The Puerto Rican Nation: A Colonial Saga

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In two previous articles, I provided some context to the political crisis currently in flux in Puerto Rico. I argued that the perfidy of the administration of now former Governor Ricardo Rosselló was rooted in decades of corruption and destructive policies, and that the administration of his own father was a turning point in such decadence. Now that Puerto Rico has the attention of the world, or so it seems, it may be a good time to provide additional context, in the form of a synthesis of the political subordination that generations of Puerto Ricans have suffered, and endured.

Spanish Rule and the Emergence of a Distinct People

Puerto Rico is an Island in the Caribbean, surrounded by several islets, thus conforming a mini-archipelago. It is the Easternmost and smaller of the Great Antilles, comprised also of Cuba, La Hispaniola (currently the land of two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Jamaica. Christopher Columbus embarked on the Island in 1493, christening it San Juan Bautista. Spanish soldiers and settlers almost annihilated the native Taínos, who called their home Borikén.

Described by Spanish chronicles as hospitable and generous, most Taínos succumbed to European guns, germs, and steel, while many survivals fled to the mountainous interior. Mitochondrial DNA studies show that they live on. Taíno words do survive in the names of objects, plants, towns, and barrios.

Until the late 18th century, Puerto Rico was acutely underpopulated. A series of monarchical decrees offered incentives to Europeans, who began to migrate to the Island. Other arrivals included those fleeing from South America in the early 19th century, when Spanish rule collapsed as a consequence of the independence wars. The migrations and reforms bolstered economic activity, but also resulted in the exploitation of laborers and small property owners, creating deep resentments.

By the middle of the 19th century, Puerto Rican society began to yield a small but boisterous professional and propertied elite, many educated in Europe, some in the United States. That sector organized and led the first political parties, despite a repressive colonial apparatus commanded by the military governors of the era, appointees of the Spanish monarch. Some among that elite led the first insurrection against Spain in 1868, declaring the Republic of Puerto Rico before their swift defeat. The repression was then turned not only against the “separatists,” but also against those who advocated for reforms, in the form of more self-government or “autonomy,” but no separation from Spain. Those two political factions –independentistas and autonomistas– also advocated for the abolition of slavery, which became a fait accompli in 1873. A third faction, the conservadores, preferred the permanence of the colonial, repressive, undemocratic status quo, with the Spanish Monarchy as its unifying element.

The 19th century also displayed an explosion of Puerto Rican artists, including writers, painters, musicians and composers. Puerto Rican literature was born, spawning the creation of novels, plays, poetry and essays. Puerto Rican music also exploded, displaying its richness, vibrancy and clear African roots. The music of the mountainous interior blossomed, with its use of guitar-like instruments and remnants of Taíno percussion, and influenced both by Spanish and African elements. The Island’s music displays since then a complex polyrhythmic cadence of clear African roots, present in the multiple Bomba rhythmic variations or toques, in the effervescent Plena, in the jíbaro music of the interior, and in the seemingly aristocratic, urban Danza.

Puerto Rico, USA

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, and U.S. soldiers stormed the Island, Puerto Rico had 1 million inhabitants. Nonetheless, underdevelopment was apparent in every area. Puerto Rico had no universities, virtually no public schools, enormous levels of illiteracy, and scant infrastructure. By August, an armistice specified that Spain would cede Puerto Rico to the fledgling American Empire.

The Treaty of Paris, signed that December, established that “the civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States shall be determined by the Congress.” Since then, the American judicial power has held that the Treaty gave Congress “plenary power” over Puerto Rico, which it also exercises under the authority provided by the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution, which states in its pertinent part: “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” 

In 1901, the United States Supreme Court held that “owning” overseas colonies and denying political rights to their inhabitants –depriving them from being governed with their consent– do not offend the Constitution. Puerto Rico, held the Court, “belongs to, but is not part of, the United States.” It is an “unincorporated territory” to be governed and, if need be, disposed of by Congress, which exercises exclusive power over the Island and its inhabitants. Those “principles” are part and parcel of American constitutional law to this day.

