill, Tugwell confronted Congress with the hard facts about Puerto Rico's condition in 1943, blaming congressional indifference and ineptitude on Puerto Rican affairs as the root of the problem.

No one can say, no one can even guess, what the intentions of the United States
are toward Puerto Rico. On the other hand, it is generally agreed that the present
status is not to be maintained. This is a situation ideally calculated to create
dissension and agitation . . . . If it seems to observers that Puerto Ricans are
continuously at each other's throats . . . this is the reason for it

Besides the uneasy political reality, Tugwell described an even worse socioeconomic reality in Puerto Rico. He portrayed the widespread malnutrition and high rates of illness and mortality on the island as "higher . . . than prevail in any part of the United States." Puerto Rican housing, he said, was "poor" and public institutions (schools, hospitals, water and sewage services) were "inadequate."

The picture of Puerto Rico which Tugwell painted to congressmen was not a pretty one, and certainly not one which made them eager to admit the island as a state. Tugwell stressed that a change in the island's status was imminent, and stated that the islanders realized that their link with the U. S. was "indissoluble." However, by the late 1940s, statehood seemed out of the question. White House staff member Ben Dorfman explained to Muñoz in March, 1946 that there was no support for statehood in Congress, as the U. S. could not offer sufficient economic conditions to guarantee Puerto Rico's stability as a state. In 1945, Senator Tydings submitted another independence bill for Puerto Rico in the form of the Tydings-Piñero Bill, this time offering a 21-year period of transition to independence. Most legislators in San Juan favored it, but Muñoz was opposed because it did not provide for a plebiscite to let the people of Puerto Rico choose between independence and statehood. Tydings refused to include this provision because, in his words, 'statehood for Puerto Rico is as far away as the North Pole.' According to one historian, there was "absolutely no sentiment in the United States for Statehood for Puerto Rico . . . [and congressmen felt that] the people should be told that statehood was not a valid, legitimate hope." The U. S. was about to enter a whole new era of prosperity, however, which would keep the hopes of statehood for Puerto Rico from being completely dashed.

Tugwell was openly critical of the Puerto Rican Republican Party, as is shown in his statement that the PPD "had a large supply of professional and technical men who could not stomach the reactionary corruption of the Republicanos but who were not radicals . . . ." As always, partisan politics were bitter and divisive on the island. Widespread distaste for the Republican Party led to the PPD's triumph in the 1944 elections, which came as "no particular surprise" to the islanders, since "no party had been formed to contest the election," facetiously referring to the Coalition's powerlessness by this point.

One of Muñoz and Tugwell's most important accomplishments for the people of Puerto Rico was the passage of an elective governor act for Puerto Rico in 1948, an idea which had been advocated as early as 1921. Muñoz had what no previous Puerto Rican politician had enjoyed: a close working relationship with the Governor of Puerto Rico and powerful political allies in Washington. Beginning in 1943, when Puerto Rico's legislature passed a resolution requesting greater autonomy from Congress, including an elective governor, Tugwell fought for Puerto Rico's interests in Congress. His persuasion was effective, it seems, for it helped Roosevelt decide to urge Congress to consider '. . . an amendment to the organic law of Puerto Rico to permit the people . . . to elect their own Governor. . .' as well as to clarify the U. S.-Puerto Rico relationship. A bill to this effect, called the Crawford-Butler Act, was signed into law by President Truman in 1947, granting Puerto Rico authority to elect its own governor while remaining an unincorporated territory. Independentistas in Puerto Rico were angered, believing that the bill represented the U. S. intention to keep Puerto Rico perpetually tied to the mainland. They were correct, at least in the mind of one of its drafters, Fred Crawford (R-Michigan), who acknowledged that he was committed to preventing U. S. citizens from voluntarily leaving the Union.

