The evolution of the parliamentary institution in Puerto Rico has been late and incomplete, in comparison to other parts of the Americas, in large part due to the island’s relationship of colonial dependency, first with Spain and later with the United States. But other internal factors have also contributed to this slow and deficient development. Among these are the enormous control the political parties have over the internal dynamics of the Legislature and how this power spills over into the legislative process. The partisan control over the legislative staff and its performance continues today and is largely responsible for preventing the principles of representation and separation of powers, which are central to modern democratic thinking, from becoming fully rooted in our political culture. The authoritarian atavism of both the Spanish and U.S. imperial structures, as well as the internal organization of the political parties, continues to exert a negative influence on the development of democracy in Puerto Rico.

During the four centuries of Spanish rule over Puerto Rico, the state’s administrative structures were merely a reflection of the autocratic organisms of the monarchic imperial power, extended to control the overseas territories. Throughout this long historical period, the Spanish monarchy experienced periods of internal transformation, some involving extensive reforms, but the island was never allowed a role in the power structure, except at the lower levels of local government corresponding to the municipalities of today. The pyramidal system of monarchical power with the king at the top of a royal bureaucracy that extended its powerful tentacles into all territorial affairs, both on the Iberian peninsula and in its colonies, allowed a role for the church, the aristocracy and the Spanish commercial bourgeoisie, but it maintained fierce control over all aspects of social life in the colonies. In the Americas, the Spanish state privileged Spanish-born residents of the colonies over locally born residents, even those who were among the most wealthy and powerful traders and planters.

During the second half of the 18th century, under the Bourbon dynasty, there was an extensive reorganization of the administration of the colonies in the Americas, motivated by a desire to increase economic productivity and improve administrative efficiency through the use of new economic theories and improved bureaucratic effectiveness in managing imperial affairs. But the autocratic structure of the empire remained firm and a few years later, when the residents of the colonies learned about the French Revolution and its ideals of citizen freedom, they unleashed wars of independence to put an end to Spanish rule and to establish new liberal institutions to govern the newly created independent republics.

In Cuba and Puerto Rico, however, which remained under the control of the Spanish crown after the wars of independence in the 19th century, Spain’s loss of its other colonies led to a worsening of political repression, based on the idea that the local residents could not be trusted to show obedience and loyalty to the regime. Over the course of the century, despite the fact that Spain had moments in which it tried liberal structures and values, a parliamentary institution representing the local residents of Puerto Rico and political power-sharing with the administrators in Spain was never allowed to develop.

It was not until the arrival of the United States, therefore, that institutional political development began based on republican principles. But this process was not immediate, even though the invaders declared upon arriving that their objective was to import to the island the virtues of a republican system of government and the citizen freedoms that existed in the United States. After the invasion of 1898, the new regime introduced an absolutist military government that lasted two years. In 1900, the United States Congress approved the Foraker Act, the first organic law that established a civil government for Puerto Rico, one of the United States’ new overseas colonies.

The Foraker Act established the first parliamentary institution in Puerto Rico, but greatly restricted its institutional powers. The Legislative Assembly that was created was divided into two houses: a House of Delegates elected by direct vote of the people and an upper house, the Executive Council, consisting of the cabinet of the governor, who was appointed by the president of the United States, with participation by selected Puerto Ricans who were also appointed by the president. Political power clearly remained in the hands of the imperial government and the parliamentary structure created by the Foraker Act had only symbolic and rhetorical value in terms of providing representation and separation of powers. Under the law, the governor also had the power to veto any law that was approved by the House of Delegates. In other words, the colonial parliament could approve laws only when the governor, as representative of the United States, allowed. It was not long before opposition to the autocratic structure of the civil government emerged and the lack of democracy that the law represented became one of the recurring criticisms from all island political sectors, who saw this parliamentary subordination as an unfulfilled promise by the new empire.

Under the Foraker Act, the Executive Council had both executive and legislative powers. Its members advised the governor and also approved the laws that their boss suggested. In this sense, the Executive Council performed the role of the upper house of the Legislature. The other house, the House of Delegates, was representative, because it was elected by popular vote, but it had limited powers. This circumvented the republican principle of separation of powers and imposed a system of imperial executive government. To make the situation more palatable, the post of Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in the United States (the official name of this position) was created. The resident commissioner’s formal mission was to represent Puerto Rico’s interests before the central government of the United States. Another problem caused by the Foraker Act was the lack of a Bill of Rights for citizens, without which a democratic state cannot exist and protect citizens from the arbitrary power of the state and abuses of power.

No sooner had the Foraker Act been approved than the main political parties in Puerto Rico began to battle to replace it with a more generous version, specifically one that would include a representative Senate elected by the people. In 1905, as part of this effort, all of the island municipalities approved, through the Municipal League Committee, to send representatives to Washington to work for the elimination of the Executive Council and its replacement with a Senate elected by the Puerto Ricans.

Other public issues, such as economic development, the general budget, agricultural credit facilities, loans for erecting public works, and municipal powers were the subject of bitter differences of opinion between the two houses, between the representatives of the island and the U.S. administration. As expected, nearly always it was the executive council, the direct representatives of the president of the United States, who won the debate.

