Category: History

by Amy Thornbury


Estadistas Challenge the PPD:
Commonwealth in the 1950s

The Department of State believes it to be
of the greatest importance that the Puerto Rican
people be authorized to frame their own constitution
. . . in order that formal consent of the Puerto Ricans
may be given to their present relationship to the
United States. . . .[This authorization] would have a
great value as a symbol of the basic freedom enjoyed
by Puerto Rico, within the larger framework of the
United States.
--U. S. Assistant Secretary of State Jack K. McFall, 1952

On November 1, 1950, President Harry S. Truman awakened to the sound of gunshots outside as he napped in Blair House in Washington, D. C. Within minutes, he learned that two Puerto Rican Nationalists, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, had attempted to assassinate him. Once again, Nationalists had "opened the ears" of the U. S. with gunfire. In 1954, awareness was raised again when Nationalist gunmen stormed the U. S. Congress, wounding five congressmen. Such Nationalist unrest was prevalent during the early 1950s, and it was met with a conservative reaction by the U. S., a reaction which hindered the chances for Puerto Rican statehood.
Awareness of Puerto Rico and its condition increased on the mainland during the 1950s for a number of reasons. In addition to the Nationalist violence, Puerto Ricans made their presence known physically, as they migrated to the U. S. in unprecedented numbers in the postwar era. With new, low air fares between San Juan and New York, some 60,000 Puerto Ricans moved stateside each year during the 1950s, reaching a total of one-third of Puerto Rico's population by the end of the decade. Thus, Americans became familiar with Puerto Rico first-hand, not by visiting the island (although tourism on the island was rising), but by their acquaintance with Puerto Rican migrants. These migrants were, for the most part, from the lower echelon of Puerto Rican society, who moved to the "land of opportunity" in search of jobs which the island could not provide. Finally, the increase of U. S. investment in Puerto Rico brought increased awareness of the island in the mainland, as an average of one factory per day was established in Puerto Rico during the peak years of Operation Bootstrap in the 1950s and '60s.
Estadistas were unable to capitalize on this increased awareness of the island for the promotion of statehood, for the most part due to the divisions which plagued their cause. The heart of their disagreements was over the establishment of Puerto Rico's current form of government, the Commonwealth. This status, established by the islanders in 1952 by Public Law 600, granted Puerto Rico control over most of its internal affairs while leaving the fundamental U. S.-Puerto Rico relationship exactly the same. Two very different "sales pitches" were involved prior to the referendum on Public Law 600. Muñoz promoted the establishment of Commonwealth status to Puerto Ricans on the basis that the new status would provide the island with a significant increase in insular autonomy, arguing that Commonwealth represented 'a new alternative, equal in dignity, although different in nature, to independence or federated statehood.' Symbolic of this new dignity was that the Puerto Rican flag would for the first time fly at equal height as the U. S. flag in public places. On the other hand, he told the U. S. Congress that the act would change nothing fundamental in the U. S.-Puerto Rico relationship. Some members of Congress went so far as to believe that the U. S. still had the right to annul Puerto Rican laws. At least one congressman, Vito Marcantonio (AL-New York), objected to the bill proposing Commonwealth (S. 3336) on the grounds that, while it would temporarily placate the political restlessness Puerto Rico, it was merely a disguise for colonial suppression. Other representatives argued that statehood should also be included in the referendum on Commonwealth. Despite these objections, the bill moved swiftly through both houses of Congress, with unanimous support except for Marcantonio.
Thus, Puerto Ricans were permitted to vote on Public Law 600 in a referendum held on June 4, 1951, to decide whether Puerto Rico should remain in its current status, or adopt Commonwealth status. It was passed by a large margin (387,000 favored it; 119,000 disapproved it), although voter turnout was lower than usual because the independentistas urged Puerto Ricans to abstain from the polls, calling the referendum an illegitimate choice between two unacceptable colonial situations.
After the referendum's passage, a Constitutional Convention was held to draft Puerto Rico's Constitution as a Commonwealth. The authors used the U. S. and various state Constitutions as models for the island's document. Fourteen delegates from the minority statehood parties (the Partido Estadista and the Socialist Party) were sent to the Convention with one goal in mind: to establish a definite and permanent link between the U. S. and Puerto Rico in the island's Constitution. Ferré was among the most instrumental of theEstadista's delegates. As he recalls, "I participated strongly in the writing of the Constitution. In it, I forced the party to accept the elimination of the word 'association' in place of the word 'union' in the preamble. . . . This has been very important; now this is one of the main issues." The significance of this change is all in the nuance of the word union, which suggests permanent ties between Puerto Rico and the U. S.
