Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Puerto Rico emerged from a Spanish colonial past of haciendas and peasant farming to become dominated by large-scale farming of sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco following the U.S. annexation of the island, in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. During the first part of the twentieth century, the sugar industry in particular stimulated migrations of the small peasant farmers from the inland highlands to create a rural proletariat to work on the sugar plantations. Until after World War II, agriculture in general and sugar in particular dominated the economy, lending a seasonal dimension to the island's work that was common throughout much of the Caribbean. It became usual to work on the island during the later fall and winter months, when sugarcane and other crops needed their heaviest labor inputs, and then to migrate to the mainland during the summer months. This regime succeeded in converting much of the smallholding peasant population into wage laborers.
Puerto Rico retains the vestiges of a peasantry today, but few Puerto Ricans conform to the jíbaro stereotype of the strong, hardworking, independent farmer, which today serves as a Puerto Rican national symbol. For part of their subsistence, many of the island's inhabitants still rely on combinations of fishing, farming, and gardening with casual wage work. The Caribbean practice of "occupational multiplicity"—combining a number of odd jobs—is common enough in Puerto Rico that short-term, irregular jobs have been given their own term— chiripas. Puerto Ricans are eligible for some social assistance from the U.S. government. Although they receive fewer transfer payments per capita annually than the general population of the United States, transfer payments make up proportionately more of the incomes of Puerto Rican households that receive them.
Industrial Arts. Since the 1950s, agriculture as a cornerstone of the Puerto Rican economy has yielded ground to service industries, tourism, and manufacturing. A development program known as "Operation Bootstrap" was designed to industrialize the island following the decline of sugar production. Much of the growth in manufacturing has been the result of special provisions in the U.S. tax code that make it desirable for U.S. firms to operate assembly plants on the island. Most of the products of these plants are produced solely for export. They include optical equipment, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, shoes and clothing, and electronics.
Attracting industry to the island is also facilitated by a labor force perceived to be docile and generally antiunion. Owing to similarities between Cuban and Puerto Rican histories and the fear of a revolution like Cuba's, since the late 1950s there has been a subtle yet comprehensive suppression of socialist thought in Puerto Rico. The antiunion sentiments thus derive in part from the association of unionism with socialism.
Puerto Rico's tourist industry is centered around San Juan, which serves as a port for cruise ships. Old San Juan, with its Spanish-colonial cathedrals, fortifications, customs and merchant houses, and other impressive architecture, is a well-known shopping and historical district for tourists. San Juan is also known for its luxury resort hotels and casinos, which grew in favor after restrictions on travel between the United States and Havana. The promotion of other parts of the island, especially its beaches and two national parks—El Yunque (a tropical rainforest), and Bosque Seco (a dry forest on the southwest coast)—has intensified since the early 1980s.
Trade. Puerto Rico's position in the sea-lanes established San Juan as an important port early in the island's European history. Today Puerto Rico competes with Miami as an international center of banking and commerce for many Latin American and Caribbean nations. Its political status as a U.S. territory, combined with the bilingual capabilities of most of its businesspeople, gives it an advantage over other Caribbean nations in acting as a liaison between Latin American and North American business interests. Its commerce is constrained, however, in that the same restrictions that apply to trade between the United States and other nations also apply to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican politicians cannot negotiate trading and other international arrangements independently of the U.S. federal government.
Division of Labor. Unskilled and semiskilled labor has been one of Puerto Rico's principal exports since late in the nineteenth century. Migration between the mainland and the island, whether spontaneous or encouraged by the insular government, served the needs of low-wage industry and agriculture much more than it encouraged or facilitated upward mobility across generations or entrepreneurial behavior. The working histories of Puerto Ricans reveal cycles of work and rest, or employment and unemployment, owing to the hazardous or monotonous nature of many of the jobs Puerto Ricans obtain. Most civilian Puerto Ricans work either in the public sector or at low-wage jobs. Since 1917, the U.S. military has drawn upon Puerto Ricans as soldiers and civilian workers; the large number of Puerto Ricans involved in the Vietnam War is reflected in the fact that some neighborhoods bear Southeast Asian names.
Although much of the population remains a low-income proletariat, partially dependent on government transfer payments, the labor force includes a substantial professional and managerial class because of the growth of the island's prominence in banking, insurance, and commerce. Many of these individuals have found work in Sunbelt cities such as Miami and Houston, where their bilingual skills are in demand because of growing Latino business transactions.
The island's labor force also includes those who occupy positions in the informal economy of petty commerce, small-scale manufacturing, food processing, fishing, and farming. Historically, within peasant farming and fishing families, there has been a division of labor by sex, although men and women tend to be capable of most of the same tasks required to pursue small-scale fishing and farming. Often these "informal sector" jobs are combined with government jobs, which tend to be allocated through political patronage.
Land Tenure. The agrarian past and jíbaro identity make landownership a desirable goal for Puerto Ricans. In accordance with U.S. law, land in Puerto Rico is privately owned and available for sale or purchase on the open market. Yet there have been variations owing to Puerto Rico's special political status and circumstances. The state has owned and operated sugar plantations, for example, but more common have been government schemes designed to make land available to the poor for house construction. These schemes emerged as the sugar industry began to decline in importance, leaving many sugar workers unemployed or displaced from company housing. Called parcelas, the program consisted of providing plots of land to families with low incomes and then providing a number of contiguous plots with public services such as water, sewer, garbage collection, and electricity. The growth of squatters' settlements is not unknown to Puerto Rico; sometimes these precede parcelas development.