It is necessary to begin from one simple fact, which the capitalist press and politicians don't like to admit: Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States.
Not a colony in some new or stretched sense of the term, but a colony in the classical pattern - a country ruled by another country; a nation that cannot make its own laws, decide its own foreign relations, or control its own economic affairs.
And the "Compact of Permanent Union" is merely the latest in a long series of attempts to cover up that imperialist relationship before the public opinion of the world, a world full of newly independent nations and national liberation movements.
This article will trace the history of that colonial relationship, what it has done to the Puerto Rican people, and their long record of struggle to control their own destiny.
From one oppressor to another
Puerto Rico is an island with a population of 3 million. Its strategic location in the Caribbean, near transatlantic shipping routes to Central and South America, has played a large part in its history ever since Columbus lost his way en route to India and ran into the Western Hemisphere.
The Puerto Rican people of today originated from three cultures: the indigenous population, the Spanish colonial settlers, and the African slaves brought by the Spanish. For four centuries, until 1898, Puerto Rico was under Spanish occupation. The rulers of the Spanish empire prized it as a military base and as a key link in the chain of ports from Spain to its colonies in the New World. The Spanish ruled through an absolute military-church dictatorship and brutally suppressed uprisings by slaves, Indians, and peasants.
In the early 1800s nationalism began to rise up as a force in Puerto Rico, as it did in many other countries in the Western Hemisphere at that time. A native culture had developed, distinct from that of Spain, containing elements from the three cultures mentioned earlier. For the first time, people began to talk of Puerto Ricans, or criollos -the native- born population - as a distinct people. A political debate arose on the question of status vis-a-vis Spain.
It is worth outlining this debate on status, which dominated the island's political life through the 1800s. Although the colonial masters of Puerto Rico have changed, the same debate has continued uninterruptedly, and is being conducted with increasing intensity today.
Three broad currents were involved. The assimilationists, or, as they called themselves, "unconditionalists," were for complete Spanish rule over the country. The second current, the autonomists, reflected the rising nationalist aspirations of the Puerto Rican people, but in a distorted way. They supported a permanent connection with Spain together with some degree of local self-rule. The independentistas, the third current, were the supporters of complete separation.
In 1868 Ramón Emeterio Betances led a revolt for independence known as El Grito de Lares, which is commemorated yearly by large proindependence demonstrations on the island. Betances had organized a network of clubs throughout Puerto Rico that planned to carry out a coordinated uprising. The plan was discovered by the Spanish and when the revolt occurred it was crushed.
This movement enjoyed broad support from the Puerto Rican people, especially from the agricultural wage laborers, who made up a large part of the rebel force of 400 men. The demands that were raised by the revolutionaries included the abolition of slavery; freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and the press; the right to have arms; freedom from unreasonable search and seizure; and the right to vote on all taxes and to elect representatives.
The uprising in Lares, although unsuccessful, has provided a continuing inspiration to fighters for Puerto Rican liberation to this day. It was one of the factors that helped force the Spanish government to abolish slavery in 1873.
The decline of the Spanish empire in this period and the rise of the United States as an industrial power tended to weaken Spain's hold on its few remaining colonies. As Puerto Rico increased its trade with the United States, Washington began to explore ways to take over the island. The Spanish countered with greater concessions to the criollos.
In 1897, Spain granted Puerto Rico far-reaching autonomy. The reason for this concession was the War for Independence in Cuba, which had militarily defeated the Spanish. The Cuban Revolutionary Party, which led the struggle in Cuba, had a Puerto Rican section, and the liberals who demanded autonomy from Spain threatened to join forces with the revolutionaries if greater self-rule were not granted.
However, there was no time for the new arrangement with Spain to be tested, because a few months later the Spanish- American War broke out, and the United States invaded Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
The invasion of Puerto Rico on July 25, 1898, was led by General Nelson A. Miles. It was Miles who in 1890 had dispatched the troops that carried out the Wounded Knee massacre of Native Americans in South Dakota. He also had played a major role in smashing the Pullman strike in 1894.1
By mistake Miles landed on the opposite corner of the island from the Spanish forces, and Spain's surrender offer was already on its way to Washington, so there was virtually no fighting in Puerto Rico.
