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Reviews of A New Deal for the Tropics: Puerto Rico during the Depression Era, 1932-1935

“This refreshing book invites us to remember how an earlier generation addressed the problems of economic depression. In this study of the Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Administration (PRERA), Manuel Rodriguez captures much of the enthusiasm of New Dealers in Puerto Rico. They tried to reform society itself, not provide temporary aid to a depressed economy. PRERA’s innovative personnel revolutionized the methodology of the island’s development. Because the agency survived only two years, the New Deal agencies which replaced it carried on its initiatives. This study is more than the history of a New Deal agency. It challenges the historiography of US-Puerto Rican relations. Manuel Rodriguez emphasizes that with the creation of PRERA, an entirely new relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico began. Until FDR’s administration, the United States’ relationship to Puerto Rico was largely laissez-faire. PRERA, by contrast, proposed to develop the island, not just provide relief. Divisions of engineering, agriculture, education, and social science addressed issues from a long-range perspective. PRERA hired a cadre of Puerto Rican professionals and armed them with a philosophy meant to transform public service on the island.

“A decade later, when the Partido Popular Democratico began its own development agenda, the PRERA public service ethos was incorporated in its programs. James Bourne, the head of PRERA, decided that the best people to lead the agency were Puerto Ricans, not outsiders. Whereas previous historians have emphasized that the New Deal professionals were drawn from the bacendado class, Rodriguez shows that PRERA social workers came from less affluent backgrounds. The agency’s communiques also projected a new, democratic image of the public servant. Unfortunately for Bourne, he entangled himself in party politics. He became too close to Liberal Party leaders like Carlos Cbardon and Luis Munoz Marin. In retribution, the Coalicion majority in the Legislative Assembly declared him persona non grata. Rodriguez is very familiar with the colonial status debates of Puerto Rican historiography. He addresses the ‘status question’ by recognizing that PRERA and other New Deal agencies transformed ‘the daily lives of the subjects according to the parameters imposed by the colonial state.’ He sees this transformation as positive, however, in light of the ‘imperialism of neglect’ that the United States previously practiced.

“With the New Deal, Rodriguez observes that the philosophy and methods of U.S. colonialism changed. To gain greater control of the population, PRERA began a process of regulating ‘the biological aspects of the population through the collection of statistics.’ He borrows the term ‘biopolitics’ from Michel Foucault, but instead of criticizing increased government control, he sees this as a prerequisite for modernization. In his historiographic discussion of the Depression and New Deal in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez analyzes a number of other works on the era. The advocates of decolonization will likely question the author’s view that the bureaucracy developed in this period benefited the island. Nevertheless, advocates of both commonwealth and statehood should appreciate the author’s perspective of how PRERA transformed U.S.-Puerto Rican relations. ”
— John L. Rector, Western Oregon University, Hispanic American Historical Review