In this paper I analyze how the history of Puerto Rico’s colonization has affected its development as a commonwealth of the United States. The intention of reviewing Puerto Rico’s current political strife is to promote an in-depth discussion about how it affects the citizens and their connection to an uncertain political future of territory, statehood, or nationhood. Through academic literature on the history of Puerto Rico and research on the socioeconomic outcome of that history this study will set basic parameters for an analysis of the island’s character.
In an attempt to define the term nation through a Puerto Rican perspective, empirical research was conducted to relate personal and cultural experiences of citizens living within the territory.
To help formulate a more versatile perspective, this study addresses the differences between Puerto Rico and the United States regarding legislature, law and jurisprudence, and the rights of citizens. In addition, interview processes will assess what Puerto Ricans believe about the current situation and what is wanted politically, particularly through an analysis of Puerto Rican art.
The analysis should stimulate discussion as to how Puerto Ricans should understand their nation and the political status of the country, as well as the effects this would have on the Puerto Rican economy.
Colonialism is not new to Puerto Rico; since the arrival of Christobol Colon in 1493, the original Taino and successive Spanish inhabitants suffered under Spain’s colonial rule until the island was ceded to the United States under the Treaty of Paris of 1898.
By the time Puerto Rico transitioned from a U.S. territory to a U.S. commonwealth in 1953, Puerto Ricans had seen economic control in the hands of Spain, the U.S. military, and U.S. legislators.
In 1917 Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, but cannot vote-in legislative representatives to the U.S. Congress and consequently cannot vote within the federal government. Because the U.S. economy and federally written legislation primarily controls the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, many Puerto Ricans believe colonialism is not a waypoint in history, but a current, ongoing extension of U.S. imperialism that dominates democratic processes and basic freedoms granted to U.S. citizens under the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights (Caban, 2002).
The issue of economic and political autonomy is fiercely debated among Puerto Rican citizens. Tied in with other facets of Colonialism, including cultural and lingual assimilation, the lack of representation presents many questions to Puerto Rican citizens living in Puerto Rico as well as the Mainland. “Understanding the individual and collective psychology of the people of Puerto Rico requires an understanding of both the history of its colonialism and the U.S. laws that have helped shaped the social world of the Puerto Rican people, in the United States and in the colony itself” (Rivera Ramos, 2001, p. 4).
To define the status of Puerto Rico as a territory, commonwealth, state, or separate nation is to define its identity; an identity rectified by heritage, tradition, language, and political position. Whether Puerto Ricans determine their own political status or lose their cultural identity through the assimilation of their colonizer depends on many factors presented later in this paper.
Understanding how Puerto Ricans identify themselves through modern cultural issues offers an additional look at present-day Colonialism. As Jorge Duany, at the University of Puerto Rico, points out, “Thinking along the fringes of Puerto Ricanness helps scholars move away from traditional portraits of a homogenous national character…” (2005, 178). Puerto Ricans identify with race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality as much– if not more–than people do within nationalities elsewhere. These social identities are often obscured by more present “core” issues regarding national identities, and should be taken into account while determining how a culture is defined. Because of the inherent segregation Colonialism creates, minority influences may be more widespread than within nation-states that are not colonized.
In order to assess the degree of modern Colonialism in Puerto Rico an analysis of the political power the United States government has over Puerto Rico must be conducted. Rafael Cancer Miranda, a Puerto Rican national hero, has written a comprehensive report about the colonial powers exercised by the United States; a few of the 24 controversial powers he lists are [the]: “power of military recruitment of all Puerto Rican citizens; forcible expropriation (Eminent Domain); power to involve Puerto Rico in the United States’ wars; imposition of tariffs and customs regulations; power of Puerto Rico’s foreign relations with no representation by Puerto Ricans; power over immigration and emigration; power to apply federal punishments, including the death penalty, with no right of intervention by the colonial government; absolute power of Puerto Rican domestic and foreign commerce; absolute power over radio, television, and cable systems” (1969, 1).
Without representation in the federal courts, it is hard to imagine that Puerto Ricans would see these U.S. governances as anything other than modern Colonialism.
