Map of the main Taíno settlements in Boriquén

Map of the main Taíno settlements in Boriquén


The history of Puerto Rico can be divided into three periods. The first one covers the earliest civilizations that ruled the Island of Boriquén; the second two are framed in the context of the relationship with Spain and the United States. The Hispanic period includes the formative centuries, the 16th and 18th centuries, and the 19th century, which marked the beginning of the modernization process and the emergence of a national consciousness. The third period is the period of United States rule, which began in 1898, and has continued until now. This period is characterized, among other things, by a bittersweet relationship between the colonial power and a people struggling for political equality and socioeconomic development, while defending their own culture.

Puerto Rico has a rich and complex history, in which there has been change and continuity and affirmation and contradiction. There are five salient features that can be used to draw a profile of this evolutionary process: 1) the strategic value of the island, 2) economic subordination, 3) migratory movements, 4) the prevalent autonomist philosophy, and 5) the existence of a cultural nation that acts as a counterweight to the absence of political sovereignty.

A strategic stronghold
Puerto Rico’s geographic location in the West Indian archipelago destined the island to a frontier role since the time of the earliest Amerindian settlers. Conquered and colonized by Spain since 1508, at first the island was used as a base for further exploration, sharing with the other Greater Antilles the role of springboard and a place for acclimatization before adventures were undertaken on the continent. The island also served as a barrier against any offensive launched by the first settlers from the Lesser Antilles and as a center for defensive operations in the confrontations against them. The hostilities in the Caribbean increased with the appearance of the European nations who were Spain’s rivals.

This threatening atmosphere defined Puerto Rico’s position in the Spanish empire and the manner in which it was governed. Because of the Island’s strategic importance, after several unsuccessful attempts at different civilian political structures, the military government under a Captain General prevailed. The highest political position, the civilian governorship and the highest military position, that of the Captain General, were held by the same person, with very few exceptions, from 1583 until 1898, when the autonomous regime was established. Political power was subordinate to the military.

Puerto Rico was a military base of the first order for 400 years, and as such, it was part of the military defenses of the gateway to the empire. There were various military and paramilitary forces on the Island, and during the wars of independence waged by the Spanish colonies during the 19th century, Puerto Rico was used to further the interests of the colonial power. The ultimate expression of its military condition can be appreciated in the capital, San Juan, one of the most important walled and fortified bastions in Spanish America.


Monument to Puerto Rican veteran of United States wars

Monument to Puerto Rican veteran of United States wars

After the War of 1898, in which the United States wrested Puerto Rico from Spain, the Island remained a cornerstone of Caribbean geopolitics. The recently established autonomous government was immediately replaced by a military government that lasted until 1900. Despite the front of a civilian government established that year under the Foraker Act, the United States Congress kept the Island under strong colonial subjugation, first under the Department of War and later, from 1934 on, under the Department of the Interior.

Puerto Rico was a strategic base for the control of Caribbean until the end of the 20th century, a decisive factor in many of the decisions made regarding the political relationship with the United States. Because of the menacing situation during the two World Wars (1914-19 and 1939-45) and the Cold War (1945-89), many military facilities were established in Puerto Rico: bases, ports, and airports. The United States established a naval command center for the Caribbean and the South Atlantic, and Roosevelt Roads, in Ceiba, became the largest naval base outside the continental United States territory. In addition, the islands of Vieques and Culebra, and their surrounding waters, were used for decades as a naval training range by the United States Navy and the allies of the United States. Experiments with chemical weapons were carried out in the island’s forests. Thousands of Puerto Rican soldiers have taken part in the wars waged by the United States through compulsory and voluntary military service, and the National Guard.

The fall of socialism in Europe, the transfer of the military focus to the Middle East, and the militancy of Puerto Rican civilian society contributed to the dismantling of the military facilities. Of all these political struggles, the struggle to compel the Navy to leave, first from Culebra (1975) and then from Vieques (2003) had the most international repercussions. However, Puerto Rico’s strategic potential is still significant, especially for the control of the Caribbean, a point of access to the American hemisphere and drug trafficking routes. Hence, the federal government has retained key lands in which military bases may be reestablished, if necessary. Also, Puerto Rico is a recruiting ground for soldiers, especially through the National Guard, as has been evident in the war with Iraq.

Sugarcane workers during harvest

Sugarcane workers during harvest

One of the most entrenched images in the history of this Island is the idea of its never-ending dependency. Puerto Rico is believed to be incapable of supporting itself, always depending on the aid provided by the central power. However, a detailed analysis of its economic evolution would put this notion to question.