Thus, the elections of 1948 were the most significant in the island's history to that point, since, for the first time, the governorship was up for competition. The PPD won another landslide victory with 63% of the total vote, and installed Muñoz as the new governor and Antonio Fernós Isern as the Resident Commissioner in Washington. Since the PPD platform no longer held independence for Puerto Rico as an acceptable option, the victory was interpreted as support for a new status, a status which combined elements of statehood with independence. With Tugwell's help, Muñoz and Fernós Isern would establish Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth in 1952.

In the meantime, the statehood effort was nearly annihilated by the PPD and the lack of interest in statehood in the U. S. Congress. In fact, according to Tugwell, the U. S. was not interested in any solution to Puerto Rico's status dilemma. "There was no policy [in U. S.-Puerto Rico relations]. Did we intend to give this newly acquired possession statehood? To be American citizens without a State to live in," Tugwell wrote in 1947, "without representation in the Congress, without even incorporation of their Territory, was to exist in a monstrously illogical situation. . . . The prevailing attitude [in the U. S. Congress] was neither selfish nor generous; it was indifferent. Time spent on Puerto Rico was a political waste." It seems that Puerto Rican matters were considered a political waste in the 1940s because there was not yet enough U. S. investment on the island to make it of economic, hence political, significance. For instance, in 1947, there were only thirteen mainland branch companies on the island, which indicates a reluctance on the part of U. S. investors to get involved in this 'tropical hellhole,' as one businessman described Puerto Rico, and shows that Puerto Rico's affairs were not of much economic consequence to U. S. interests.

This situation was soon to change, however, with the establishment of Operation Bootstrap in 1947 by the Puerto Rican Economic Development Administration (Fomento ). The program, intended to pull Puerto Rico's economy up by its own bootstraps, allowed U. S. companies to establish branch operations in Puerto Rico free of federal taxation for an indefinite period, and free of local taxation for 12 to 19 years. The tax exemption and abatement, combined with a low-wage environment in a tropical climate, suddenly became an unbeatable investment opportunity for U. S. industry, which was in search of investment opportunities for their abundant post-war earnings. As more and more U. S. companies established themselves in Puerto Rico, the island's political significance rose steadily.
As in 1939, Ferré attempted ten years later to generate enthusiasm among congressmen for statehood. At the public hearings of the U. S. House of Representatives Committee on Labor and Education held in Ponce, Puerto Rico in November, 1949, Ferré presented his "Plea for Puerto Rico." Ferré began his remarks by thanking the Committee for its efforts in Puerto Rico and then slipping in a note of incredulity that the members were "surprised" by the dire straits of Puerto Rico. His plea was for the admission of Puerto Rico as a state, based on a two-part argument: first, on economic grounds; and second, on emotional grounds. The economic argument he offered attributed Puerto Rico's miserable condition to a lack of natural resources, which meant that the island would always be poor, and to a lack of political voice in the establishment of trade regulations (such as quotas) in the U. S. Congress. The latter problem would be taken care of by Puerto Rico's congressional representation as a state. He cited, for example, the fact that the sugar economy, representing 60% of the island's total annual income, was currently restricted to a quota of 910,000 tons of export production, although the island's total growing capacity was 1,500,000 tons, the difference creating lost revenues of $60 million at $120 a ton. As a state, Puerto Rico could fight for its own quotas instead of having them established by southern U. S. sugar interests. Furthermore, Ferré argued that statehood would bring Social Security benefits to the island in full measure, as well as federal legislation to improve roads, harbors, electrification, and agriculture, and federal monies for Puerto Rico's underfunded education system.

The emotional appeal for statehood was encapsulated in Ferré's plan for an "Equal Deal." Citing the generosity of Truman's "Fair Deal," Ferré argued that Puerto Rico's economic problems were rooted in its unequal status within the U. S. policy framework. "Our problem," Ferré said, "requires an 'Equal Deal' . . . which will give us the equality of opportunity to which every American citizen is entitled" by the Constitution. Puerto Rico did not need Operation Bootstrap, it needed Operation Equal Treatment, "which will give us the same opportunities as are enjoyed by the American citizens of the 48 states of the Union to solve our own problems." Ferré's pleas had no direct result in Congress. By this time, Congress seems to have turned its attention entirely to Muñoz and his efforts to establish a compromise status: Commonwealth.

