Category: History

by Amy Thornbury


As before, the authority of the United States over
Puerto Rico does not emanate from the consent of our
[Puerto Rico's] people, nor our participation in the
decisions of the federal government, but rather from
the Treaty of Paris of 1898 and the territorial clause
of the U. S. Constitution, which gives full power for
the Congress to decide the future of Puerto Rico as it
deems necessary.
--from the 1984 Partido Nuevo Progresista campaign platform

"Puerto Rico" literally means "rich port", so named for the initial success in gold extraction which the Spanish conquistadores enjoyed as early as 1511. Unfortunately, the name was overly optimistic, for the island is quite limited in natural resources. However, Puerto Rico has remained a rich port of one thing: political malaise. That should not be surprising, given the island's nearly 500 years as a colonial dependency, first under the Spanish crown, and for the past 90 years, under the United States. While quite a bit has been written on Puerto Rico's troubled relationship with the U. S., and on the agonizing choice between three possible status alternatives (independence, statehood, or something in between), this study is one of the very few in English to concentrate on the history of the effort to admit the island as a state.
Puerto Rico has been a U. S. possession since 1898 when it was ceded by Spain in the Treaty of Paris that concluded the brief Spanish American War. It is a lush, tropical island, 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, located in the heart of the Caribbean about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Florida. Since 1917, Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the U. S. and are represented by one non-voting member in the U. S. House of Representatives. They do not pay federal income taxes, nor do they vote for the U. S. President. In 1952, the island's official relationship with the U. S. was changed from territory to Commonwealth, known in Spanish as Estado Libre Asociado (Free Associated State). Three predominant traits unite the islanders: a strong Hispanic heritage; a belief in Catholicism; and political discontent over the island's status vis à vis the U. S. The last trait is arguably the strongest element, as evidenced by the fact that political parties in Puerto Rico are not determined along the usual conservative-liberal spectrum, but rather along a status spectrum which ranges from immediate statehood to immediate independence. Their preoccupation with status has traditionally been manifested in their tripartite political system composed of a party favoring statehood, a party advocating independence, and a party offering more of a middle-of-the-road solution.
Puerto Rico's relationship with the U. S. sheds a great deal of light on U. S.-Latin American relations. When Puerto Rico changed hands from Spain to the U. S., the U. S. was delighted yet baffled because it lacked imperialist experience. In fact, prior to the 1890s, the U. S. had no formulated foreign policy: decisions in foreign affairs tended to be made on an individual basis rather than according to any general policies. But as the last remaining colonies were snatched up by Great Britain, France, and Germany before the turn of the century, the U. S., which had just emerged on to the world scene, realized it had to act fast. In the 1890s, it added Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico (or, as the U. S. spelled it from 1899 to 1932, Porto Rico) to its modest empire. Puerto Rico was strategically attractive to the U. S. for a number of reasons. First, its proximity to Cuba was important during the life of the Platt Amendment (1902-1934) which gave the U. S. virtually the unilateral right to intervene in Cuba. In addition, the Panama Canal was under construction at that time, and having a base in Puerto Rico meant having control of approaches to the Canal from both the Atlantic and Caribbean. Evidence of Puerto Rico's military importance to the U. S. is the existence of the largest (by area) U. S. naval base, Roosevelt Roads, on the east coast of the island. In addition, the Navy owns eighty percent of Vieques Island, which lies less than ten miles off of Puerto Rico's eastern shores, and has been used as a major gunnery range for the U. S. military. Recently, Puerto Rico has become an intrinsic part of the Caribbean Basin Initiative which promotes U. S.-Caribbean relations. It is especially important for the U. S. to maintain good relations with the Caribbean because over half of the oil that the U. S. ships each year passes through that region, either originating there or in Alaska, where it is transported to the eastern U. S. via the Panama Canal. Besides oil transportation, the protection of other vital cargo and of the three-and-a-half million U. S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands must be considered.
But these reasons seem not to be vitally important to the U. S., for if Puerto Rico were truly indispensable to the U. S., many argue that it would instantly be admitted as a state. Instead, there seems to be a large measure of political goodwill involved. This sentiment can be summed up in the Good Neighbor Policy, originated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. His most relevant comments pertaining to Puerto Rico's role are the following, delivered before the governing board of the Pan American Union in April, 1933:
The essential qualities of a true Pan Americanism must be the same as those which
constitute a good neighbor, namely, mutual understanding, and through such understanding,
a sympathetic appreciation of the other's point of view. It is only in this manner that
we can hope to build up a system of which confidence, friendship and goodwill are
the cornerstones.
Such "mutual understanding" was hoped to be achieved through the meeting of the cultures of North America and Latin America in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, Puerto Rico could be established as a showcase for democracy and capitalism, which, indeed, it did become by the 1960s.
In the 1930s, a new feature was added to the Good Neighbor Policy: economic rehabilitation through trade agreements, loans, and grants, such as the Puerto Rican Reconstruction Agency which was established in 1934. These and other New Deal measures set an important precedent for future U. S.-Puerto Rico relations, as Uncle Sam became to many Puerto Ricans a benevolent father figure who was available for handouts. In 1987, the island received $6.5 billion in U. S. funds, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare) and foodstamps, among other programs. Even in 1988, the budget-conscious U. S. Congress appropriated $300 million more to Puerto Rico than the preceding year. Puerto Rico has always been treated with generosity, from which it has benefitted a great deal. This economic assistance suggests a form of Dollar Diplomacy, or the theory that pumping American dollars into an undeveloped country will give it economic stability and thereby political stability. As one adviser on Latin American Affairs for the U. S. has put it, Dollar Diplomacy 'substitute[s] dollars for bullets.' At a minimum, the aim is to maintain friendly relations in the Western hemisphere, and at a maximum, to secure U. S. political control therein. The roots of this type of thinking go back to the Monroe Doctrine (1823) in which the U. S. warned European nations not to interfere in the Western hemisphere. The doctrine was subsequently reinterpreted by Theodore Roosevelt to provide the basis for U. S. intervention in Latin America. Unlike much of the U. S. policy towards Latin America, however, the U. S. influence over Puerto Rico cannot be viewed so much as interventionism as it is the establishment of a kind of economic dependency.
