First Puerto Rican governor, Jesús T. Piñero, appointed by President Truman in 1946.

First Puerto Rican governor, Jesús T. Piñero, appointed by President Truman in 1946.

Puerto Rico has evolved politically from the time it was first settled. Before the Spanish arrived, the indigenous society had a form of tribal government ruled by caciques, with a hierarchical matrilineal structure.

After the arrival of the Spanish in 1493, the island was ruled by a series of military governors. In 1582, the Spanish Crown established the system of general captaincies. In this system, which was also a military government, the captain general practically had absolute power over the civilian population. This regime was in effect until 1897, when the Charter of Autonomy was ratified, and the Puerto Rican people were granted greater powers of self-government and more representation in the central Spanish government.

The Charter of Autonomy, which entered into effect on February 11, 1898, also provided for the creation a parliament with two chambers; the continuation of the court system known as the ‘Territorial Court’; and the appointment of a governor general, who would exercise power in the name of the colonial government, the supreme authority. The autonomous system was replaced barely eight months later by a new military government under the United States. Puerto Rico had been ceded to the United States under the Treaty of Paris of December 1898, which ended the Spanish American War.

After the change of sovereignty and two years of military government, the United States Congress approved the establishment of a republican system, through the ratification of the Foraker Act in 1900. The Act provided for the creation of a legislature with two chambers, although only the lower chamber was elected by the people, and for presidential appointment of the governor. The law also provided for the formal organization of a judicial system with a supreme court, municipal courts, and district courts, as well as a federal court. The Foraker Act also provided for the election of a resident commissioner who would represent the people of Puerto Rico in the Congress, although without voting rights.

This system prevailed for almost two decades, until 1917, when the political powers of Puerto Rico were broadened through the approval of the Jones Act. This law granted United States citizenship to Puerto Ricans, established a bill of rights, and made positions in both legislative chambers elected positions. In addition, the law provided for the separation of the legislative and executive powers, and allowed the governor to appoint a cabinet. The Jones Act was amended in 1947 to grant Puerto Ricans the right to democratically elect their own governor. In 1948, Luis Muñoz Marín became the first governor to be elected by the people of Puerto Rico.

At the request of the Puerto Rico legislature, in 1950 the United States Congress passed Public Law 600, which provided that Puerto Ricans could organize a new system of government, based on a constitution with a bill of rights, to be drafted and approved by the people of Puerto Rico. On July 25, 1952, pending to certain amendments requested by the United States Congress, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was approved by the constitutional assembly.

The Constitution established a democratic republican government with the traditional separation of powers (executive, legislative, and judicial), guaranteeing respect for human rights. Puerto Ricans continued to be United States citizens and trade between Puerto Rico and the United States continued to be unrestricted. However, sections of Public Law 600 dealing with the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, as set forth in the Federal Relations Act, remained. Puerto Rico is not a fully sovereign nation, as its government is subordinate to the United States government, yet it is protected by its constitution.

Currently, the government of Puerto Rico operates under the democratic system of the Commonwealth.


Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 11, 2014.

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