During the first decades of Spanish colonization, the profits from gold mining were higher, proportionally, than in Cuba, and were almost equal to those from the Dominican Republic. When mining ceased to be profitable, things became difficult, despite attempts to develop an agricultural economy based on sugar cane. Beginning in the mid-16th century until the first decade of the 19th century, a self-sufficient economy prevailed. This economy was complemented by contraband with the neighboring islands and foreigners that visited our shores. Ginger, cacao, leather, sugar, tobacco, and fruit were exchanged for flour and manufactured products. The low level of production is explained, in part, by the military use of the island under Spain. Puerto Rico was of secondary economic importance as compared to other colonial centers.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Spain lost its American possessions, except for Cuba and Puerto Rico. This created an opportunity for Puerto Rico to exploit its agricultural capacity, above and beyond its existence as a military bastion. The self-sufficient economy gave way to an agro-export economy based on a monoculture. The golden age of the sugar (1815-1870) and coffee (1870-1900) industries put the Island on the map of world production. By mid-century it was the second-largest exporter of sugar in the Caribbean, after Cuba, and the second foreign supplier to the United States, which accounted for, five percent of the world’s production. In proportion to its geographic area, the volume seems impressive, considering that the development of the sugar industry began almost half a century after Cuba and that the slave population was much smaller.

Coffee arrived in Puerto Rico in the mid-18th century. Since then, it has played an important role in the Island’s economy, but it was during the last third of the 19th century that it had its golden age. In 1880, Puerto Rico was the sixth largest coffee producer in the Americas, with an excellent market price on the main European markets because of its quality.

Sugar cane reigned on the coast, where African slaves comprised the most important labor force; but in the mountainous interior it was coffee that ruled, where free workers did most of the work. In both, however there was a combined labor force of slaves and day workers. At the end of the century, all of the workers were free men made equal by poverty and subjection.

The concentration of several stages of production in a single unit (the hacienda) gave rise to structural problems in both cases, which affected the quantity and quality of the output needed to satisfy the demands of the international market. Added to the unfavorable internal conditions marked by the absence of financial and credit institutions (the first bank was established in 1877) and the pronounced shortage of currency, the situation worsened according to fluctuations of prices in the external markets. At the turn of the century, both sugar cane and coffee plantations were in a transitional phase, searching for the right formula to sustain returns in the overseas market.

The United States invasion of 1898 was the final blow that upset the socio-economic order, above all affecting coffee production. Added to other problems, there was the devastation caused by hurricane San Ciriaco (1899), the bottoming-out of European markets, and the United State’s general lack of interest in the products of the island. To counteract the doldrums of the coffee industry, there was some development of fruit cultivation, especially citrus fruit, and in the tobacco and needlework industries.

Contrary to what happened with coffee, the sugar industry was revitalized. Puerto Rico’s incorporation in the orbit of the new colonial center and its customs laws, attracted substantial capital, putting an end to the plantation regime, while consolidating the system of large sugar mills. Large-scale United States corporations ruled the industry, but there also was a significant sector of foreign capital and locally-owned mills. Most Puerto Rican plantation owners were incorporated into the system as tenant farmers or colonos (farmers that supplied raw materials to the large mills). The industry regained its former glory to such a degree that, during the great depression of the 1930, the central mill owners had substantial profits.

Window to the Caribbean

Window to the Caribbean

The deplorable condition of the Caribbean colonies during the first decades of the 20th century, especially the miserable living conditions of workers, worsened because of the shortages caused by the Second World War. The fragility and restlessness of the situation constituted a threat to the strategic plans for the region. The response of the central powers, with the United States as their leader, was to implement social welfare and economic development measures in the poverty-stricken islands. Puerto Rico was a keystone of this plan.

The transition from an agro-exporting economy to an industrial economy began in the 1940s, and eventually resulted in the radical transformation of the island’s socioeconomic structure. At first, the principal catalyst of this change was state-owned industry, which was soon replaced by a new model based on the creation of industrial incentives. “Operation Bootstrap” (1947) attracted private investments, specifically in the form of foreign capital, mainly from the United States. Once the changes had been consolidated, a situation that was dramatically exemplified by the desertion the countryside and the rapid growth of urban areas, the bulk of economic production was derived from manufactured goods. Because of these dazzling results, Puerto Rico came to be known as the “showcase of the Caribbean”.

Light manufactured goods (clothing, textiles, processed food) prevailed during the initial industrial phase, but during the 1970s industry turned to capital-intensive activities, producing pharmaceuticals, electronics, and petroleum derivates. Puerto Rico became one of the United States’ principal suppliers of some of these products. Foreign capital investment and profits dominated manufacturing and finance, which left Puerto Rican capital in a subordinate position.

