William McKinley, President of the United States (1897-1901)

William McKinley, President of the United States (1897-1901)

On April 11, 1900, the United States Congress approved the Foraker Act or the First Organic Law, which replaced the military government that had existed in Puerto Rico from the end of the Spanish-American War with a civilian government, but still left the selection of the governor and his cabinet still in hand of the U.S Department of Defense. The law also maintained the colonial status of the island, granted Puerto Rican citizenship to its residents, and defined the island`s political and economic relationship with the United States. It remained in effect until 1917.

In 1898, after the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States. From July 25, 1898, until May 1, 1900, Puerto Rico was considered an occupied territory, and therefore its government was military, led by top officials of the United States armed forces.

In the face of growing dissatisfaction and the ambiguity of the political status, many Puerto Rican political figures began to lobby in Washington for a resolution to the issue of Puerto Rico’s legal status. The prevailing political status led to problems such as the imposition of high tariffs on products shipped from Puerto Rico to the United States and vice versa because that the island was considered a foreign territory.

On January 9, 1900, the chairman of the Senate Committee overseeing Puerto Rico and the Pacific islands, Senator Joseph B. Foraker, introduced a bill to address the Puerto Rican situation. In its original form, the bill extended the U.S. Constitution, laws and citizenship to Puerto Rico and liberalized business. Some sectors in the United States did not support conferring so many rights on Puerto Ricans, so the bill was amended. It was finally approved on April 11, 1900.

The law provided for the creation of a political body called the “People of Puerto Rico,” with Puerto Rican citizenship and the protection of the United States. This became problematic because the island was not a sovereign state, so for all effects it continued to be a colony.

The act also established a civilian government for the island whose political posts would be mostly occupied by officials from the United States. The executive power would be in the hands of a governor appointed by the president of the United States. The local legislative powers would reside in a Legislative Assembly, which consisted of an Executive Council of 11 members, of which no more than 5 could be Puerto Ricans, and a House of Delegates with 35 members elected by the people every two years.

The governor could name some officials, but the majority of them were appointed by the president of the United States. The Executive Council would also serve as the governor’s cabinet, and the governor would also have the right to veto any legislation that was passed. The laws passed by the Legislative Assembly would have to be approved by the United States Congress, which had the power to annul them.

The Foraker Act also created the post of the resident commissioner in Washington, who would be elected by the people every two years. Originally, he could appear before all the governmental departments but not before Congress. The limited powers of the resident commissioner caused dissatisfaction among Puerto Rican leaders, who argued that he should be given the same rights as the representative of the territory of Hawaii, which had a delegate in Congress who could speak, but did not have a vote. This right was conferred on the delegate from Puerto Rico in 1904.

The judicial power fell to the courts and judges of Puerto Rico: the supreme court, the district courts and the municipal courts, which were created during the military government. The supreme court had a presiding judge, four associate judges and a bailiff, all named by the president. The governor was responsible for choosing the district court judges, with the approval of the executive council, and the legislative assembly named the municipal court judges, as well as other employees. The law also decreed the creation of a federal district court with the same functions as the district courts in the United States, and which handled cases that in general were processed in the circuit courts in the United States.

The exchange rate was fixed at 60 United States cents for each Spanish peso, which constituted a devaluation in the value of the peso. One consequence of this was an increase in prices while salaries were adjusted to the change.

As for taxes, it was stipulated that the same import tariffs as in the United States would be applied to articles imported from foreign countries. Merchandise traded with the United States would be subject to a payment of 15 percent of the tariffs on similar articles coming from foreign countries. However, once the government of Puerto Rico established a local taxation system, tariffs would no longer be charged on merchandise that arrived in Puerto Rico from the United States, and vice versa. Also, all merchandise traded between the island and the United States was to be transported on ships in the United States merchant marine, which was more expensive than that of other countries.

With the Foraker Act, the United States government sought to define the political and economic relationship it would have with the island.

By the PROE Editorial Group

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

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