We’ve been discussing Puerto Rico for the past week in my Chicano/Latino Histories class so perhaps it’s a good time for us here at LatinoLikeMe to do the same.
In 1898, as a result of a war with Spain, the United States became a formal imperial power, taking possession of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico (as well as a host of other islands in the South Pacific). From 1898 to 1900 the US ruled the island as an occupying force. Then, with the passage of the Organic Act of 1900—also known as the Foraker Act—Congress provided for a prolonged condition of imperial rule for the island, under the illusion of representative democracy.
Puerto Rico’s colonial government consisted of a Governor, an Executive Council of 11, and a House of Delegates comprised of 35 members. However, it was the US President who appointed the Governor, with the approval of the Senate. Then the Governor, with the oversight of the President, appointed the Executive Council of 11, providing that 5 members were “native inhabitants of Porto Rico.” Puerto Ricans elected the House of Delegates, but the President, the island Governor, and the Congress all had veto power over anything they passed.
The people of the island had no voice in the United States political system, even though the US had all power over them. They were allowed to elect a nonvoting resident commissioner who represented them to Congress, but this position held little sway.
In 1917, the US Congress extended US citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico, a move Puerto Ricans received with mixed feelings. Some supported the move, envisioning it as a step toward statehood. Some opposed it, seeing it as an impediment to full independence.
The Unionist Party on the island fell in the opposition camp. Originally dedicated to independence for their island, the Unionists amended their platform to more affirmatively support increase “autonomy,” a move made to garner more support in Washington. That didn’t stop their overall dream, however.
Luis Muñoz Rivera (pictured below) was one of the founders of the Unionists, serving as their party head. He also served as the nonvoting representative of Puerto Rico to the Congress. In 1916, as Congress debated citizenship and other matters, he made his views on the matter clear, while also phrasing his stance in as politic a way as possible:
We, the Unionists, believe that from the standpoint of American national interest this question of citizenship should be left undecided for the present, in order to prevent a possible embarrassment in the international policies of this country as a result of premature action—an international policy which includes at the present time open tendencies toward closer relations and a better understanding with the Latin Republics of South and Central America and the West Indies.
I believe that, in view of the divided opinion on the subject existing in Porto Rico, this Congress will lose nothing by waiting for future events to determine or indicate in a more precise manner the path that should hereafter be followed in this matter. No one expects Porto Rico to continue always a colony. Statehood or independence appear at the present time to be very remote measures. To declare now American citizenship for the Porto Ricans does not answer any practical purpose, especially when this Congress is about to promise independence to the Filipinos and when a former Congress granted independence to the Cubans. Neither Cuba or the Philippine Islands is superior to Porto Rico as regards the ability to maintain a national life of its own. They are both larger in territory, but not more civilized or wealthier in proportion to their respective areas.
The US-appointed governor of the island, Arthur Yager, supported citizenship in his testimony, while he also made it clear to the House of Representatives committee that, in his view, independence was “absurd.” When asked If the island was “in a condition of development such as would enable them to carry on a representative government,” Yager replied “Oh, no.”
Well, the tools with which we have to carry on self-government are dangerous and difficult tools, an no people without some experience and development could handle those tool without danger to themselves. I do not believe that there is any Latin American country on the continent now, with perhaps the exception of those older and stronger nations south of the equator, where they can hold an absolutely fair election, and without a fair election you can not have self-government. I do not believe there has ever been a perfectly fair election in many Latin American countries, as, for example, in Santo Domingo.
In 1917, Congress passed the so-called Jones Act, extending US citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Though Puerto Rico is now called a “Commonwealth,” it remains in, nearly every sense, a colony of the United States.