This fast economic growth alleviated extreme poverty in Puerto Rico and increased the population’s standard of living. However, the island today is not free of serious problems. Progress has been achieved as a result of foreign investment, which has limited economic development based on native capital, and through the transfer of federal funds through subsidies, loans, and economic and welfare assistance programs. On the other hand, very low agricultural productivity aggravates external dependence, which includes even the most basic ingredients of the Puerto Rican diet. Hence, even with this considerable amount of commercial activity, there is still a negative balance for the island, a balance which is always favorable to the United States, whose exports to Puerto Rico surpass those to other larger countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina. This dependence is strengthened by the needs created by a consumer society and the constant flight of capital.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the economic models that modernized the island are severely outdated, and the current —and pressing— challenge is to find alternatives to support and promote further development. The fast-paced changes of a dependent economy have also brought on a certain amount of social instability, and the immediate effects of unemployment and antisocial conduct. According to United States standards, in 1999 44.6 percent of families in Puerto Rico were living under the poverty level, with a per capita annual income of barely $14,462 (2006) and an unemployment rate of about 11 percent (May 2007). This explains, to a certain extent, the mass emigration to the United States, where 4 million Puerto Ricans live, a number about equal to the population of the Island.

Dominican mini market in Santurce, one of the principal settlements of the Dominican diaspora

Dominican mini market in Santurce, one of the principal settlements of the Dominican diaspora

Migration has been a fundamental aspect of the history of Puerto Rico. Circumstantial, international, and local factors explain the periods of greatest migratory movement. At the beginning of the Spanish regime, the population was sparse because the colony was not very attractive in comparison with the rich continental territories of the empire. This situation prevailed until the end of the 18th century, when development measures were introduced in the Spanish Antilles as a result of a policy of incentives encouraged by enlightened monarchs. From that time on, the population has been in constant growth. By the end of the 19th century, Puerto Rico’s population density was one of the highest in the world.

Throughout the 19th century, during the golden age of sugar and coffee, and when there were intense political struggles in the Americas and Europe, the Spanish authorities encouraged a constant flow of immigrants. The largest group of non-Spanish immigrants were the French, especially Corsicans. There were also an influx from other parts of Europe, the Antilles, the United States, Canada, and South America, as well as of African slaves.

These immigrations had a variety of consequences. They were crucial for the development of the sugar and coffee industries, and in Puerto Rico’s integration with the international markets, but they also had social and political repercussions. Even though there was significant interaction between immigrants and the Puerto Rican-born population or criollos, the former contributed to the economic displacement of the latter, debilitating the development of a strong class of Puerto Rican property owners who would have the capacity to challenge the authority of the colonial power and undertake the creation of a new independent nation.

Economic and political changes that arose at the beginning of the 20th century reversed the migratory movement. From the early years of the century, there was large-scale emigration, especially to the United States. It was a means for farm workers to escape from their precarious situation and to counteract the surplus unemployed labor force. Encouraged by the government’s official policy, it is calculated that 834,000 Puerto Ricans migrated between 1940 and 1969, most of whom came from the rural areas of the island.

Economic transformation and the growth of urban areas during the second half of the 20th century, gave way to a new set of values based on providing advanced education to the masses and developing the professional sector -affecting migratory patterns from the end of the 20th century until now. In addition to the workers and farm hands of the past, today a well-educated and promising generation in almost every profession is leaving in search of better salaries and different lifestyles.

Meanwhile, during the second half of the 20th century, many people from other countries, escaping from political situations or seeking better economic conditions, arrived on our shores. The 2000 census showed that almost nine percent of the population had not been born in Puerto Rico, six percent of which came from the United States. At the end of the last century and at the beginning of the 21st century, the most significant immigration was from the Dominican Republic. As was the case with Cuban immigration, which had been the most significant up to now, as a result of the Cuban Revolution (1959), Puerto Rico is something more than a promise, it is the most direct route for reaching the United States, since the lack of a border or customs barriers makes it easier to reach the mainland from Puerto Rico.

Luis Muñoz Marín was elected by the people in 1948

Luis Muñoz Marín was elected by the people in 1948

In legal terms, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the Unites States. It is governed by the Federal Relations Act (1917) and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1952), which was the culmination of the political struggles waged by Puerto Ricans since the 1898 invasion.

During the Spanish regime the Island was ruled under the Laws of the West Indies, at the mercy of the absolute government of the Captains General and the oppressive public order ordinances that were used to keep the peace in the colony. The only local participation that was allowed was limited to deliberating local issues in the town councils or cabildos, of which, until the end of the 18th century, there were only two: San Juan and San Germán.