Thus, the U. S. sentiment towards Puerto Rico's status is largely academic. In addition, indifference prevails where ignorance does not: few mainlanders know where Puerto Rico is located, let alone that Puerto Ricans are U. S. citizens who use dollars and 22-cent stamps. To Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, knowledge of the U. S. and their relationship with the mainland permeates their daily life, determining, for instance, the price they pay for gas and even the quality of the roads on which they drive. Central to the status issue among Puerto Ricans is the question of dignity and colonialism. For many years, Puerto Ricans have felt that they have been slighted or ignored by the U. S. For example, when Puerto Ricans have objected to the U. S. Navy's use of Vieques for environmental or safety reasons, their complaints have been brushed aside. The Navy freely admitted in the 1980s that it can disregard local sentiment, because the protests will have "no direct repercussions in Congress." Other evidence shows that U. S. citizenship lacks the same degree of dignity in Puerto Rico that it holds stateside, creating a second-class citizenship based entirely on geographical location. But the process to attain that dignity threatens the economic security of the island, which presents an uncomfortable choice between bread and dignity.
Historically, the U. S. has been unwilling to admit that Puerto Rico is a colony, preferring to use euphemisms such as "unincorporated territory" or "Commonwealth." In the eyes of the U. S. government, Puerto Ricans freely chose Commonwealth status in 1952, which made their island self-governing and no longer a colonial territory. Many anti-imperialists, however, offer the following argument: the U. S. Declaration of Independence states that legitimate government must have the consent of the governed. While the U. S. may argue that Puerto Ricans consented to their current form of government in 1952, the fact remains that the U. S. Congress retains ultimate authority over Puerto Rico's future and controls major policy decisions without allowing the people of Puerto Rico any voting participation in Congress. It is on these grounds that estadistas (statehooders) have most frequently promoted admission of the island to the Union, since Puerto Rico would gain direct participation in the federal government and achieve the representation and dignity it has been denied. In response, opponents of statehood have most frequently countered that statehood would desimate Puerto Rico's unique, Hispanic culture and impose onerous burdens of federal taxation that would hurt the island economically. Chapters Three and Four will fill in the arguments for and against statehood, following a synopsis of Puerto Rico's political and economic characteristics presented in Chapters One and Two.
The remainder of this thesis will examine more closely the statehood effort decade by decade. Chapter Five places the issue of Puerto Rico's status in the context of U. S. foreign policy at the turn of the century, covering the debate over the crucial first steps in the U. S. path to imperialism. Chapter Six examines the extension of U. S. citizenship to the island and its impact on the statehood movement between 1910 and 1929, while Chapter Seven describes Puerto Rico's efforts toward attaining statehood in the 1930s. The explanation for the demise of the statehood effort between 1940 and 1950 is treated in Chapter Eight, and Chapter Nine discusses the start of statehood's comeback in the fifties which was consumated with the election of a pro-statehood governor in 1968, as taken up in Chapter Ten. Chapter Eleven foreshadows the stalemate of the 1980s by discussing the restlessness on the island in the 1970s. Chapters Twelve and Thirteen deal with the status stalemate between Puerto Rico and the U. S. in the 1980s and offer some suggestions for a solution. The appendices contain information on Puerto Rico's political parties and various election results.
Despite a common consensus that Puerto Rico's status cannot remain as it is, a perennial stalemate has arisen out of a lack of agreement on what form its new status should take: independence, statehood, or Commonwealth with increased autonomy. The island's present status is unpopular because the Puerto Ricans are becoming increasingly aware of their inability to affect any fundamental decisions that are vital to Puerto Rico's well-being, such as immigration, economic quotas, or foreign relations, because of their lack of effective political voice in the U. S. Congress. On a larger scale, social movements over the past 25 years have contributed to the movement to free the island of its colonial shackles, including the civil rights movement and the increasing tolerance of ethnic, racial, and sexual plurality. At the same time, the stature of the U. S. as an invincible world power has declined with the rise of Third World nations, and debacles like Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran have raised fundamental questions about the legitimacy of U. S. government actions. All of these trends virtually demand that the U. S. abandon its present imperialist practices, but the means for decolonizing Puerto Rico could take any one of the three status forms. Until a conclusive majority favors one of these three, the stalemate will persist indefinitely -- that is, unless a new approach is used to settle the matter.
Throughout this thesis, the following questions are addressed: Does Puerto Rico want to be a state? Do the quadrennial elections represent status sentiment accurately? Why has nothing changed in the island's relationship with the U. S. since 1952, despite numerous efforts to do so? Can Puerto Rico accomplish any of its social, economic, or political goals without the voice gained through statehood? While no definitive conclusions can be reached on these points, this thesis seeks to add to the information on the topic of Puerto Rico's status, especially in this year of what promises to be watershed elections in Puerto Rico.
The status issue is complex and multi-faceted: the case for each status alternative has its good and bad points. As if it were not already complicated enough, there are many other arenas in which the issue could be explored: with respect to presidential primaries and Republican and Democratic National Conventions; in terms of the U. S. Congress or the United Nations; or as it is dealth with by civic and public interest groups, to name a few. "How much simpler it all was in 1898," wrote one observer, "when Spain simply handed the island over to the United States by signing a piece of paper."
While I have made every effort within the limitations of time and resources to obtain a comprehensive view of the situation, this study by no means exhausts or portrays all the issues adequately. Furthermore, it is impossible to focus on one side of the three-sided status coin, that is, statehood, without discussing the other two; hence, a substantial, but lesser, portion of this thesis will discuss the independence and Commonwealth movements. Finally, lacking opinion polls or other reliable statistics to gauge popular sentiment, the researcher's only tools in determining the sentiments ingrained in Puerto Rican politics are election results and editorials in the local newspapers. They are imperfect measures, since not every election was based solely on the question of status; nor does each party represent only a certain status preference. Furthermore, the recent trend of split-ticket voting obscures election results, since it indicates a decreasing level of party identification. At the risk of making overgeneralizations, I submit my views in the hope that this thesis will add to the scant knowledge on such a small island with such a large significance to the U. S.

