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Letter to the Hon. Horace M. Towner, Governor of Porto Rico, on the Status of Porto Rico

February 28, 1928

Dear Governor:

I desire to acknowledge the concurrent resolution of the Legislature of Porto Rico committed to Colonel Lindbergh on his visit to San Juan, and also a cablegram, dated January 19, signed by Messrs. Barcelo and Tous Soto, the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives of Porto Rico, respectively.

The cablegram and resolution seem to be based largely on a complete misunderstanding of concrete facts. It would not be difficult to show that the present status of Porto Rico is far more liberal than any status of its entire history; that its people have greater control of their own affairs with less interference from without; that its people enjoy liberty and the protection of law, and that its people and its Government are receiving material assistance through its association with the continental United States. The Treaty of Paris, of course, contains no promise to the people of Porto Rico. No phase of that treaty contemplated the extension to Porto Rico of a more liberal regime than existed. The United States has made no promise to the people of Porto Rico that has not been fulfilled, nor has any representative or spokesman for the United States made such a promise.

The Porto Rican Government at present exercises a greater degree of sovereignty over its own internal affairs than does the Government of any State or Territory of the United States. Without admitting the existence of "a grave economic situation" in the finances of the Government of Porto Rico, the present difficulty, which it is hoped is but temporary, is exclusively the result of the exercise by the elected representatives of the people of Porto Rico of an authority granted by the present very liberal organic law. The responsibility of the United States, as distinguished from that of Porto Rico, is, at most, that officers appointed by the President in Porto Rico may not have exercised power legally placed in their hands to veto or make ineffective acts of the Porto Rican Legislature.

The cablegram complains that—

"Ours is the only Spanish-American country whose voice has not been heard at Havana during the Pan-American Conference, for it was not represented there."

This is a most serious error and is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the relation of Porto Rico to the United States. No State or Territory of the Union was represented as such at Havana, but the representation of the United States in Havana represents Porto Rico as truly as it represents any part of the territory of the United States.

The request is made that Porto Rico be constituted as a "free State" and not "a mere subjected colony." Certainly giving Porto Rico greater liberty than it has ever enjoyed and powers of government for the exercise of which its people are barely prepared cannot, with propriety, be said to be establishing therein "a mere subjected colony." The people of Porto Rico are citizens of the United States, with all the rights and privileges of other citizens of the United States, and these privileges are those which we invoked "when declaring for independence at the memorable convention at Philadelphia."

In answering the cablegram it might be well to consider briefly the conditions and tendencies we found in Porto Rico and what the situation in Porto Rico is today, as well as the steps we are responsible for in Porto Rico to better conditions as we found them and as they exist today. There is no conflict of opinion as to the condition in which we found Porto Rico. Perhaps the best authority on local conditions was Dr. Cayetano Coll y Teste, who, in an article published in Porto Rico in 1897, after describing the progress in Porto Rico for one hundred years ending with that year, thus describes the great body of the population of Porto Rico:

Only the laborer, the son of our fields, one of the most unfortunate beings in the world, with a pale face, bare feet, lean body, ragged clothing and feverish look, walks indifferently, with the shadows of ignorance in his eyes, dreaming of the cockfights, the shuffle of the cards or the prize in the provincial lottery. No, it is not possible that the tropical zone produces such organic anemia; this lethargy of body and soul is the offspring of moral and physical vices that drag down the spirit and lead our peasants to such a state of social degradation. In the miserable cabin, hung on a peak like a swallow's nest, this unhappy little creature comes into the world; when it opens its eyes to the light of reason it does not hear the village bell reminding him to lift his soul to the Divine One and render homage to the Creator of Worlds; he hears only the hoarse cry of the cock crowing in the early morning, and then he longs for the coming of Sunday to witness the strife and knavery of the cockfights. When a man, he takes up with the first woman to be found in the neighborhood and makes her his mistress to gratify his amorous lusts. In the wretched tavern the food he finds is only the putrid salt meat, codfish filled with rotten red spots, and India rice, and the man who harvests the best coffee in the world, who helps to gather into the troughs the sweetest grains of nature and takes to pasture in the fields and meadows the beautiful calves, cannot raise to his lips the bit of meat, because the municipal tax places it out of his reach and almost duplicated the price of the tainted codfish; coffee becomes to him an article of luxury through its high price, and of sugar he can only taste that filled with molasses and impurities. * * * This eternal groan of the Porto Rican laborers is an infirmity of our present day society and consequently it is necessary to study it and remedy it.

