U.S. and Puerto Rico
My Résumé
Web Links
U.S. and Puerto Rico
Contact Me

Candidate Presentation for California State University, Bakersfield


The United States-Puerto Rico Relationship


A chapter written for the Encyclopedia of Ethnic Conflict by Lynn-Darrell Bender


   The Spanish-American War of 1898 marked a transition for Puerto Rico from four hundred years of Spanish rule to life under U.S. sovereignty. In the ensuing century, this encounter has bonded two cultural traditions and historical experiences into what has become a fluid, dynamic and highly controversial relationship. At its core is the persistently unresolved issue of the island's political status with the United States, culminating neither in complete separation nor assimilation.

   Puerto Ricans themselves are almost hopelessly divided on what should be the ultimate political destiny of their people. Americans, in official circles and as individuals, are mostly just perplexed, thus more inclined to passivity and non-commitment. Ethnic conflict? Perhaps so, but this takes on an entirely new dimension in the United States-Puerto Rico context. Puertorriqueños, no matter how Americanized they may have become, genuinely feel and consider themselves to be different from americanos; yet such sociological resistance to cultural absorption rarely manifests itself in overt anti-Americanism. This curious juxtaposition of values and circumstances continues to fascinate scholars and laymen alike. What follows is yet another examination and analysis of this conundrum.


   Largely unknown is the fact that an economic relationship of considerable significance had developed between Puerto Rico and the U.S. prior to the Spanish-American War. Once Puerto Rico was officially allowed to engage in international trade (via the Real Cédula de Gracia) in 1815, the U.S. quickly displaced Spain as the island's major trading partner. It became Puerto Rico's leading customer for sugar and a major provider of imported goods for the island, especially foodstuffs and agricultural implements. American merchant ships came to outnumber those of other nations and many trading houses were established to facilitate the evolving trade pattern.

   The growing economic relations also produced a small yet highly influential American migration to Puerto Rico: American sugar planters who brought their capital and then slaves to the island, American ship captains and seamen, U.S. consular officers and staff, business opportunists, as well as simple adventurers. Many were transients but others stayed, thus initiating a cultural interchange on the personal level that continues to the present day. Americans in great numbers have taken up residence on the island since 1815. Thousands do today. Like so many elements of the United States-Puerto Rico relationship, this has hardly been a one-way road: many more Puerto Ricans, for sundry reasons, have sought new opportunities and lives in the United States. Rarely does this mean, however, that migrants forever abandon their respective homelands. The ease of modern transportation and communications greatly facilitates staying in touch.

   Puerto Rico came under U.S. sovereignty in the wake of the Spanish-American War, along with other former Spanish colonies ceded by Spain via the Treaty of Paris. Unhappy with life under Spanish colonial rule, most Puerto Ricans actually viewed the American arrival as a harbinger of freedom and prosperity. Indeed, the island's political elite, traditionally divided into opposing camps, temporarily united in seeking statehood for the island. They were as confused about American intentions as the Americans themselves. Unfamiliar and perhaps even uncomfortable with responsibility for an alien people, the U.S. Government vacillated: neither statehood nor independence. It opted, instead, for direct colonial rule. This was placed in the hands of military authorities until enactment of the Foraker Act (1900), which created a "temporary" civilian government headed by an American governor and his resident administrative staff. No civil rights were enumerated in the law and Puerto Ricans had only limited participation in their own local affairs. Moreover, subsequent U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of this legislation defined Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory of the United States, a possession subject to Congress under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution. This temporary political arrangement lasted until mid-century with few significant alterations. The most significant event of the period was the decision of Congress to confer U.S. citizenship on the citizens of Puerto Rico via the Jones Act of 1917.

   Economically and socially, how did the Americans find Puerto Rico in the early decades of the 20th century? Long neglected by the Spaniards (who for centuries regarded the island mainly as a strategic garrison), Puerto Rico lacked even the most basic conditions for economic development. There were no exploitable minerals, few roads and only 159 miles of railroad on the 3421 square mile island whose population was already approaching one million. Public education was limited to a few urban-based schools, and there was no university. Nearly 90 percent of its people were illiterate and lived practically on a subsistence level. The largely untrained and unskilled work force engaged in rudimentary agricultural pursuits for pay only a few months each year. The new U.S. authorities gave first priority to basic social needs: public works, health, sanitation, and education. A public school system became a reality, followed by the creation (in 1903) of an institution of higher learning whose initial purpose was to train people for the teaching profession. It became the University of Puerto Rico.
Simultaneously, the influx of U.S. capital was rapid and dramatic. Much of Puerto Rico's sugar, tobacco and needlework industries came under its domination, thus tightly linking the island's economy to American interests. Regardless, Puerto Rico remained what former Puerto Rican Governor Rexford G. Tugwell called a "stricken land."

