The New Deal in Puerto Rico: Rural Hydro-Electrification and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 3:10 PM
Forum Room (Omni Shoreham)
Geoff Burrows, City University of New York, Graduate Center
During the 1930s, Puerto Rico experienced an acute infrastructural crisis caused by the economic contraction of the Great Depression and the devastating San Felipe and San Ciprián hurricanes of 1928 and 1932. Beginning in 1936, the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) constructed five modern hydroelectric facilities in the Cordillera Central by damming several rivers and creating a series of man-made lakes to provide protection from periodic flooding, inexpensive electric power, and abundant reserves of drinking water for the entire island. Designed by Puerto Rican engineer Antonio S. Lucchetti, the hydroelectrific projects raised the standard of living by expanding access to electric power through a network of transformer substations, transmission and distribution lines throughout the mountainous countryside. At the same time, the hydroelectrific projects also supported several other PRRA projects such as hurricane-proof housing, road, and storm drain construction that relied on the island’s first local cement plant (built by the PRRA in 1938). The interrelated nature of these various projects was reflective of Second New Deal strategy, which moved away from a paradigm of relief toward one of reconstruction. This shift was welcomed by Puerto Rican parents, administrators, engineers, and workers who sought greater participation in the island’s recovery from the hurricanes and Depression. The PRRA’s rural hydro-electrification program also helped to break the electric power monopolies that already existed on the island and hindered egalitarian access to water and power. This paper argues that local Puerto Rican response to the crises of the 1930s fostered long-term social, economic, and political changes for men and women on the island, complicating commonly held conceptions of the colonial relationship between island and mainland that have long framed historical study of U.S.-Puerto Rican relations.