That the accuracy of this description was appreciated in Porto Rico was evidenced by the fact that it was awarded a prize from the Economic Society of Friends of the Country. Other contemporary testimony of prominent Porto Ricans to the same general effect is not lacking, but space forbids its inclusion.

Were this pitiable economic condition the result of a passing depression the situation would have been less hopeless, but the evidence is clear that the condition was one of long standing and that the tendency was to get worse rather than to improve. One would look in vain for a single ray of hope if Porto Rico were to continue its normal course as we found it. Health and sanitation, education and public works were such as naturally accompanied the situation of the people pictured.

Prior to the American occupation the Porto Rican people had received practically no training in self-government or the free exercise of the franchise. While there existed a body of educated, intelligent men, the great mass of the people were without experience or training in self-government, and only a small percentage could qualify as voters under very broad electoral qualifications.

The military Government in its brief existence of eighteen months accomplished the following:

1—Order was re-established and an insular police force organized.

2—The more obvious burdens of taxation as they fell on the very poor people were abolished, and a careful study made by an expert, preparatory to the adoption of a proper revenue system for the island.

3—Such changes in the judicial system were made as were necessary to bring that system more in accordance with American procedure and with the American view of individual rights and liberty.

4—A Department of Education was established; Boards of Health were organized; the public works were reorganized and progress in road building was greater than in all the previous history of Porto Rico.

And finally the Government was reorganized in accordance with the act passed by Congress to establish a civil government in order that there might be a minimum of friction in changing from the military to the civil government.

Experience has shown that this organic act, though intended to be temporary, was quite up to the standard of such acts, and that it gave to the people of Porto Rico a liberal form of government under which they could acquire experience in democratic government honestly administered and could enjoy all of the rights and privileges to which we are accustomed. Under it the possibility of development was great, and this possibility was realized.

Congress, recognizing the progress in Porto Rico, enacted in 1917 the present organic law. Under this law the Porto Rican people were made citizens of the United States. All of the guarantees of the Constitution are extended to Porto Rico, or the Legislature of Porto Rico is granted authority to make effective those guarantees not specifically extended. The great satisfaction in Porto Rico at the passage of this act is the best evidence of its liberality. The principle difference between the government of Porto Rico and that of the organized and incorporated Territories of the United States is the greater power of the Legislature and the fiscal provisions governing Porto Rico, which are far more liberal than those of any of our States or Territories.

Through the urging of the War Department, the United States income tax of 1913 was extended to Porto Rico, with a provision authorizing the modification of the law by the local Legislature and directing that the income from this source go into the insular Treasury. In the revision of the organic act of Porto Rico in 1917, the War Department, with the assistance of the Governor, was enabled to secure a provision similar to the one in effect in the Philippine Islands; that is, that the internal revenue collected in the United States on Porto Rican products should be turned in to the Treasury of Porto Rico. These two taxes are now carried in the returns of the revenues of Porto Rico as "United States internal revenues" and "income taxes," and together they constitute a good part of the revenues of the Government. The Treasury of Porto Rico receives the customs duties collected in Porto Rico, less the cost of collection. It receives the internal revenue taxes which are laid by its own Legislature and collected in Porto Rico. It receives the income taxes which are laid by its own Legislature. It receives the internal revenue taxes collected in the United States on Porto Rican products consumed in the United States.