Puerto Rico has had indigenous people since before the European colonization. The Taino people had a rich society when Columbus and his crew first landed in Puerto Rico in 1492. The island became a Spanish colony and was populated by a mix of Spaniards and African slaves (Scarano, 1993). The Taino people who lived in Puerto Rico originally were enslaved and then their numbers were greatly reduced through disease and famine. Those who survived interbred with the Spanish and African populations (Rivera Ramos, 2001). By the 1600’s the Puerto Rican people had emerged as a blend of these different ethnicities.
Political unrest was common in Puerto Rico during the 1800’s and Spain was rapidly losing its control of the colony. Due to the political instability that Spain was facing in the Caribbean region among all of its holdings, it began to loosen its imperial control over Puerto Rico. In 1897 Puerto Rico recieved an Autonomous Charter from Spain and was well on its way to becoming an independent nation (Dietz, 1986; Pico, 1987). Unfortunately, soon after this event the Spanish American war began. The war was over quickly and ended with US occupation of Puerto Rico. In 1899 Spain signed a peace treaty, the Treaty of Paris, with the United States that gave away the short lived autonomy of Puerto Rico and turned the island into a property of the United States (Azize, 1982; Rivera Ramos, 2001). All of the people currently within Puerto Rico at that time became the responsibility of the US Congress (U.S. Congress, 1898).
Pedro Caban divides the period after the US acquisition of Puerto Rico into 8 distinct periods: “ (1) dismantling and replacing the Spanish colonial regime (1898-1900), (2) establishing the colonial state, (1900-16), (3) consolidation and demise (1917-31), (4) reworking the colonial formula (1932-40), (5) relative autonomy (1941-51), (6) Commonwealth and industrialization (1952-68), (7) demise of ELA and annexation (1969-1988), and (8) reappraisal of the Commonwealth (1989-2000)” (2002, 172).
The military occupation of Puerto Rico was the shortest time of the post-Spanish American war period of Puerto Rico’s history, but it’s important because it set the stage for much of what came after. The military governors that were installed completely changed the system of the government that had been in place during the Spanish rule and replaced it with government “in harmony with American methods” (173). A particularly important early move was the dismantling of the education system that was currently in place and its replacement with a compulsory mass public education system to push the Americanization of the Puerto Rican people (Negron de Montilla, 1971). By the time the territory was ready to be handed over to civilian governors, the institutions of the country were designed to aid in continued Americanization of the populous and to help American sugar interests (Caban, 2002).
The civilian control of Puerto Rico began with the passage of the Foraker Act in May of 1900. This created a system of government that consisted of a locally elected house of legislators, and an eleven member executive council of officials appointed by the United States. The government also featured a US appointed civilian governor for the island (Caban, 2002). During this period of time efforts by the wealthy elite of Puerto Rico that may have later spearheaded a move toward state hood or independence were stymied because their attentions were divided. According to Caban, they were “engaged in political battles on two fronts: first, against the U.S. officials as they attempted to negotiate access to power, and secondly, against its own working class that struggled to devise its own political voice” (2002, 178).
The Foraker Act itself was largely disliked because it did not grant true rights of citizens to the people of Puerto Rico. The legal status of Puerto Ricans during this period was murky at best. This injustice was partially remedied in 1917 by the passage of the Jones Act (Caban, 2002). The Jones act granted citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico, but did not grant them statehood. Efren Rivera Ramos states that “the extension of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, has probably been the most important decision by the United States regarding the political future and the lives and struggles of the Puerto Ricans” (2002, 185). The legal status of Puerto Ricans as citizens of the United States without a state persists to this day (Philips, 2005).
The next major change in the status of the Puerto Rican people was a shift from territorial status to one of a commonwealth. During the 1930’s through 1950’s there were a series of changes to Puerto Rico that gave it increasing power to self-govern, within the bounds of what the U.S. Congress deemed acceptable. The Elective Governor Act of 1947 gave Puerto Rico the ability to create its own government with its own constitution. Following this change the US introduced Puerto Rico to the United Nations as a “self-governing territory that had freely entered into a compact with the United States” (Caban, 2002, 189).
Despite the new powers of self-governance that Puerto Rico had been granted there were still issues. Particularly troubling is the ability for the United States congress to alter the compact, annul the Puerto Rican constitution, or “veto any insular legislation which it deems unwise or improper” (Caban, 2002, 189).
