Puerto Rico History and Its Strange Relationship with the US

JB Shreve
July 22, 2019 7 mins to read
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Massive protests are rocking Puerto Rico today. The current unrest has been ongoing for nearly two weeks. Puerto Ricans are reportedly fed up with the corruption in their government. The island’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, is at the center of the public frustration after more than 900 pages of text messages between him and members of his inner circle were released. The leak included messages that managed to offend nearly every person and group on the island.

Beyond the recent scandal, however, Puerto Rico has been under enormous economic pressures due to massive debt, financial mismanagement, and ongoing corruption. This story is not as popular in the current headlines but far more significant to the underlying realities driving today’s protests.

Read Also: Puerto Rico’s Bankruptcy Plan Is Almost Done, and It Could Start a Fight

An even deeper look into the history of Puerto Rico reveals how none of this should come as a great surprise. The island, its government, and economy are the result of centuries of dysfunction and exploitation. 

Spanish Rule in Puerto Ricos History

puerto rico history

Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico during his second voyage to the new world in 1493. Fifteen years later Juan Ponce de Leon established the first Spanish settlement there. By 1521 the settlement was named Puerto Rico (Rich Port). Eventually, the whole island was referred by this name.

The indigenous people of Puerto Rico, the Taino, were almost completely wiped out by Spanish smallpox after the Europeans’ arrival to the island. Many others died as Spanish slaves in the gold mines.

puerto rico history

Over time the island became a powerful military outpost for the Spanish. Slaves imported from Africa were used to farm cash crops including sugar and tobacco in Puerto Rico. The fortresses built on the island were able to withstand multiple attacks and incursions from other European powers including England and the Netherlands.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the Spanish empire was significantly weakened from its former glory. Multiple independence movements were launched throughout South America and this same fervor and desire for independence spread to Puerto Rico.

Spanish-American War and the Shift in Puerto Rico’s History

puerto rico history

The United States was not a major world power in the 19th century but many of its leaders were beginning to have ambitions toward that end. Several leading military and strategic thinkers imagined the beginning of a US global power. The beginning of that ambition would involve taking the islands of the Caribbean from the Europeans and establishing their own American power bases there. Puerto Rico was included among these strategic targets.

puerto rico history

In 1898 the Spanish-American War began. The war lasted less than 4 months and ended with Spain signing over many of its holdings to the Americans at the 1898 Paris Peace Conference. These holdings included Guam, Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Under US control Puerto Rico became a colony of the United States.

Puerto Rico History as an American Colony

puerto rico history 

Authority was centralized in American hands, specifically through a governor of the island who was appointed by the US government. Initial failures by the US included the pursuit of establishing English as the official language of Puerto Rico.

Economic policies meant to enrich US companies and agricultural needs had a devastating effect on the island’s economy and agricultural systems. The coffee industry of the island was upended and the US sought to establish a sugar economy on the island. This devastated Puerto Rico’s economy and plunged the locals into greater poverty.

puerto rico history

Initially, there were ideas that Puerto Rico could become a new member of the United States. As the US expanded westward in the 19th-century places like Colorado, Montana and others all progressed from being US territories to US states. That pathway was not to be for Puerto Rico however.

In 1901 a group of rulings and legal opinions known as the Insular Cases argued that Puerto Rico and the other territories gained from the Spanish in the recent war were full of “alien races.” Because they were alien races the local residents could never understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.” To that end, a path toward statehood was cut off for the people of Puerto Rico. The island became an unincorporated territory of the United States. These blatantly racist legal rulings permanently altered the future course of Puerto Rico and its residents.

puerto rico history

As a unique territory within the American domain citizens of Puerto Rico were in a strange place. Many who sought an escape from the island’s sugar economy and poverty decided to flee to the US, but they were unwelcome there at first. How could they arrive as immigrants if their leadership was the US government? They were neither immigrants nor citizens of the US. A case meant to answer this question went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1902 when a young Puerto Rican woman was turned away from entering the US at Ellis Island.

In 1917 a special class of citizenship was extended to the people of Puerto Rico that allowed them to move more freely into the US but still blocked access for the island to become an American state. A significant motive for granting this citizenship to Puerto Ricans was so they could be officially (now that they were citizens) drafted into the US army to fight in World War I. The unique status of citizenship extended to the Puerto Ricans did not (and still does not) give them a vote in US presidential elections or a voting representative in the Congress which they could vote for.

Independence movements sprang up in Puerto Rico throughout the 20th century but these were always squashed by powerful business interests. After World War II the US changed Puerto Rico’s status from that of a colony to that of a commonwealth. It remains in this status all the way to the present but what that means is unclear.

The people of Puerto Rico still have little say in their government and economy and the US still plays a strong hand in the island’s affair. Many argue that the change to commonwealth status simply meant the US government could now say they no longer had a colony in Puerto Rico even though by all accounts and actualities a policy of colonization still exists.

puerto rico history

In the 1950s an infamous study was performed in Puerto Rico by American scientists seeking to develop a birth control pill. The pill was tested on Puerto Rican women who were used as guinea pigs. Three women died in the course of the study and autopsies were never performed. Critics argue that most of these women, from largely Catholic culture, had no idea what kind of study they were participating in. Many even suggest that the testing of the pill in Puerto Rico was a deliberate measure of population control on the unsuspecting women.

puerto rico history

Enormous benefits are extended to American corporations who do business in Puerto Rico which results in the continued disenfranchisement of the locals and their economy.

Today we only hear about Puerto Rico in the American media after a hurricane or when there is some crisis unfolding. This lack of information frequently allows for misinformation to flow in abundance. A little background on the facts of the matter might be handy as we watch what unfolds on the island in the coming days, as well as official American responses.


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