I have set down a few scattered facts, which, however, sufficiently show the consequences of Porto Rico's union with the United States. We found the people of Porto Rico poor and distressed, without hope for the future, ignorant, poverty-stricken and diseased, not knowing what constituted a free and democratic government and without the experience of having participated in any government. We have progressed in the relief of poverty and distress, in the eradication of disease, and have attempted, with some success, to inculcate in the inhabitants the basic ideas of a free, democratic government. We have now in Porto Rico a government in which the participation by Americans from the United States is indeed small. We have given to the Porto Rican practically every right and privilege which we permitted ourselves to exercise. We have now progressed to the point where discouragement is replaced by hope, and while only thirty years ago one was indeed an optimist to see anything promising in Porto Rico, today one is indeed a pessimist who can see any reasonable human ambition beyond the horizon of its people.

It is not desired to leave the impression that all progress in Porto Rico was due to continental Americans. Without the cooperation and assistance of Porto Ricans progress would indeed have been negligible, but the cooperation is largely due to the encouragement of American assistance, American methods and an increase in the reward of efforts made.

There has been a natural hesitation to recall and dwell upon the unfortunate condition of Porto Rico in the past. There is a feeling, however, that the United States is entitled to a good name in its dealing with Porto Rico and to protect itself from any reflection on its good name. Perhaps no Territory in the world has received such considerate treatment in the past thirty years as has Porto Rico, and perhaps nowhere else has progress been so marked and so apparent as in Porto Rico. We are certainly entitled to a large part of the credit for this situation.

There exists today in Porto Rico a Department of Health in all respects modern and including in its activities all branches of modern public health work. Not of least importance as showing the marked progress in health matters in Porto Rico in recent years is the fact that it is completely manned by Porto Ricans. The improvement in the health conditions of Porto Rico is not fully indicated by the reduction in death raft alone, though this rate has been almost divided by two since the early days of American sovereignty of the isalnd. The practical eradication of smallpox, which had existed continuously in the island for more than forty years and which had resulted in more than 600 deaths annually for the last ten years prior to American severeignty; the diagnosis of the so-called tropical "anemia" which affected the great bulk of the population of Porto Rico; the discoveries in Cuba in the method of propagating yellow fever, were concrete benefits to the health situation in Porto Rico and have been of continuous benefit.

The history of education in Porto Rico prior to its occupation by the United States is very largely the history of individual effort. Individuals of character and determination would establish and conduct a school, and it would generally disappear with the persons establishing it. Governmental efforts likewise lacked continuity. About the year 1860 a more determined governmental effort was made, and in 1898 the maximum enrollment in the public schools and private schools was 29,182, which has increased to 213,321. The per capita expenditure for public education in Porto Rico has increased during the period of American sovereignty from 30 cents per annum to approximately $4 per annum. The number of Government-owned public school buildings has increased from none to 991. The Department of Health and the Department of Education of Porto Rico are combining to make of the Porto Ricans of the future a different type physically and mentally from those we found in Porto Rico.

Not because they are entitled to first consideration, but because they are so readily measured and would be of fundamental importance in any change of status, it may be well briefly to recall some of the direct financial advantages to Porto Rico accruing from its relation to the United States. Porto Rico pays no tax to the United States Treasury. The Federal services in Porto Rico are supported from the United States Treasury. The services which benefit directly and financially the people of Porto Rico are the Lighthouse Service, the Agricultural Experiment Station and financial assistance to the College of Agriculture, the maintenance of the Porto Rico Regiment of the Army, the activities of the Veterans' Bureau and Federal participation in harbor improvements. In a more general way, Porto Rico receives the protection of the army and navy and the service of the Department of State and the diplomatic and consular service.

The expenditure from the United States accruing to the people of Porto Rico is not less than $5,000,000 per annum. In the fiscal year 1927 the total operating revenue of Porto Rico was $11,191,893.11. Of this total the following, in our States and Territories, would not accrue to the local Treasury:

Income taxes..........................................................................................1,565,745.98
United States internal revenue....................................................................440,660.71
Excise taxes (which would in great part not accrue to local treasury)........5,701,502.33

It will be observed, therefore, that had we not given special and very considerate attention to its needs, but had treated Porto Rico as we have treated the incorporated territory of the United States, of the more than $11,000,000 subject to appropriation by the elected Legislature of Porto Rico there would have been not to exceed $2,000,000 available.

