Puerto Rico’s devastation by Hurricane Maria was a man-made disaster, rooted in American empire.
September, peak hurricane season, is over, and with its passage everyone in Puerto Rico can exhale with some measure of relief that this year, at least, didn’t see any hurricanes make landfall on the island like the devastating Hurricanes Irma and Maria of last September.
It has taken a full year of struggle for the people of Puerto Rico to gain some level of national recognition of the depth of devastation wrought by last year’s hurricanes. Only after a May 2018 report from Harvard estimated almost three thousand deaths from Maria and its after-effects did the government of Puerto Rico — which for almost a year clung to the early claim of only sixty-four deaths — publicly accept the scale of the hurricane’s toll in lives.
The reluctance to acknowledge such large-scale human death is criminal. But with this September’s reprieve from more hurricanes, it is a good time to situate the problems of government emergency response to tropical storms within a much broader set of problems of rule and sovereignty on the island. Beyond the feckless disaster relief effort staged by the U.S. government, the more pernicious crimes committed against Puerto Rico are the decades of economic and political exploitation that made the island a place where tropical storms could so lethally crash the entire social infrastructure and leave $123 billion of crushing indebtedness on its people.
This means turning to much deeper questions of US rule and political economy. If September marked one year since the hurricanes hit, December will mark one hundred twenty years since the United States signed a treaty with the Spanish Empire to secure imperial control of Puerto Rico. This long-standing and ongoing experiment in colonial rule is the key to understanding why the people of Puerto Rico have had to face comprehensive social catastrophe over the past year, and why they face remorseless austerity policies still today.
In this sense, A. G. Hopkins’ recent American Empire: A Global History offers an ideal text with which to make sense of post-Maria Puerto Rico. This is so not only because the book offers a deep history of the island that reaches back to the origin of US imperial exploitation there, but also because Hopkins’ book is not a history of Puerto Rico, per se, but rather a truly global history of the relationship between the United States’ imperialism and the construction of the entire modern world economy. It is these two historical developments that have led to Puerto Rico’s vulnerability to both a storm’s destructive possibilities and financial capital’s slower but steadier devastations.
American Empire embeds the US colonization of Puerto Rico within a larger logic of the US imperialist project as Hopkins sees it, stretching from Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Caribbean to Hawaii and the Philippines in the Pacific. And Hopkins’ broader argument, about the nature of empire, connects US imperial rule to the rules of the modern world economy, as he argues that in modern history, the role of empires has been to impose globalization on those who would not willingly join global capitalism.
Even beyond what it tells us about Puerto Rico and the other sites of US colonization, then, Hopkins’ history of American empire matters because it shows something of how illiberal the construction of liberal capitalism was — and how compulsory globalization has been.
The United States seized the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico during the imperial war of 1898, when the United States also took control of Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, Midway, and some of Samoa. In Hopkins’ hands, as early as 1900 the corrupt, special-interest driven tariff policies of the United States quickly put Puerto Rico on its long path to social vulnerability and economic collapse.
The point that Hopkins seizes on is that US tariff policies produced Puerto Rican economic dependency. They did this because they were crafted for the benefit of particular US business interests — the sugar industry — without regard for Puerto Rico’s own industrial development. Under Spanish rule the island’s top export had been coffee, but US importers of Brazilian coffee stood ready to fend off any tariff that would advantage Puerto Rican exports headed for the mainland US. Deprived of its market in Spain, Puerto Rican coffee — which tended to involve smaller, independent growers backed by local investors — crumbled.
Meanwhile, sugar — which tended to involve larger, corporate producers and mainland US investors — quickly came to dominate the island’s economic landscape, because while the United States threw up tariffs on sugar imports from beyond the empire, it granted tariff-free trade from Puerto Rico now that the island stood inside the imperium. This all made the Puerto Rican economy dependent on the whims of US policies.
Yet this did not, Hopkins emphasizes, equal free trade: “In the case of the American Empire, free trade was imperial preference under a benign name.” Puerto Rican sugar had to travel on US ships and Puerto Rico couldn’t sign trade agreements with other countries or set up its own tariffs. The United States also forced Puerto Rico onto the US dollar, which, because of the ensuing devaluation, let absentee sugar producers scoop up land where previously Puerto Ricans had grown their own food staples.
From the first years, US imperial control decimated Puerto Rico’s chances to build an autonomous economy for Puerto Ricans, instead enabling Wall Street investment, concentrated production, and the monopoly of Big Sugar. The world market’s need for mass production of an export commodity trumped Puerto Rico’s need to build a diverse economic system capable of sustaining itself. Coerced into taking part in globalization, Puerto Rico was left without recourse when the inevitable worldwide overproduction of sugar choked prices.
Hopkins details the course of events as this pattern played out again and again in the United States’ colonial rule of Puerto Rico: without robust political sovereignty, Puerto Rico has never been able to make its own economic decisions based on its own needs.
His book makes clear that the problem of sovereignty in Puerto Rico isn’t simply that Washington rules from afar as an uncaring emperor, but that American imperial rule has led to capitalism’s domination of the island without any effective state counter-force. This is most apparent in the ever-tightening vice of debt with which international finance dictates Puerto Rican political life and imposes austerity policies.
To understand Puerto Rico’s problems, then, don’t look at Puerto Rico at all: Looked at through Hopkins’ lens, Puerto Rico’s accumulation of debt and its lack of social infrastructure for an effective response to Hurricane Maria only look like Puerto Rican problems because they materialize in concentrated form there. They do so because of imperial rule, but they are nonetheless systemic problems produced by a globalized economy. Both problems are the by-products of liberal capitalism.