The commonwealth of Puerto Rico doesn’t have representation in the United States Congress, so its people have no official say in the operations of the federal government. Despite this, the Federal Government has a number of powers that are held over Puerto Rico. For example, Puerto Rican’s can be drafted into the military, the United States has power over air space and territorial waters, has the ability to enforce federal law and execute Puerto Ricans found guilty, and the ability to control taxes and customs (Miranda, 2000).
The apparent injustice of having no say in the federal government that has so many powers has led to the creation of a number of political extremists that are strongly for nationhood. Many of these took drastic actions as a form of political protest and ended up in the federal prisons in the 1950’s and 60’s (Denis, 1969). On the other hand many have embraced having a relationship with the United States. Being a US citizen grants Puerto Rican’s a range of rights that distinguishes them from other Caribbean and Central American persons. Puerto Rican’s have constitutional rights and ability to travel or move to anywhere within the continental United States.
Presently the future of Puerto Rico is unknown. Neither a state nor an independent nation, the people of the country are divided on what course of action would be best. A secondary, but equally important question is the status of the Puerto Rican cultural identity. Should Puerto Ricans continue to fiercely guard their cultural identity and resist the assimilation into American culture? In 1969, Manuel Maladono Denis wrote about how remarkable it was that Puerto Rico had maintained so much of its cultural identity after 70 years of colonial rule and oppression by the United States. Himself a fiercely autonomous academic thinker and writer he went so far as to say that “Colonialism as an institution is dead the world over.
Puerto Rico cannot – will not- be the exception to the rule. Otherwise, we may be faced with a situation similar to that of New Mexico: cultural hybridization and eventual assimilation to American culture. This prospect – insofar as Puerto Ricans achieve consciousness of its real implications – should be enough to deter them from committing cultural suicide by becoming the fifty-first state of the American Union” (31).
Denis’s position is strong, but it is not representative of the entirety of the Puerto Rican people. In addition to a vocal group who strongly push for cultural and legal independence, there are Puerto Ricans who would prefer to remain a commonwealth, and those who would like to become the 51st state in the American Union. Not two years earlier, in 1967, there was an island wide vote to determine the future status of the Puerto Rico. Despite loud cries for independence from colonial rule the majority of citizens of Puerto Rico voted to remain a commonwealth. Those who voted for statehood came in second and independence was a distant third (Baver, 1982).
If the majority wanted independence then what explains the result of the vote? Many pro- independence leaders and their followers abstained from voting, but this may not explain it completely. After so many decades the cultural and economic ties between the two countries may be far too strong to simply break. Baver writes that “Puerto Ricans are a people unable to exercise their identity as a nation because of structural ties to their mother country. If this latter view is more to the point, then the old saying ‘use it or lose it’ becomes more pressing as the island’s ties to the U.S. tighten” (1982, 123).
In addition to the structural issues there are questions of cultural identity. For example, in the post-World War II world the folk culture of Puerto Rico dwindled away and eventually died. Called jibaro’s, the people of Puerto Rico’s country were the island hillbillies. One of the important political leaders of this period, Luis Munoz Marin, pushed for modernization of Puerto Rico while retaining the identity of Puerto Rican folk culture, particularly the jibaro’s. However, despite this lip service to revering the old culture the people of Puerto Rico embraced the new American culture. Johnson writes “While they [Puerto Ricans] might have toasted the jibaro, no one wanted to remain one” (1982, 108).
The question of cultural assimilation bears some discussion on interpreting the disharmony between the stated love of Puerto Rican culture and the simultaneous move away from it. Denis compared the Puerto Rican people to the African American’s living in a predominately white world. When faced with a feeling of inferiority, the people being oppressed react by becoming aggressive, either toward their own culture or toward the culture that is oppressing them. In the case of African Americans they are “faced squarely with the problem of either asserting their own “negritude” or assimilating to the ways of the whites” (1969, 28).
In this way it appears that the political extremists pushing for Puerto Rican independence, particularly those of the 1950 – 1970’s era were asserting their own “Puerto Rican-tude” while other groups were becoming more and more Americanized. Even today, Puerto Ricans in the United States often have strong tensions with immigrants from Central and South America. Interestingly Puerto Ricans demonstrate very little interest in becoming part of a “pan – Latino identity” with other Spanish speakers (Duaney, 2005, 180). They fiercely display the differences between their dialect of Spanish language, and those of Latin American immigrants. It’s possible that the move in either direction is based upon geographic location, in other words, a propensity for cultural conservatism may be positively related to distance from Puerto Rico.