Tugwell, Rexford Guy. Puerto Rican Public Papers. San Juan: Service Office of the Government of Puerto Rico Printing Div., 1945, p. 152.

See Anderson, pp. 32-34 and 83-89.

Ibid, pp. 82.

Carr, p. 141.

Cited in STACOM, Background Studies, p. 99. This fact stresses the need to allow a large margin of error when interpreting the strong electoral support for the PPD as an indication of a lack of support for statehood or independence. With the advent of Commonwealth in 1952, the electoral support for the PPD and support for that particular status become more closely aligned.

Ribes Tovar, p. 480. This election is another instance in which partisan politics hurt the statehood effort. If the Unificacíon Tripartita had not split up the votes for the Coalition, the Coalition would have won by a large margin, as much as 137,865 votes.

Tugwell, Puerto Rican Public Papers, p. 9. Tugwell's socialistic tendencies earned him the nickname of "Red Rex."

Ibid, p. 11.

Tugwell, The Stricken Land: The Story of Puerto Rico (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1947), p. 579.

The resistors were mostly independentistas. See Puerto Rico People's Press Project, p. 64.

Ibid. The reliability of this very biased independentista source must be questioned.

See STACOM, Background Studies, pp. 101-02, for a discussion.

Tugwell, Puerto Rican Public Papers, p. 153. Tugwell was addressing the Senate Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs.

Ibid, pp. 146-47.

Ibid, pp. 262-63. Tugwell's opinion in this matter was probably significantly influenced by the beliefs of Muñoz, who abandoned hopes of Puerto Rican independence when he realized that it would be economic suicide to cut the ties with the U. S.

See García-Passalacqua's chapter in Bloomfield, p. 162, note #65. García-Passalacqua elaborates on the significance of this statement: "Congressional conservatism in refusing to offer the three options with adequate economic guarantees led to the policy of the legitimation of the status quo as the only option, the origin of today's crisis" (italics his).

Cited in Carr, p. 76.

Robert Hunter's comments, from his chapter in STACOM, Background Studies, p. 108.

Tugwell, The Stricken Land, p. 171. Tugwell did not provide a list of what that "reactionary corruption" entailed.

According to STACOM, Background Studies, p. 108, the PPD polled 383,000 votes to the Coalition's 208,000.

President Roosevelt was also influenced by the report of the Committee on the Revision of the Organic Act of Puerto Rico, which met in July and August, 1943. Comprised of four mainland politicians, including Governor Tugwell, and four Puerto Rican politicians: Sen. Celestino Iriarte (representing statehood); Sen. Luis Muñoz Marín (representing the PPD); Supreme Court Judge Martín Travieso; and José Ramírez Santibáñez (representing autonomists), the committee produced a report which recommended the establishment of an elective governorship and significant increases in Puerto Rico's autonomy as soon as possible. By the time the bill they had recommended came out of the U. S. Senate debate, it was virtually rewritten, granting an elective governorship while still assuring U. S. domination over Puerto Rico. See STACOM, Background Studies, pp. 102-07.

Ibid., pp. 112-13. In fact, the PPD received 392,000 votes while all other parties combined, including the three-year old PIP, received just 346,000 votes.

Tugwell, The Stricken Land, p. 71.

Cited in Steiner, p. 136.

Luis A. Ferré, The Plea of Puerto Rico (Ponce, P. R.: Imprenta Fortuño, 1949), pp. 1-3. At this time, Ferré was Vice President of the Ponce Cement Corporation and the Porto Rico Iron Works, Inc., and had run unsuccessfully as the Republicano candidate for Resident Commissioner, among other posts.

Ibid., pp. 4-9. A Columbia University report in 1949 established the minimum level of funding for education at $65 million a year per state. Ferré calculated that Puerto Rico would require $50 million on this basis, although out of its total budget of $73 million, only $21 million was allotted to education in the late 1940s.

Ibid., pp. 3-4

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