As cited in Roland Perusse, The United States and Puerto Rico: Decolonization Options and Prospects (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1987), p. 74.

For an excellent discussion of this period, see Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), pp. 224-27.

See Frederico Gil, Latin American-United States Relations (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), pp. 69, 122.

See Jorge Heine and Juan M. García-Passalacqua, The Puerto Rican Question (New York: Foreign Policy Association Headline Series, 1984), p. 24. The U. S. military presence is a source of sore feelings among many Puerto Ricans, especially the training of Contras on the island in the 1980s to fight a war in Nicaragua against people to whom Puerto Ricans are related, if not by blood, by the Latin American spirit.

According to Diego E. Hernandez, Commander of the U. S. Naval Forces Caribbean, as cited in Perusse, pp. 24-25.

Jesús Mantilla and Marco Rigau stressed this point in personal interview, December 22, 1987. Various authors have reached the same conclusion.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1905-06, House Documents, I (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1906), p. 139.

Cited in Whitney T. Perkins, Constraint of Empire: The United States and Caribbean Interventions (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 24.

This distinction is made by Sakari Sariola,The Puerto Rican Dilemma (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1979), p. 1.

See Raymond Carr, Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), pp. 2-3.

See Grupo de Investigadores Puertorriqueños, Breakthrough from Colonialism: An Interdisciplinary Study of Statehood, v. II (Rio Piedras, P. R: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1984), pp. 1283-84, 1296. Although Puerto Ricans consented to Commonwealth, it has been shown that they mistakenly perceived the new relationship to be a fundamental change from the past, while the U. S. Congress did not.

Anne Nelson, Murder under Two Flags: the United States, Puerto Rico and the Cerro Maravilla Cover-Up
( New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1986), p. 128.
his sentiment can be summed up in the Good Neighbor

Previous Chapter


Next Chapter