The Acquiescence to Colonial Rule

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In two previous articles published by Enclave, I summarized Puerto Rico’s “colonial saga” and addressed some of the devastating effects of it being ruled, for 120 years now, with the interests of U.S. capital as a priority. A puzzling issue is the longevity of colonial domination over Puerto Rico. That longevity is due in no small part to the acquiescence to United States domination of at least eight generations of Puerto Ricans.

The emergence in the 19th century of a Puerto Rican culture was not joined by a strong separatist sentiment. Spain’s repressive measures during the last century of its colonial rule may have been due more to Cuba’s rebelliousness than to an actual, vibrant Puerto Rican pro-independence movement. That does not mean that repression did not have an effect on the collective psyche of 19th century Puerto Ricans, and maybe beyond. But metropolitan repression and violence—although present both under Spain and United States rule—cannot be the whole explanation to our long-lasting consent to colonial domination.

In this context, the theoretical framework of “hegemony” (or “power as domination”) needs to consider historical and cultural forces which paved the way for U.S. colonial rule, even before U.S. Marines stormed Puerto Rican beaches in 1898.

In Search of Explanations

Efrén Rivera Ramos and Steven Lukes provide their respective theoretical versions of the phenomenon of power as domination. Rivera Ramos relies on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. The material foundation of hegemony, he sustains, is tied to the satisfaction of needs. Discussing the concept of power as domination, Steven Lukes makes similar contentions. Lukes translates the concept of hegemony into “power as domination,” defining it as “the power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things.” That raises the question of “how do the powerful secure the compliance of those they dominate—and, more specifically, how do they secure their willing compliance?”

Rivera Ramos is correct in asserting that there is a “pervasive acceptance of U.S. rule and the American presence within Puerto Rican society.” The pertinent questions include how and why has that consent been attained, over and over again. That requires identifying the contributing factors to the production of consent—a consistent acquiescence to colonial domination throughout more than a century, a period of changing circumstances and important transformations.

According to Rivera Ramos, three factors have contributed to the acquiescence of Puerto Ricans to their status of U.S. colonial subjects: the discourse of rights, the ideology of the rule of law, and the experience of a system of partial democracy. More than having contributed “to the reproduction of American rule,” he asserts, the first two “have been key features of the American hegemonic project and constitutive parts of the legitimation process.” 

Rivera Ramos contends that U.S. colonial rule over Puerto Rico “seems to have been better served not by excising the discourse of rights and legalism from the metropolitan claim of authority, but by promoting such discourse and ideology in the colonial societies themselves.” In doing so, the United States has followed a pattern of reliance “on legitimating and hegemonic mechanisms prevalent within the metropolitan societies themselves.” Rivera Ramos calls it “a parallel legitimacy,” which “has been possible due to the fact that the dependent societies have come to resemble in important respects the societies of the metropolitan states.” 

Some Historical and Cultural Clues to the Puzzle

Professor Ramón Grosfoguel calls attention to “the historically consistent rejection of independence by Puerto Ricans,” and points out that, in a “context of subordination, popular groups interact and intervene pragmatically within their horizon of structural possibilities.” He sustains that the “structural constraints of colonialism have framed the horizon of possibilities for local actors,” and that “the United States has made political and economic concessions to popular sectors in Puerto Rico (which have rarely been made to any other colonial or postcolonial peoples) because of the island’s military and symbolic value.”

After expelling Spain from Cuba and Puerto Rico, the United States found differences between the politics of the two islands: “Whereas Puerto Rico had a weak nationalist agenda,” points out Grosfoguel, “Cuba had a strong anticolonial movement against Spain that [also] pressed for the departure of the Americans.” Such reality “allowed the United States to make Puerto Rico a colonial possession without difficulties” and, I might add, indefinitely (so far, until 2020 and counting).

It is true that the image of the United States as a liberal champion of human rights bedazzled the Puerto Rican political elite living at the turn of the 20th century (an image that had little correspondence to reality, given the treatment of Native and African Americans, as well as women). But it is also true that monarchical Spain did not have in Puerto Rico the governance problems and unrest that it faced in Cuba. Such history should not be underestimated when accounting for the stability of U.S. rule in Puerto Rico.