   This dreary panorama began to change in the early 1940s with the victory of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) under the charismatic leadership of Luis Muñoz Marín and the arrival of Governor Tugwell. A one-time proponent of independence for Puerto Rico, Muñoz came to the realization that the welfare of his people should come first. By emphasizing that Puerto Ricans could decide their own future by creating an economy with social justice, he astutely struck the chord of Puerto Rican nationalism without attacking the U.S. government. Tugwell largely supported the implementation of Muñoz's state economic development program under the aegis of the Government Development Company (later known as Fomento) and the Government Development Bank. A key element was full tax exemption (income, property, excise and municipal) for new industries established on the island. The response was immediate and pronounced, mostly from U.S. industries. This initiative marked the beginning of Operation Bootstrap. In 1948, Muñoz and the PDP swept the elections with 61 percent of the popular vote, thus making him the island's first elected governor.

   Muñoz had concluded that Puerto Rico's separation from the United States would be an economic disaster. He chose a middle ground between outright assimilation and independence: an arrangement that would allow Puerto Rico maximum autonomy in close association with the United States. This concept became a reality between 1950-52 with the creation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Estado Libre Asociado) through a process that involved U.S. congressional legislation authorizing a constitutional convention and popular referenda in Puerto Rico. This legislation (Public Law 600 and the Federal Relations Act) still defines the legal relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. It also let the U.S. off the hook with the United Nations, which had required yearly reports on the well being of Puerto Rico as a non-self-governing territory. In 1953 the UN General Assembly decided (Resolution 748, VIII) that Commonwealth had produced self-government for the people of Puerto Rico.


   Status is the linchpin of Puerto Rican politics. Without it, the wheel that propels Puerto Rican politics would fall off. While under Spanish rule, Puerto Rico's body politic splintered around what relationship the island should have with the metropolitan power. A familiar tripartite division developed: yesterday's assimilationists, autonomists, and separatists have become today's statehooders, commonwealthers, and independentistas. The autonomists, who sought a large measure of self-government in political association with Spain, achieved a degree of success on the eve of the Spanish-American War. Fearful that the insurrection in Cuba would reverberate in neighboring Puerto Rico, the Spanish Government granted the island a Charter of Autonomy in 1897. But even these minimal new local powers were never put to a test, being cut off the by U.S. occupation only a few months later.

   Now, despite the 50-year experience with Commonwealth and an extremely large measure of material progress for the island residents, the status debate rages on. The statehood option (New Progressive Party-NPP) has gained considerable acceptance by about 45 percent of the electorate. The independence movement, slivered into various factions, is electorally represented by the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) that, although quite vocal and capable of mobilizing strong demonstrations in support of its causes, rarely garners more than 5 percent of the popular vote at election time. Although diminished, support for the PDP (the so-called populares) is still quite solid, also preferred by no less than 45 percent of Puerto Rican voters. None of the parties, including the PDP, is happy with the status quo.

   The NPP statehooders demand the full rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship through the incorporation of Puerto Rico as a state of the Union. They believe the present Commonwealth arrangement is undignified, and they are willing to forego special privileges (for example, the island's current fiscal autonomy and federal tax exemption) for complete equality. However, they believe that Spanish should and would remain as the island's principal language and that arrangements can be made to retain a separate identity in such contests as Miss Universe and the Olympic Games. Statehood itself, many of them think, will be enough to pull Puerto Rico's economy and its citizens economic well being to U.S. levels. A major hindrance: how to pay federal taxes without in some way severely reducing insular taxes and the island's massive governmental bureaucracy.

   Proponents of independence emphasize the benefits of nationhood and the sovereign power Puerto Rico will have to make its own decisions. With statehood, they believe, the Puerto Rican nation will eventually disappear within the melting pot that still largely characterizes American society. The PIP advocates a democratic socialism as an ideological guide for Puerto Rico as an independent republic. They believe that close ties with the U.S. will continue, including open access to the U.S. for its people and products. Party leaders stress that it is constitutionally feasible for the U.S. to allow Puerto Ricans to retain U.S. citizenship, and they openly support the concept of dual citizenship as a distinctive feature of the sovereign Puerto Rico republic.