Once drafted and passed in Puerto Rico's legislature, the Constitution was sent to the U. S. Congress for approval. The House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee which handled Puerto Rican affairs assured congressmen that, while Commonwealth would not make any fundamental changes in the relationship between the U. S. and Puerto Rico, at least it would show that the people of Puerto Rico had formally and firmly approved of this relationship. If that were true, congressmen should have asked why the status debate and efforts to change Puerto Rico's relationship with the U. S. had taken place at all. If this logic occurred to any of the Congressmen, they ignored it.
The difference in the interpretation of Commonwealth between the islanders and mainlanders went along without incident until Congress attempted to amend Puerto Rico's Constitution with the so-called Johnston Amendment, which required congressional approval of any future amendments. In a cable to Washington, Muñoz and the PPD expressed their outrage, stating that Puerto Ricans 'had no idea that they were consenting to any trace of colonialism' when they approved Public Law 600, and urged Congress to modifiy or abandon the Johnston Amendment. A conference committee on the Puerto Rico Constitution assembled in Congress to work out a compromise. The Johnston amendment was deleted and replaced with a clause giving Congress only limited review of amendments.
Once the U. S. House and Senate representatives approved Puerto Rico's proposed Constitution, President Truman signed it into law on July 3, 1952. Puerto Ricans ratified the revised Constitution several months later, with 420,000 in favor and 58,000 opposed. In all, the process to complete the change from outright colony to Commonwealth took just two-and-a-half months to pass through Congress. Hunter suggests that the swift passage of this legislation implies that the U. S. did not regard the change to be a significant one, or there would have been much more lengthy debate than there was. Nonetheless, in 1953, the U. S. presented its case to the United Nations that Puerto Rico should be removed from the list of non self-governing territories because there had been a fundamental change in the U. S.-Puerto Rico relationship. Evidence in the congressional debates shows that the U. S. intended for Commonwealth status to show the world that the U. S. was not an imperialist power, since they could now point to the islanders' democratic approval of their relationship with the U. S., which would remain essentially the same. Opponents of the U. S., such as Castro's Cuba, have pointed out that, no matter what was approved, the U. S. retains ultimate control over Puerto Rico since Congress had the right to revoke Puerto Rico's autonomy at any time.
Commonwealth status was also criticized by Puerto Rican independentistas who argued that the congressional hearings on Commonwealth, held in Washington, were geographically inaccessible to most Puerto Ricans and therefore unfair. Estadistas added that the PPD's campaign platform had advocated any status alternative; hence their electoral support could not be interpreted as support for Commonwealth status over any other status.
The debate over Puerto Rico's status continues today because the door to the debate was never closed. The U. S. Congress reported that the Commonwealth bill was not a definitive proclamation of status for Puerto Rico, stating that Commonwealth would not 'in any way preclude a future determination by Congress of Puerto Rico's ultimate status,' including statehood. The winds were still in the sails of the estadistas, but the sails were badly tattered from the storm which had raged over the passage of the Commonwealth act.
For instance, in 1950, the Partido Estadista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Statehood Party), formerly called the Unión Republicanos, split over what its official stance would be on Public Law 600. Party president Iriarte supported Commonwealth, while García Mendez and Ferré, leaders in the party, opposed it. After considerable debate, the party voted (156 in favor to 97 opposed) in early 1951 that it would allow each of its members to decide individually whether to support Public Law 600 or not. In 1952, during the General Assembly of the Estadistas, the unpopular Iriarte was booed off the speaking platform as he attempted to defend the Commonwealth's Constitution for its ability to bring self-government to Puerto Rico. He and his followers walked out of the Assembly. García Méndez and Ferré, who happen to be brothers-in-law, swiftly assumed, respectively, the presidency and vice-presidency of the party. Their strong commitment to statehood made them more popular than Iriarte. In the following year, the party changed its name for a final time to the Partido Estadista Republicano (Statehood Republican Party, or PER). Meanwhile, the Socialist Party failed to gain sufficient representation at the polls to qualify as a minority party. The party was formally dissolved in August, 1954.
The statehood effort hit its nadir in the elections of 1952. Part of their campaign that year included the following jingle:
Puerto Ricans love the flag too
For we are Americans the same as you
But as we gaze at the forty-eight stars
None do we see that we can call ours
Why can't we share in the burdens of State
Give us a star on that rampart of blue
Full rights as Americans in all things we do.
Give us a voice in deciding our fate
Let us share equal in the burdens of state.
Keep us not helpless with no vote of acclaim
Make us Americans not only in name.