The United States tariff extends to Porto Rico, and no part—certainly no agricultural part—of our territory is so favored by its tariff. And the striking development of Porto Rico under American sovereignty as shown by the growth of imports and exports is, in a material part, due to this favorable tariff treatment of its products.

The total exports from Porto Rico in the last complete years of Spanish sovereignty were $11,555,962. In the fiscal year 1927 this total was $108,067,434. The total imports in the last Spanish year were $10,725,563, and in 1927 were $98,810,750. Comparing this with one of the most prosperous, wholly independent neighbors of Porto Rico, we find that in the period in which the exterior trade of Porto Rico has been multiplied by nine that of its neighbor has been multiplied by less than seven.

The total value of Porto Rican products shipped to the United States in the fiscal year was $97,823,523, and of this total $97,000,000 was highly protected in the American market. The total purchase by Porto Rico in the markets of the United States in the same calendar year was $87,046,319. For a number of years Cuba has been the largest purchaser of Porto Rican coffee, which is given a 20 per cent, reduction of the Cuban tariff as an American product, not because Cuba sells to Porto Rico but because Cuba sells to the United States. The advantage of the United States market to Porto Rico can the better be appreciated when it is noted that of the $97,000,000 of Porto Rican products sold in the last calendar year into the United States there would have been imposed, had these products come from countries not enjoying free admission into the United States, a duty of approximately $57,000,000. On the products from the continental United States entering Porto Rico during the same period the duty imposed, had they come from a foreign country, would have been less than one-third of this amount. Certainly Porto Rico would not desire reciprocity to be more favorable to it.

The bonded indebtedness of Porto Rico is $25,555,000 and that of the municipalities of Porto Rico $18,772,000. These bonds are practically all held in the United States. Due to the fact that these bonds are tax exempt by a United States statute, Porto Rico pays in annual interest at least 2 per cent, less than would otherwise be paid—a saving of approximately $886,540 annually. In what way, by a greater grant of autonomy, could Porto Rico so look after the market for its products or the market for its bonds, or in what way could it improve the economic position of its Government or its people?

In studying the effect of granting to Porto Rico what was requested in the cablegram sent to me, one must naturally begin with the assumption that the products of Porto Rico would be for some time approximately what they now are. The change would be in disposing of them. In the year 1926 Porto Rico sold in the United States market 1,157,000,000 pounds of sugar and received therefor $48,200,000. A near neighbor sold an equal quantity of sugar for $22,800,000. Porto Rico sold in the United States in the same year 20,500,000 pounds of leaf tobacco for $13,000,000. Its neighbor sold an equal quantity of leaf tobacco for $1,192,000. In the sale of tobacco the element of quality enters, but these numbers sufficiently show the effect of the free entry to the United States market on the two principal products of the island, and show the extent to which the funds now used to make its purchases abroad and to meet its indebtedness abroad would shrink if the privilege were withdrawn. This shrinkage must be followed by a corresponding shrinkage in the revenues that go to support the activities in Porto Rico which mean progress for the future.

There is no disposition in America, and certainly not on my part, to discourage any reasonable aspiration of the people of Porto Rico. The island has so improved and its people have so progressed in the last generation as to justify high hopes for the future, but it certainly is not unreasonable to ask that those who speak for Porto Rico limit their petition to those things which may be granted without a denial of such hope. Nor is it unreasonable to suggest that the people of Porto Rico, who are a part of the people of the United States, will progress with the people of the United States rather than isolated from the source from which they have received practically their only hope of progress.

Sincerely yours,


THE WHITE HOUSE, February 28, 1928.

Hon. Horace M. Towner,
Governor of Porto Rico, San Juan, R.I.

Calvin Coolidge, Letter to the Hon. Horace M. Towner, Governor of Porto Rico, on the Status of Porto Rico Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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