There may be some cultural and national pride for the United State among Puerto Ricans, but even so, there remains political tension between Puerto Rico and the United States Government. The ongoing relationship between the U.S. Navy and Puerto Rico epitomizes the issue of Puerto Rican imperial domination by the United States and it came to a head in 1999 (McCaffrey, 2006). The U.S. Navy has had a presence in Puerto Rico since the U.S. acquired the island in 1898.
For much of that period there has been a major military base on Vieques Island, home to thousands of poor Puerto Rican citizens. Over the decade the base had grown and the people of the Vieques were pushed out of their homes and received little economic benefit in return. In exchange, they had to endure the sound of the expansive live fire testing field that took up much of the island. In 1999, during a training mission, a two navy jets missed their target by 1.5 miles. They dropped two 500-pound bombs outside of the live impact range and injured 3 people and killed a civilian Puerto Rican (McCaffrey, 2006). The resulting protests and outrage lead to demonstrations and eventual acquiescence of the U.S. Federal Government.
Nationalist theories, particularly, liberal nationalism state that, “Humanity is divided into nations” and “there are criteria for identifying a nation and its members.” Wilcox (2004) defined nation as a large territory inhabited by a “historical community” whom believe they “belong together by virtue of characteristics nearly all of them possess” (560). These characteristics include ethnic descent, shared histories, language, a common culture with customs, traditions, values and religious beliefs.
In addition, they believe they all have a commitment to “historically embedded political ideals and institutions” (Wilcox, 2004, 560). A nation is a combination of this idea of a shared ancestry ethnically, memories that have been passed down from generation as the group has evolved historically, language that is maintained in the group and a common adopted culture. Additionally, as they’ve unified on these fronts their collective identity maintains the political and institutional ideals linked with their historical conception of these institutions.
The characteristics of a nation are what form peoples conception of national identity (Wilcox, 2004, 560). Although a nations culture informs its national identity there remains a distinction between national culture and a civic national identity which Wilcox (2004) points out. A national culture embodies the components I listed above which were customs, traditions, values and religious beliefs. However, a civic national identity is based on the commitment across a culture to historically embedded political principles. Wilcox (2004) states that, “Adopting a civic national identity involves committing oneself to the political ideals and principles upon which a particular polity is founded” (569).
Puerto Rico is a multifaceted and complex case as it is debated among scholars whether its national identity exists and if it does, does that qualify Puerto Rico as an independent nation? The relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has been emphasized above, which has created a transnational dynamic into Puerto Rico’s ideas of nationalism.
The condition Puerto Rico is in has allowed for cultural nationalism to develop over political nationalism. Cultural nationalism can extend beyond cultural commonalities to influence economic and political aspects of society, through advocation by intellectuals, politicians, workers and others. Duany (2003) states that these actors in essence acting on economic and political interests associated with the concept of “nationhood” can exist without the “establishing” of a “sovereign state” (440). With this in mind cultural nationalism can certainly make a case for Puerto Rico’s national identity and subsequent declaration as an independent state. However, its relationship with the U.S. in the lens of neo-imperialist theory places it in a difficult position to be wholly independent.
American neo-imperialism involves the development of colonialism through political control. Traditional imperialist strategies involved the use of force through militaries to take over a territory. In contrast, neo-imperialism involves the “initial use of force if necessary that quickly shifts into control through various policy mechanisms and economic controls” (Gallant, 2012, 12-13). It is carefully strategic tactic that is often successful because the colonized country reaps benefits that its citizens perceive as a demonstration of the ‘good will’ of the colonizer. In the meantime U.S. officials in Congress are working hard to “impede any ambitions for statehood” primarily because the status of Puerto Rico is beneficial to the U.S (Gallant, 2012, 13).
As a result of U.S.’ efforts against the independence of Puerto Rico it has fueled ideas of the dangers of separating from the U.S. They’ve argued that independence would eliminate the primary benefit of U.S. citizenship and important economic benefits provided by American corporations that operate in Puerto Rico. For the U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico would be costly because it would significantly effect trade and business between the two countries (Gallant, 2012, 13). Many scholars have demonstrated the lack of support for the independence movement in Puerto Rico as evidence of a people that do not want to be independent. Gallant (2012) theorizes that this occurrence can be explained by Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony.