The jingle was intended to summon support for the pro-statehood parties, but it had little effect on the voters, 65% of whom voted for the PPD, while only 13% voted for the Partido Estadista Puertorriqueño. Even the PIP fared better, gaining 19% of the vote, its highest percentage ever.
Throughout the early 1950s, Ferré was aware that the statehood effort needed a facelift to boost support for the cause. As early as 1951, he stated that the statehood movement needed
. . . to give new spirit and enthusiasm to the party, to respond to the insistent clamor
of our coreligionists [i. e. Catholics] and institute a new norm of political action,
one that will take us away from the old norms of political caudillism and open new
paths within the political party system of Puerto Rico. [We will have] a party led,
not by politicians, but by ordinary citizens.
But Ferré was no "ordinary citizen" in Puerto Rico: he was one of the island's wealthiest men, owning an industrial enterprise that stretched from Venezuela to Miami. He was also one of the best educated, holding degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering from MIT. Nonetheless, Ferré overcame whatever objections there might have been to his elite background and enjoyed tremendous popularity among the estadistas, leading the party ever from the mid-1960s on. He ran unsucessfully for governor in 1956, 1960, 1964, and finally won that post in 1968.
The 1956 platform for the PER was referred to as "Ferré's Program," entailing much of what he had promoted in his "Plea for Puerto Rico" in 1949. The platform held that statehood would bring 'true freedom for Puerto Ricans -- freedom that will redeem Puerto Ricans from misery, and make us participants in all the wealth, all the power, all the grandeur of the United States.' Although the PER suffered a substantial defeat at the hands of the PPD once again in the 1956 elections, this time the estadistas more than doubled their1952 total. The PPD won 62% of the total vote, indicating its strong hold on Puerto Rico; nonetheless, many political analysts point to 1956 as the first time since 1944 that the PPD was seriously challenged.
The recovery of the statehood effort would be long and slow. It was hurt not only by the majority's contentment with Commonwealth status, but also by the minority's discontentment with it. That minority included the independentista segment, which became so violent that President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered Puerto Rico independence in late 1953. The Puerto Rico legislature voted on the issue and turned it down in January, 1954. Possibly as a reaction to this, four armed Puerto Rican Nationalists stormed into the U. S. House galleries while 243 Representatives voted on a measure unrelated to Puerto Rico. Before they could be stopped, the gunmen wounded five congressmen. Thirteen Puerto Ricans were found guilty of conspiracy in the trial which investigated the matter. The incident served to greatly lessen the appeal of Puerto Rico's admission as a state to mainlanders.
But the estadistas persisted, creating an "all-out drive for statehood" by 1959. However, their drive was apparently not strong enough to get the attention of President Eisenhower, who told reporters in Miami during a news conference on foreign and domestic matters that ". . . this is the first time I have heard that they are making a drive for statehood, . . ." Eisenhower may have been unaware of the island's earlier attempts to gain admission to the Union as a state, which did not help their efforts in the fifties. But the admission of Hawaii and Alaska in 1959, the first noncontiguous states in the nation, did.
* * *
Hawaii and Alaska's Admission, 1959
A brief survey of the process of Hawaii and Alaska's admission to the Union is enlightening for the study of Puerto Rico's statehood effort. There are not many direct similarities between Puerto Rico and either one of these states, but Hawaii provides a good comparison with Puerto Rico's statehood movement, as it is a tropical island that experienced the same type of congressional indifference and ambivalence towards its status for many years prior to its admission. Historian Roger Bell discusses the irony of the imperialistic attitude of the U. S. towards Hawaii in words which apply almost equally to Puerto Rico:
That Hawaii had been denied equality and autonomy as a state until after much of
Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa had been decolonized was also generally
overlooked [by politicians]. For a nation long preoccupied with its unique role as
an anti-imperialist champion of democracy at home and abroad, the delay over Hawaii's
[future] should have occasioned considerable uneasiness and embarrassment.
Hawaii had expressed a strong majority (two-thirds of the electorate) desire for admission to the Union since 1940. Fourteen plebiscites on statehood, the last of which received 95% of the voters' approval, were held in Hawaii before Congress was convinced that there was enough support there for statehood. Alaska experienced a similarly long road to admission: just 58.5% of the electorate favored statehood in a plebiscite held in 1946, representing the lowest approval rate in the history of any territory's admission. By 1955, that figure increased to 61.1%, with 38.8.% opposed. The final Admission Act of 1958 was approved by 83.5% of the voters.