   Supporters for the continuation of Commonwealth argue that this carefully crafted arrangement gives Puerto Rico the benefits and security embodied in statehood without the loss of Puerto Rico's unique culture. It is, indeed, a middle ground between the extremes of statehood and independence that has worked remarkably well. Puerto Ricans (on the island) enjoy the rights and privileges of all Americans, but cannot vote in national elections for President and Vice President. In turn, island residents are exempt from paying most federal taxes. Representation in the U.S. Congress is limited to one non-voting (except in committee) Resident Commissioner popularly elected by island voters for a four-year term. Party ideologues insist that Commonwealth was founded on the basis of a compact between the U.S. Government and the People of Puerto Rico that cannot be unilaterally altered. Moreover, the time has come, they assert, for negotiations leading to improvements in the current arrangements in the interest of expanding Puerto Rican autonomy. They cite specific areas for expanded local authority: immigration, commerce, cabotage, communications, environmental control, labor relations and, above all, the legal ability to limit the application of certain federal laws. (Unless specifically omitted, all federal statutes apply equally to Puerto Rico, even when they are contrary to provisions of the Commonwealth Constitution, e.g., the death penalty for certain crimes committed in violation of federal law.) Puerto Rico would continue to share, of course, a common citizenship, currency and defense, with exemption from federal taxes. A party slogan is: The best of both worlds. Critics call it Fantasy Island, in that it is wholly unlikely that the United States would (or even could) accede to surrendering such essential attributes of its sovereignty.

   Another option, currently gaining certain acceptance, champions the idea of making Puerto Rico an Associated Republic, with sovereign power to freely, and in full equality, sign a treaty that defines in detail a relationship of mutuality. This meets one of the decolonization standards set by the United Nations (the other two: independence and integration to the metropolitan state). The U.S. already engages in this type of relationship with the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, all formerly part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands administered by the U.S. Its proponents in Puerto Rico believe most elements of Commonwealth could be retained, such as common market, currency, and defense, many federal social programs, and the right to enter the U.S. to work or establish residence. Key to this, perhaps, is whether or not Puerto Ricans would willingly relinquish U.S. citizenship. Free association would certainly put to rest the question of self-determination and Puerto Rico's place in the world community.


   Several plebiscites have taken place over the years to gauge public support on a preferred status alternative. Although Commonwealth wins the most votes, statehood has made significant gains, while independence (with only 5-8 percent support) is relegated to the role of sentimental favorite. With no clear-cut winner, the U.S. is quite logically reluctant to impose a solution. In fact, without a crystal-clear signal from the Puerto Rican people in the form of an overwhelming approval of one option, Congress is unlikely to consider the vote a true expression of self-determination. A major defect in the plebiscitary process has been the practice of allowing the local parties to provide their own definitions of the option they espouse, without regard to what the U.S. Congress might be willing to grant. Then when Congress attempts to set down a more realistic and politically feasible statement of what the options could be from the U.S. perspective, the parties balk (particularly the PDP).

   Another difficulty is the inability of Congress to make a firm commitment to abide by the choice of the Puerto Rican people. For example, there is no constitutional imperative that could obligate a future Congress to grant statehood to Puerto Rico based on a prior agreement that guarantees this outcome. There is also the thorny issue is who should be allowed to vote: only Puerto Ricans on the island, ethnic Puerto Ricans anywhere, all normally qualified island voters, regardless of ethnic background, etc.? Hispanics in the U.S. are likewise conflicted on the Puerto Rico issue. Accustomed to minority group politics within the context of American civil rights, their natural inclination is to view it as a struggle for equality under the U.S. Constitution. They may wonder why Puerto Ricans are so unhappy with their lot, but they certainly empathize with the desire for self-identification and the preservation of the island's distinctive culture.


   It is easy to see why the contentious issue of Puerto Rico status seems to have a life of its own. There would be no such issue, of course, if the island were fully assimilated into the U.S. federal system and there were no striving for a political expression commensurate with a sense of cultural distinctness. But, in the words of former Governor Luis A. Ferré: The right to self-determination takes self-determination. In the end, it must be the Puerto Ricans themselves who decide their destiny as a people.