His concept states that, “People could be controlled through socialization and eventually they would believe that their situation was for the best” (Gallant, 2012, 14-15). In Puerto Rico factors like unemployment, the large number of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S., poverty, and the amount of economic stimulus Puerto Rico receives from the U.S. through welfare and social programs present a positive picture of their current political position (Gallant, 2012, 15).
Although many do not support the independence of Puerto Rico because of its economic ties to the United States there remains the element of cultural nationalism that has re-contextualized the meaning of an independent nation. One can define independent nation as one that is politically and culturally free, however, if the position of the country is better when it is politically bound and cultural free, can one then assume that it can be considered an independent nation? Cultural nationalism does not challenge the colonial status of Puerto Rico, but does effect the rate of assimilation of ‘Americanized’ ideas onto the island (Duany, 2003, 440).
There are many factors that have demonstrated the independence of Puerto Rico from a cultural nationalist perspective. There is a national anthem in Puerto Rico called La Bonnquefia. Puerto Rico’ political institutions are also unique despite its colonial status. It has a Republican and Democratic party for the U.S. presidential primaries, however, the main parties in the country are positioned on Puerto Rico’s status politically. The Partido Popular Democratico “is the party of the ELA, while the Partido Nacionalista Progresista favors Puerto Rico demonstrate a national identity, both under international law and in practical terms (Napoli, 1998, 174-175).” Those that live in Puerto Rico have consistently pursued practical terms of independence over legal simply because of the effects a legal independence would subject them to.
However, they’ve established a distinct identity that has strove to be in direct contrast to that of the identity of the U.S. (Napoli, 1998, 175). Thus, we can contend that Puerto Rico’s distinction between itself and the U.S. in national identity construction is a symbolic act of independence. The transnational elements of Puerto Rico’s citizens has proven to maintain the islands nationalist ideals beyond its borders.
Duany (2003) argues that Puerto Ricans whether they are currently in Puerto Rico or not have demonstrated strong national identity beyond ethnic alignment. The collectivist notion of nationhood, as I mentioned above has certainly united Puerto Ricans that are living in the U.S. as well although they are legally proclaimed as U.S. citizens. Duany (2003) goes onto state that this “sense of peoplehood” should be designated as “national” because of the shared past in a “territory considered to be the homeland, and a linguistic and cultural heritage that…continues to be cherished by most” (437). In the contemporary world nations have gone beyond territorial boundaries to include those in its diaspora.
In the context of Puerto Rico those that inhabit the U.S. are considered a part of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Many scholars in examining Puerto Rico’s nationhood does not explore those living in the diaspora to see how identities are formed and reconstructed with the national identity (Duany, 435). Duany argues that this is important in understanding a contemporary sense of national identity relative to post-colonialist countries, as well as Puerto Rico’s current neo-colonialist arrangement. Puerto Ricans in the U.S. have aligned themselves with Puerto Rico through participation in cultural events such as the New York Puerto Rican Day Parade where Puerto Ricans excitedly exhibit their pride in their country and wave their flag in the streets of New York (Napoli, 188).
The cultural sense of nationality asserted by transnational Puerto Ricans and those that are in Puerto Rico demonstrate a battle between the desire to be independent legally and the exercise of cultural independence. The link between Puerto Rico and the U.S. has “created conditions that in many ways encourages the consolidation of a cultural nation in the grips of a legitimated neocolonial arrangement” (Barreto, 2003, 274-275). It seems that the only option that has been created in light of the neo-colonial arrangement Puerto Rico has found itself is to independently declare its nationhood aligned with culture.
Generally, cultural nationalism has remained a “dominant ideology of the…government, the intellectual elite, and numerous cultural institutions on the Island as well as in the diaspora” (Duany, 2003, 428). One can assume through this discussion of national identity and Puerto Rico’s political position that cultural nationalism in the context Puerto Rico is in is solid evidence of Puerto Rico consisting characteristics of an independent nation, if not; creating its own. The type of nationalism that has arisen in Puerto Rico is a direct result of the limitations “imposed by colonialism on the development of a politically defined nation state, which led to the emphasis on culture as Puerto Rico’s “domain of sovereignty” (Dávila, 1997, 10-11). It is through this strategy that government has been able to exercise its autonomy in the state.