Hawaii's delays deserve further attention because there are parallels with Puerto Rico's experience. After the 1940 plebiscite, Congress took no action until 1947, in part due to preoccupation with World War II. Then the House of Representatives drafted and passed statehood enabling acts for Hawaii, but the Senate delayed voting on the measure indefinitely. The greatest obstacle which precipitated the delays, it seems, was the large proportion of Japanese (29% in 1938) living in Hawaii after World War II. Tired of waiting for Congress to decide Hawaii's fate, the islanders drafted their own constitution and asked to be admitted as a state in 1950. Still, the political and cultural obstacles to its admission, as well as the preoccupation with the Korean War, prevented Congress from attending to the islanders' aspirations until after Alaska became a state in 1959. When Congress established the conditions under which Hawaii would be admitted to the Union and presented them to the Hawaiian electorate for approval in a referendum on June 27, 1959, the support for statehood was overwhelming. With 99% voter participation, those in favor of admission outnumbered the dissenters 17 to 1. The lesson for Puerto Rico was that overwhelming support, concrete legislative action, and patience are required in the admission of territories which present cultural or economic obstacles.
There are significant differences between Puerto Rico and either Hawaii or Alaska, however. Advocates of statehood for Hawaii were careful to play down the cultural differences between local Hawaiian culture and the mainland culture. According to Bell, they were "ever anxious to stress the uniformity of Americanization" on the island. In Puerto Rico, however, the cultural differences are so deep and so widespread that even estadistas realize that Puerto Rican statehood would require the mainland's acceptance of the Spanish language and Latin culture. Another difference is that Hawaii and Alaska were both incorporated territories, while Puerto Rico is technically a step removed, being an unincorporated territory. Also, when Hawaii was admitted, it had attained a per capita income of $2,274, up from $1,328 in 1945. Puerto Rico enjoyed similar growth during this period, but its per capita income in 1959 was under $600. A last major difference is that Hawaii and Alaska were sparsely populated, ethnically diverse territories at the time of their admission, while Puerto Rico has always been a densely populated, homogenous island with roughly 95% of the population being native born.
Despite the differences, the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union generated increased political unrest over Puerto Rico's status. Estadistas were "jubilant" over the admission of noncontiguous territories to the Union, especially because of the increase in their ranks shown in the 1956 elections. The PPD requested reform of Public Law 600 to clarify any misunderstandings about the degree of Puerto Rico's autonomy, and both independence and statehood bills were introduced to Congress but died in Committee. Ferré cited the visible increase in the number of bumper stickers proclaiming "Estado 51 " (51st State) in his hometown, Ponce, as evidence that statehood sentiment was on the rise. Statehood party member and former Resident Commissioner Luis Córdova Díaz stated in the late 1960s that 'the admission of Hawaii was a shot in the arm that changed our statehood dream into a reality.'
Support for Puerto Rican statehood was also increasing in the U. S. Congress. The House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs decided to hold extensive public hearings in Puerto Rico in response to the agitation for change in the island's status. During these hearings, held in San Juan in December, 1959, the economic implications of statehood and Commonwealth were central features of the debate. Opponents of statehood (mostly populares ) claimed that the revisions in fiscal arrangements presented by statehood would cost the island $188 million. This figure should be compared to the total revenue for the Commonwealth during fiscal year 1958 of $203 million. According to the New York Times, statehood supporters refuted these claims with "impressive statistics and studies" of their own, showing that statehood would not mean economic ruin for the island. While the congressmen were on the island, estadistas decided to demonstrate their desires by staging a motorcade of, reportedly, 50,000 statehood advocates in front of the hotels where the members of the Committee were staying. Evidently they were uninformed of the agenda of the congressmen, however, who were out of their hotels visiting Dorado Beach at the time and completely missed the demonstration.
Support for statehood among mainland Puerto Ricans was also on the increase. Unlike the experience in the 1930s, a 1959 survey of New York Puerto Ricans showed an "overwhelming" support for statehood. Perhaps the change in their attitude was due to the financial success they were enjoying amidst the prosperity on the mainland during this period, a privilege to which they were entitled because they could migrate freely to the U. S. They would be inclined to favor statehood since it would provide the only permanent security for this privilege.
Thus, Puerto Rico's plight gained increased attention on the mainland during the 1950s, mostly because of the admission of Alaska and Hawaii and the realization that the U. S. could officially expand beyond its contiguous borders. In addition, the technological advances in travel and the media were helping to bring Puerto Rico and its inhabitants closer to the mainland, fostering assimilation. Within the statehood movement itself, a new, younger, more aggressive spirit was emerging which foreshadowed the events of the 1960s in Puerto Rico.