   Whether the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship is viewed as good or bad, boon or bane, democratic or authoritarian, liberating or restraining, the only sure truth is that the American presence in Puerto Rico has been the dominant fact of the island's history for more than one hundred years. The history of the island and its people is intimately intertwined with the U.S. on every imaginable level. Although still lagging behind U.S. norms, Puerto Ricos social and economic indices far exceed those of neighboring islands and republics. It enjoys political stability and the trappings of modernity. The primary language is still Spanish (spoken and used more correctly today than in 1898, due to universal public education), but the thoughts, feelings and values underlying the spoken or written word reveal evidences of deep-seated American influences.
Indeed, Americanization permeates every aspect of Puerto Rico's physical and psychic environment: not only such things as life styles, employment, living/working conditions, and transportation, but also choices of entertainment, moral and ethical views, political and legal values, and aspirations for the future. From this standpoint, most Puerto Ricans would more likely feel more comfortable living in Iowa than in most localities in Spanish-speaking Latin America.

   Still, Puerto Rico has not yet become truly American. Stores, malls, highways, schools, vehicles and businesses identical to those in the U.S. abound, even in the far corners of the island's rurality. Yet, nothing is quite the same. Everything becomes Puertoricanized. By far the vast majority of American companies on the island are now largely staffed and run by Puerto Ricans. And no less than 90 percent of those who read the local English-language newspaper and listen to the English-language radio station are Puerto Ricans whose first language is Spanish! Even the federal government workforce is almost entirely made up of Puerto Ricans, from postal workers to federal judges.

   Puerto Rico is an open society that has drawn people of diverse nationalities and backgrounds. Overt xenophobia is rare. Some rancor is displayed toward the rather large Dominican and Cuban communities, but this almost never translates into open hostility. Even some of their own (people of Puerto Rican descent born and reared off island) are oftentimes treated with condescension. Racism exists in a subtle yet pungent form. Puerto Ricans are also used to all types of Americans, from transient tourists, soldiers, business people, and government employees to those who for diverse reasons decide to make the island their permanent home. The latter freely interact with Puerto Ricans at all levels as equals. Yet, seldom is an American fully accepted as a Puerto Rican -- even those who live on the island for decades, speak fluent Spanish, work in Puerto Rican employment situations or marry into an island family.
   Puerto Rico is increasingly integrated into the larger scope of U.S. and even world dynamics. In areas such as the economy, the military and public administration, the distinction between americanos and puertorriqueños has become blurred over time. Notably absent, however, is any such fusion in the arena of local politics and arts, where the feeling of separateness finds its fullest expression.

   Despite the common tie of U.S. citizenship, Puerto Ricans show little interest in the inner workings of American politics, even though many of its outcomes bear directly on them and their society. Furthermore, the issues that fire public debate and political partisanship in the U.S. resonate weakly in Puerto Ricos political culture. Ideological battles of liberals versus conservatives, states rights versus federal authority, welfare versus workfare are pertinent only to the extent that they may affect Puerto Rican interests. Moreover, local politics is truly a local preserve, a place where few outsiders dwell: elective offices and appointments to key governmental positions go almost exclusively to Puerto Ricans.
   A similar phenomenon occurs in the arts and cultural circles of the island. These are the bastions of puertorriqueñidad, the exaltation of a unique cultural heritage linguistically, racially, and historically separate from that of the U.S. These are the cultural elites and intellectuals who view Puerto Rico as a nation, in the sense of a distinct cultural-linguistic unit, that must be defended and preserved. This sentiment predominates in their artistic creativity. Puerto Rican literature, for instance, more often than not simply ignores the effects of the American presence on island society over the past century. This diversion from reality is quite prevalent even in the more popular culture, where Americans and U.S. institutions and policies are typically portrayed--if mentioned at all--in stereotypical characterizations. Eugene Mohr, a U.S.-born, former literature professor at the University of Puerto Rico and long-time island resident, provides this insightful observation:

"Most americanos, even those who have spent the better part of their lives on the island, do not consider themselves Puerto Rican in an ethnocultural sense. And all but the most fervid Puerto Rican statehooders would rather vote for independence than turn into gringos. The ideal attained in U.S.- Puerto Rico relations on the island is not fusion, but mutual acceptance."

   The analysis offered in this study highlights the contacts between two peoples with different cultures and values whose relationship is still far from settled. With the American invasion in 1889, Puerto Rico had to begin yet another process in a continuing endeavor to find a satisfactory solution to relations with a metropolitan power.