Moreover, added the Court in openly racist language, Puerto Ricans are members of an “alien race,” which makes them unfit for self-government, and also unfit for participating in the American political process. Those notions have stayed firm to this day, even though, in 1917, Congress declared that the people of Puerto Rico are “citizens of the United States.” Hence, still deprived of political rights, that statutory citizenship is deemed as “second-class.” Moreover, migrating to the United States allows exercising a right to vote, but it hardly means substantial equality. In the USA, Puerto Ricans have always partaken of “the others,” another group of societal outsiders, with their essential worth obscured in the eyes of ordinary Americans and policymakers by a cloud of prejudice, ignorance, bewilderment, condescension, and contempt. 

Colonial Stasis

The Puerto Rico-U.S. “relationship” has changed only in some details. Its colonial nature remains unscathed. In 1900, Congress unilaterally established a governmental structure with a strong executive, headed by a governor appointed by the President. Known as the Foraker Act, that legislation was far more illiberal than Spain’s Autonomic Charter of 1897, which gave Puerto Rico wider self-government powers than those it currently enjoys. The Foraker Act established that all federal laws not locally inapplicable would be enforced in Puerto Rico, a provision that survives to this day in the Federal Relations Act of 1950, itself the reenactment of several provisions included in the Jones Act of 1917.

The Jones Act, which superseded the Foraker Act, unilaterally declared Puerto Ricans American citizens –they had been American “nationals” from 1900 to 1917. That declaration was meant, policymakers of the era made clear, to tighten the grip over Puerto Rico. The gambit has worked, as it has made easier the military recruitment of Puerto Ricans; has made most of them feel part of a nation that has been globally calling the shots for most of the past one hundred years; and has given additional credence to the aspiration of becoming a “State of the Union.” 

By 1930, Puerto Ricans were poorer and more exploited than under Spanish rule. The post-war colonial reforms –modest and mostly cosmetic as they were–and a new wave of American capitalist investment, this time mostly industrial instead of agricultural, are explained by the post-war boom, the Cold War, and the pressures of the anti-colonial movement, legitimized by the U.N. Charter.

The pro-statehood Puerto Rican elite –and many American politicians– currently refer to Puerto Ricans as “American citizens living in Puerto Rico,” another way of ignoring the cultural vibrancy and separate identity of the members of a nation without a national state. Those citizens, elaborates the discourse of pro-statehood politicians, have a “civil right” to the equality that only statehood provides. But equality is a shallow slogan, as those who trumpet it evade the reality that millions of human beings, alive and dead, have struggled to this day to enjoy equality, that of the substantial, meaningful strain. The “right to vote” has never been enough for Women, African Americans, Asians, so-called Hispanics and Latinos, Gays and Lesbians, the dispossessed and abused, the most vulnerable, and on and on. Indeed, Puerto Ricans who have migrated to the United States have historically suffered inequality, mainly in the form of ignorance, prejudice, outright racism, contempt, and invisibility. Trumpism is making matters even worse.

The colonial dead end is due in no small part to the existence in Puerto Rico of two political factions which, despite insisting on chimeras, have monopolized power and public discourse since 1900. The statehood and commonwealth factions still fail to take into account 120 years of consistent U.S. policy of perpetual colonial subordination, with no interest in making Puerto Rico a State or in allowing the exercise of more governing powers than those enjoyed by the 50 States. That policy, it goes without saying, is rooted in the same racism articulated by the Supreme Court in 1901. As the mentality goes, Puerto Ricans are fit neither for self-government, nor for the merely formal equality of statehood.

Meanwhile, the last 50 years have seen the two factions alternating control of the government of Puerto Rico, while displaying greed and corruption, disdain for their fellow Puerto Ricans, and mismanagement. The unarticulated goal has been to get rich and enrich their fellow travelers, including many Americans and American businesses. The latest incarnation of the pillage has been the financial vultures, courtesy of Wall Street. For those Puerto Ricans who want profound changes, the challenges ahead are formidable.


Featured image: Trish Hartmann/Flickr

Roberto Ariel Fernández holds a Master in Laws Degree from The George Washington University Law School. He 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, is available at the libraries of Princeton and Yale University.

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