Cited in STACOM, Background Studies, p. 116.

See García-Passalacqua for a complete discussion, p. viii. Torresola was killed by Truman's security agents; Collazo was arrested.

Carr, p. 209.

Ibid., p. 205.

Ibid., p. 121.

STACOM, Background Studies, p. 117.

See ibid., pp. 118-19, for a discussion of the referendum. While it is impossible to tell the number of voters who followed their advice, it is plausible that if dissenters had expressed their opposition at the polls, the margin by which the referendum passed would have been much narrower. Only 506,000 Puerto Ricans voted out of the 800,000 eligible. Similarly, only 478,000 voted in the ratification of the Commonwealth's Constitution.

Interview with Ferré, December 7, 1987.

Hunter makes this valid point in STACOM, Background Studies, p. 120.

Ibid., pp. 123-24.

See ibid., p. 117.

Ibid., pp. 124-25. See also Carr, p. 343, for an excellent discussion of the General Assembly Resolution 748(VII), in which Congress defined Puerto Rico's new relationship with the U. S. as an 'autonomous political entity.' The resolution, Carr writes, was passed on "a mountain of misinformation".

The report of the House Committee on Public Lands is cited in STACOM, Background Studies, p. 117.

See Anderson for an account, pp. 83-89.

Carr, p. 140.

Cited in Anderson, p. 86.

Cited in ibid., p. 90-91.

See ibid., p. 42, as well as Appendix B.

NYT, May 14, 1959, 22: 5.

Bell, p. 278.

Perusse, p. 113, note #60.

For further details, see Bell, pp. 73, and 276-85, and Heine, pp. 250-51.

Bell, p. 102.

Steiner reports Puerto Rico's 1960 per capita income at $577. None of these figures (for Hawaii or Puerto Rico) are adjusted for inflation.

STACOM, Background Studies, pp. 126-27, and Carr, p. 147. On the other hand, A. H. Raskin, a reporter for the New York Times, stated in March, 1959, that Alaska's admission and Hawaii's pending admission "have brought no discernible upsurge of [statehood] interest" on the island. By October, he ate his words when he wrote that statehood sentiment on the island was "booming." (See NYT , March 1, 1959, 53:1, and October 22, 1959, 18:1).

For example, a statehood bill, H. R. 7003, was introduced on May 7, 1959 by Victor Anfuso (D - New York) of the U. S. House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. The provisions of the bill centered around the authorization of a referendum to decide whether a majority of Puerto Rican voters favored statehood in a simple "yes or no" format. The bill also provided a $1,000,000 grant from the federal government to defray the election expenses, which must have been exceedingly unpopular, for no mention of H. R. 7003 appears in any subsequent congressional document. See Digest of Public General Bills and Selected Resolutions, 86th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1959).

Cited in Steiner, p. 156.

STACOM, Background Studies, pp. 127-28.

NYT, December 7, 1959, 18: 3.

See Carr, pp. 147-48.

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