The general issued a proclamation "To the Inhabitants of Porto Rico" (it took many years for the North Americans to learn to spell the country's name) which stated that the U.S. forces had come "in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity .. to bring you protection .. to promote your prosperity, and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government."
A few days earlier, Amos Fiske, an influential business writer, more candidly spelled out the thinking of the U.S. rulers in the editorial pages of the New York Times:
"There can be no question about the wisdom of taking possession of the Island of Puerto Rico and keeping it for all time...
"Our need of a foothold in the West Indies for naval purposes has long been recognized...
"The island could be rendered of no small commercial value to us...
"There is no reason why it should not become .. an especially charming winter resort for denizens of the North."
Fiske noted that "we are not pledged to give Puerto Rico independence... Besides, it would be much better for her to come at once under the beneficent sway of the United States than to engage in doubtful experiments at self-government."
The impact of U.S. rule
U.S. imperialist domination has shaped two distinct periods in the island's history, both involving tremendous social and economic hardships for the Puerto Rican people. The initial period extended from the arrival of U.S. forces to the Second World War.
The first year of U.S. rule saw great changes in the economy of the island. Previously, the economy had been based on agriculture and there were many small landholders. The most important crop was coffee, which lent itself to production on a small scale since no heavy machinery or large investments were required. About 40 percent of the land was devoted to this crop. Another 32 percent of the land was used in growing foodstuffs for consumption on the island. Some 15 percent was devoted to sugar and only 1 percent to tobacco.
It should be noted that much of the economy, including 93 percent of the agricultural holdings, was in Puerto Rican hands.
The first dislocating effect of the U.S. occupation was that the coffee industry was wiped out. Because of the U.S. tariff structure, coffee could not be profitably exported to Europe as it had been before. Puerto Rican coffee had to be shipped to the United States in North American freighters, and as a result Puerto Rican coffee was priced out of the U.S. market. The hurricane of 1899 and the devaluation of money carried out by the United States in the process of imposing its own currency on the island meant that the class of small coffee growers was wiped out in one blow rather than in a drawn-out process.
United States monopolies then moved in and gained control over the productive land, inch by inch. The people of the island became dependent on one crop, sugar cane. During the first three decades of U.S. rule, sugar production increased by more than 1,200 percent, most of it controlled by four U.S. corporations. Tobacco also became more important and 80 percent of that crop was controlled by U.S. interests.
Production of these commodities for the U.S. market displaced cultivation of foodstuffs for island consumption, and Puerto Rico became a captive market for U.S. agribusiness.
These shifts in ownership and kind of crop were paralleled by a huge concentration of landed property. By 1940, 80 percent of all farm land was owned by large corporations or landlords with 500 acres or more.
What did this mean for the now-landless peasant, the agregado who was working for the sugar companies? From 1899 to 1929 unemployment climbed from 17 percent to 36 percent and, owing to the monoculture of sugar, one-fourth to one-third of the rest of the population was unemployed most of the year.
Prices for food skyrocketed as domestic products were replaced with U.S. imports. By 1930 Puerto Ricans used 94 percent of their income to buy food. The decline of real purchasing power of wages was such that it took Puerto Ricans 104 days of work to buy their food needs for a year, compared with 70 days when the United States first took over.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who became governor of Puerto Rico in 1929, wrote of his first months on the island: "I have seen mothers carrying babies who were little skeletons, I have watched in a class-room thin, pallid, little boys and girls trying to spur their brains to action when their little bodies were underfed. I have seen them trying to study on one scanty meal a day, a meal of a few beans and some rice. I have looked into the kitchens of houses where a handful of beans and plantains were the fare for the entire family."
Things got worse, much worse, as the depression deepened.
On the governmental and political level, Puerto Rico was under direct military rule for the first two years of the U.S. occupation. In 1900, the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, which set up a civilian administration. The governor was to be appointed by the U.S. president. In addition there would be an Executive Council made up of eleven people, six of them North Americans and all chosen by the U.S. president.
1. Workers at Pullman works near Chicago went out on strike in 1894. They were quickly joined by 125,000 railroad workers who began a boycott of Pullman Cars. State militia and national guards were called in and soldiers opened fire on July 7 killing some 30 persons. President Grover Cleveland then enacted the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, ordering union leaders and members to refrain from interference with operations. The leaders, including Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, were jailed for contempt.
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