The United States had seized Puerto Rico during a global age of imperialism, an era when empires claimed colonies at an unprecedented rate from the Caribbean to Africa to Asia and the Pacific. It is much to Hopkins’ point that it was also an age of intense economic globalization, as Puerto Rico was far from the only colony overhauled into a mass-commodity production machine in service to the world economy.
But Hopkins goes further than this. He argues that it was only when the US took colonial control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii, and secured its protectorate in Cuba, that it “suddenly, and very visibly,” imperialized.
This is Hopkins’ most notable conceptual departure from the histories of US empire that he’s challenging. Part of the challenge has to do with his surprising insistence that the United States’ nineteenth-century continental expansion doesn’t qualify as empire.
But his more forceful argument is that an empire is a place (or a collection of places) one can find on a map. It consists squarely of colonial possessions. In this emphasis on what is often called “formal empire,” Hopkins is explicitly arguing against the Wisconsin school of US diplomatic history. A group of influential historians (many of whom trained at the University of Wisconsin), the Wisconsin school has argued that land conquest and formal political possession do not define empire. Rather, it is the project of economic domination on a global scale (facilitated, certainly, by formal empire) that animates modern empire.
This leads to an emphasis on the struggle to conquer markets (not lands) and to control the circuitry of the world economy — the power to act beyond an empire’s formally, visibly conquered land. Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, an architect of the United States’ informal imperialism, went so far as to claim that “the empire of the seas,” by which he meant world-economic power, “alone is real empire.”
Hopkins similarly references what he calls “the real American Empire,” but his “real empire” is “the tangible territorial empire” made in 1898.
The Wisconsin school’s move is to understand these land grabs somewhat instrumentally, as geographically driven logistical maneuvers to win global economic power: a naval base at Guantánamo Bay, say, to control access to the Central American isthmus, where plans were underway to build a canal that would stitch together the world economy; a naval base at Manila Bay to put the United States in position to move on the fabled China market. The United States wasn’t interested in making Panama or China into formal colonies; its imperialists used the colonial footholds of Cuba and the Philippines to achieve economic power elsewhere.
By instead focusing on the economic-productive capacities of the 1898 territorial empire, as Hopkins does when he details the rise of sugar production in Puerto Rico, he counters the Wisconsin school’s emphasis on opening doors to global markets with a materialist interpretation of his own, focused on the point of production. Instead of the naval port in the seaside bay, Hopkins points to the sugarcane field in the colonial interior.
What the Wisconsin school and Hopkins have in common is that they see American empire as a coercive regime, designed to force territories to take part in globalization. They differ about which places they see the American empire as globalizing. Hopkins’ careful attention to the colonies themselves is enough to show that Seward overstated his case when he called informal empire — the capture of maritime trade routes — the only real empire. But it doesn’t follow that Hopkins’ “real American empire” captures all that the US empire does, either. An empire is never content to work only within its formal domain, and a full understanding of the American empire’s workings has to acknowledge that it had its eye on money to be made beyond its formal borders.
Empire as a Way of Life
While I don’t follow Hopkins in viewing the formal colonial possessions of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii, and the protectorate of Cuba, as the American empire — to the exclusion of places where the United States manipulated financial systems, secured naval bases, seized customhouses, or sent gunboats and marines — his focus on the formally ruled imperial domains nonetheless leads him to pursue fascinating claims about imperial practices in formally ruled places like Puerto Rico.
Perhaps most strikingly, where the Wisconsin school’s attention to markets highlights the open-door imperialism of free-trade capitalism, Hopkins’ attention to colonial possessions underscores the potency of tariffs as imperial weapons for molding globalization to the benefit of particular capitalist interests. This, of course, is a timely argument to make, as US policy takes a sharp turn away from the coerced-free trade policy central to liberal capitalism, toward America First-style tariff warfare.
Whether or not one is persuaded by Hopkins’ arguments in this immense, feisty, delightfully pugilistic book, one can’t help but appreciate his intellectual fireworks, his depth of reading, and his conviction that history sits as the exacting judge of even emperors. American Empire is a behemoth of a book — 738 pages of text followed by 193 pages of endnotes — with much to say about everything from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the concept of the fiscal-military state, and the age of imperialism, to globalization, decolonization, and the postcolonial state.
Still, its greatest accomplishment is its pursuit of the history of America’s island colonies beyond the 1898 conquests and its depiction of the mechanics of US colonial political economy. The book’s latter chapters synthesize the twentieth-century histories of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii, showing the accumulation of wrongs that marked post-conquest imperial rule.
The Wisconsin school’s leading historian, William Appleman Williams, insisted that empire harmed human community not only in Puerto Rico and Cuba but also in Wisconsin and Iowa, a claim captured in his aphoristic phrase, “empire as a way of life.” This is a powerful explanation of how the lure of imperial profits extracted from other peoples has repeatedly muddied attempts to build socialism from the ground up in places like Wisconsin and Iowa.
But one problem with Williams’ work was that the on-the-ground encounter with imperial colonization remained off-stage, unseen. Hopkins’ chapters on the empire of islands are wonderfully grounded in the islands themselves, and this allows for a better understanding of certain workings of empire — what it did to its colonial zones and how capitalism and colonialism worked hand in hand. With the Philippines gaining political independence after World War II, Cuba waging a revolution to break away from the imperial colossus, and Hawaii winning membership in the empire’s exclusive club as its fiftieth state, Puerto Rico is where these workings of empire, and their consequences, are most clearly seen today.