Hurricanes, Public Health, and Citizenship under Empire and Dictatorship: A Comparative Analysis of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic during the Great Depression

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 3:30 PM
Carnegie Room East (Sheraton New York)
Geoff Burrows, City University of New York, Graduate Center
This paper will analyze the political consequences of the San Felipe and San Ciprián hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico in 1928 and 1932, and the San Zenón hurricane that struck Santo Domingo in 1930. The three storms leveled the local economies, reversed previous advancements in public health, and influenced local responses to the Great Depression. As initial relief efforts transformed into programs of long-term socioeconomic development, in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic the natural disasters contributed to a re-conceptualization of the meaning of citizenship and a revolution in existing political structures. But, as each island looked to redevelop its destroyed built environment, the similarities faded. In Puerto Rico, actors from across class lines pursued a pragmatic alliance with the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration to build a new public health infrastructure in response to the widespread destruction of the San Felipe and San Ciprián hurricanes. In doing so, the Puerto Rican public demonstrated new understandings of the meanings of U.S. and Puerto Rican citizenship, and became a central actor in future political events. Due to the concurrent collapse of local party politics, this new understanding of public citizenship opened the door for the populist rule of the Partido Popular Democrático in the 1940s. By contrast, in the Dominican Republic, the San Zenón hurricane was used by Rafael Trujillo as an opportunity to seize nearly absolute control over the redevelopment program and public health infrastructure, which strengthened the foundations of his own populist rule as both President and dictator. While Trujillo’s regime was also supported by new conceptualizations in the meaning of the public, the trajectory of democracy and citizenship in Puerto Rico and the Dominican took decisively different arcs over the rest of the twentieth century.
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