The psychological need for self-esteem is another factor to be considered. In the case of Puerto Ricans, feeling good about ourselves, creating a rewarding sense of collective identity, has been shaped in such ways that it has dispensed with separate, political nationhood. The contrary may be true, that such need is somewhat tied, at least to a certain degree, to the domination of the powerful metropolis. The role of Puerto Ricans’ participation in the American military and, more generally, their perception as participants—however modest—in the global prestige and domination of the United States, is not to be underestimated. (More recent developments may undermine that and other factors of the consent-to-colonialism equation).

All that seems to be concomitant with a preference among Puerto Ricans for keeping the significant powers in the hands of a seemingly distant ruler. The adulation of charismatic local leaders has never yielded a shift toward handing ample political powers to the Puerto Rican elites. Not trusting them with governing and economic power may account in no small part for the skepticism toward the convenience of political sovereignty. It may be another sign of a self-loathing that runs deep in Puerto Rico, and other colonial and post-colonial societies, which display attitudes and behaviors analogous to those of individuals with deep insecurities. It may also be related to ancient class resentments dating back to the 19th century. The work of historian Fernando Picó provides clues to the nature and origins of those resentments.

Moreover, the ambivalent political positioning of “commonwealth status” is not new. The 19th century saw the emergence of a local political elite whose main influence came from the “autonomist” sector, the historical and political ancestry of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP), founded by Luis Muñoz Marín in 1938. Like the PDP, the old Puerto Rican Autonomist Party under Spain strived for some degree of local rule, while keeping ties with the metropolis. As César Ayala and Rafael Bernabe stated, “the autonomist current … has for over a century sought to install itself within that both subordinate and distinct politico-cultural space.”


In Lukes’ theoretical framework, power as domination creates in the subordinate group the perception that its interests are advanced. Rivera Ramos emphasizes that the subordinated often perceive that the dominant group “has the requisite knowledge, resources, and experience to manage the general affairs of society. The group’s hegemonic position is possible to the extent that the ‘common sense’ prevailing in the general population can be shaped by the group’s worldview.” He adds that hegemony “depends on the dominant group’s capacity for intellectual, political, and moral leadership, as well as on its willingness to incorporate the demands of other groups and satisfy them, at least partially.”

In the case of Puerto Rico, it may be that the dominant United States found itself in an auspicious situation, as the low expectations of Puerto Ricans had already been shaped by historical and material conditions, and by their psychological reactions and rationalizations to their sociopolitical status. In that scenario, the “strategies” needed to elicit or maintain consent could aim at creating a perception that the interests of the subordinate colonials were being advanced, without changing the social structures that reproduce the existing social and political hierarchies or the domination of the metropolitan nation state over a nation deprived of sovereignty. My point is that dominant groups may benefit from an existing social order that is hundreds of years in the making, and that is stable enough to require only minor adjustments.

The stability of a social and political order is culturally transmitted and reproduced in myriad ways, mainly through the ideas and assumptions that become part of the “common sense” of the concerned society. Humans tend to be content with the worldview that they acquire and internalize in their socializing process, and reproduce it from different vantage points and occupational statuses. That tendency to conformity, to resist whatever urges toward contrarianism they may experience, is often rooted in a perception that their social viability and material well-being are advanced by playing “by the rules.” The social pressures to conform are strong, particularly because the social rewards arising from acquiescence seem, and often are, real indeed. As a force sustaining colonial domination, how all that unfolded in Puerto Rico has not been sufficiently addressed, or understood.


Featured image: Governor’s palace party in Puerto Rico, circa 1900

Roberto Ariel Fernández is the author of six law journal articles about constitutional issues, including the Puerto Rican colonial history. His 2004 book, 'El constitucionalismo y la encerrona colonial de Puerto Rico,' can be found at the libraries of Princeton and Yale.

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