Luis Muñoz Rivera, the leader of the main political party, the Puerto Rican Union, believed it was up to the United States to implement a democratic system in Puerto Rico: “The Executive Council is the worst of the Foraker Act … and it is incomprehensible that with the resources to attack it we stand silent with our arms crossed and, when a good and fair moment arrives, we do not take advantage to press our cause.” In July 1906, the House of Delegates approved a proposal by José de Diego to send a request to U.S. Secretary of State Elihu Root for the immediate creation of a Senate elected by the island’s residents.

With the Jones Act of 1917, the U.S. government tried to solve the parliamentary shortcomings by replacing the Executive Council with an elected Senate and created a bicameral legislature that was totally separate from the executive branch. From that moment on, the maturation of the legislative institution began under the control of locals. The Legislative Assembly — Puerto Rico’s parliament — took the preeminent place in the island’s political scene. (At that time, Puerto Ricans did not have access to the executive branch, except for a few officials who, through their own particular personal circumstances and unconditional obedience to the regime, won the governor’s personal confidence.) Thus the Legislative Assembly became, after 1917, the main political institution on the island. Under the Foraker Act, the resident commissioner had been the most important elected position (and was therefore held by the leader of the main party), but the legislative houses created by the Jones Act began to dominate the electoral political scene and became by the 1930s, the most active settings for power struggles. In this new institutional context, winning an election meant not just getting the largest number of votes, but electing a legislative majority. That was what occurred in 1940. The recently created Popular Democratic Party won a majority in both houses, even though the opposition, a collection of parties on the right dominated by the Republican Statehood Party, won a majority of the popular vote. During the first years of rule by the Popular Democratic Party, its top leader, Luis Muñoz Marín, held the most important post available to a Puerto Rican, the presidency of the Senate.

When the United States Congress created the Elected Governor Law in 1947, putting an end to the practice of the president appointing the governor, the change in the island’s political structure was huge, particularly in terms of both the real and the symbolic power of the Legislature. In the 1948 elections, Puerto Rican voters first chose their governor by popular vote and from that time on each major political party has nominated its main leader as candidate for that post. Thus the political leader of the majority party moved from the legislative branch to the executive and began to control politics in Puerto Rico from that post, though the legal framework of the imperial regime remained the same. When Muñoz Marín took office as governor of Puerto Rico in January of 1949, Puerto Rico began a new stage characterized by the real and symbolic dominance of the executive, along with a systematic reduction in the prestige and power of the Legislature.

Still, the Legislature’s greatest moment came in the early 1950s when it created a Constituent Assembly tasked with writing an organic law, or constitution, to structure the island’s government. The work done by this group of citizens drew on the legislative experience of recent years and was based on the best parliamentary traditions. It produced a document approved by consensus: the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which was approved with varying levels of enthusiasm by all of the island’s political factions. The work done by the Constituent Assembly represented, from a procedural and democratic point of view (and independent of the competing political factions of the time), a particular achievement by the Puerto Rican political class, recognized by all as a successful experience both for its functioning and content, as well as its symbolism.

The Commonwealth Constitution validated the democratic principles of representation and separation of powers and gave the legislative branch extensive powers over the internal legislative process and the government’s finances. It also established the basis for autonomous administration of each of the branches of government, without interference from the executive, which guaranteed functional stability and formal continuity of both bodies, which is part of the republican principles of modern liberalism. Each house, for example, is empowered to write its own rules and regulations. One of the important aspects of the Constitution — and one that significantly strengthens the idea of plurality in political representation — is the guaranteed participation of political minorities.

Political limitations of the Commonwealth Legislative Assembly

Despite the historical development of the parliamentary institution, it continues to show structural flaws that limit its true autonomy and, therefore, its political role as a legitimate representative of the sectors that make up the territory and social plurality. The most serious deficit of democracy in the current regime comes from the control by the United States government over the affairs of the state, through the automatic application of laws approved by the Congress, in contrast to the ideals of self-government, democracy and free determination. This structural flaw enormously limits parliamentary development by making the Legislature an appendix of both the United States Congress and of the central (federal) government bureaucracy of the United States.

But there is another internal flaw that limits the parliamentary role of popular representation even more. That is the control exercised by the political parties. Through various means of control and coordination, the parties keep the legislators loyal to the party leadership, thus negating the democratic and constitutional principle of representing the public. Additionally, the parties have also conspired in the past to limit citizen participation beyond the scope of elections. One example is the law that establishes onerous conditions for any independent electoral initiative. It is worth asking whether the public’s current low opinion of politicians, particularly the members of the Legislative Assembly, is rooted in the autocracy of the parties and their structural ties with the corporate sectors of the economy that underwrite the costs of electoral campaigns.

It is encouraging, however, that despite the low opinion of the Legislature and the apparent continuity of a political culture that favors the executive authority, the island is committed to progressing with corrective reforms that bring about the benefits of greater efficacy and responsibility in the legislative work, on one hand, and will liberalize, on the other, the ways that alternative movements can organize that are capable of articulating new and competing proposals for public policy and social legislation.


Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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