Spain’s war for independence against French invaders (1808-1814) made it possible for Puerto Ricans to become involved in politics. The opportunity provided by the Spanish parliament, the Cortes de Cádiz (1810-12), fired the struggle for equal participation between the Spanish colonies in America and the colonial power. The initiatives of the continental colonies and the Dominican Republic developed into campaigns for independence, while Cuba and Puerto Rico limited themselves to demands for reform. In Cuba, there were eventually two wars for independence (1868 and 1895), but in Puerto Rico the initiatives continued to be framed within an autonomist perspective. The country’s advancement would be obtained through a pact in which internal administration would be in the hands of the local criollo population, while guaranteeing a permanent union with the colonial power.

A significant number of liberals believed that economic and administrative decentralization and political assimilation would resolve the existing conflicts, and they were confident that the establishment of the Spanish constitution would bring with it the political and civil equality to which they aspired. The alternative of autonomy, in its various dimensions, was first considered at the Cortes de Cádiz, and subsequently on the rare occasions in which a open ideological debate was allowed by the colonial power. The twists and turns of Spanish politics and the fear of loosing its last footholds in America led the colonial power to reinforce control over its colonies. Puerto Ricans only had two alternatives: an armed insurrection, or to wait, with relative patience, for the right circumstances in which to bring reformist projects into fruition. Armed insurrection was attempted unsuccessfully, most notably the Grito de Lares in 1868. During the last two decades of the 19th century, circumstances that were propitious for reform arose, once the autonomist doctrine had been consolidated and legitimized. However women and the less privileged sectors of society were excluded from participating in politics, under a system of manhood suffrage based on the tax rolls.

The autonomous regime established in 1898 lasted barely a few months. North Americans reestablished a military government, and, simultaneously, Puerto Ricans reinitiated the struggle for political rights. Organic legislation was enacted as a result of the incessant debates and geopolitical interests. The military regime gave way in 1900 to the Foraker Act, which reestablished civilian government and created the position of resident commissioner (non-voting representative) in the United States Congress. In 1917, the Jones Act replaced the Foraker Act. Among other things, the Jones Act granted United States citizenship to Puerto Ricans, increased political participation for the local administration, and provided for the Federal Relations Act, which, in essence, is still in effect.

Both organic acts empowered the President of the United States to appoint the governor of the Puerto Rico, which was the case until 1947 when an amendment to the Jones Act made the governorship an elected position. In the elections that were held in the following year, for the first time in history Puerto Ricans were able to elect their own governor. Luis Muñoz Marín became the elected governor. Under Muñoz Marín’s leadership, in 1950, the United States Congress passed Public Law 600 authorizing the drafting of a constitution for Puerto Rico, with substantial of autonomy, and which came into effect on July 25, 1952.

The drafting of a Constitution did not eliminate the political debate. Those that opposed the regime did not accept the Constitution as a definitive statute because, despite the significant improvement to the Jones Act and the freedom it granted Puerto Ricans for managing internal affairs, the Federal Relations Act was still in effect and the Island was still under the subordination of the United States Congress. Thus, there are currently three different political positions defined by their proposed solution to the issue of the relationship with the United States: independence, statehood (full annexation), and autonomism. Regardless of the official names adopted throughout the years by the respective organizations, and the occasional alliances and coalitions, all of these alternatives link their solutions to the island’s problems to the political status of the island in its relationship with the colonial power.

Throughout the 20th century, as in the previous centuries, the autonomist ideology has prevailed, even though, starting in the 1970s, it has been losing ground to annexation, and both leading parties now have about the same amount of support. Independence continues to be the option favored only by a minority, although the independence party is a constant participant in political debates and continues to denounce the colonial status of Puerto Rico before the international community. At present, in 2007, the political parties are trying to negotiate with the United States Congress to find a way to redefine the political relationship with the United States. It is evident that none of the parties have a sufficient number of followers to implement a definitive solution.

La Fortaleza, official residence of Puerto Rican governors

La Fortaleza, official residence of Puerto Rican governors

A strong sense of cultural identity, different from the American identity, unites Puerto Ricans regardless of their ideological, economic, and social differences. The struggle to preserve that identity, now more than a century old, transcends the boundaries of political antagonisms and the circumstances of socio-economic transformations.

The United States and Puerto Rico, despite their being united since 1898, have their own ways of being, rooted in very different historical backgrounds. With the idea of furthering civilization, on the one hand, and military and economic interests on the other, the United States initiated an aggressive assimilation campaign to disseminate knowledge of American culture at the expense of Puerto Rican culture, which is firmly rooted in a Hispanic and Caribbean tradition. The assimilation process targeted key issues: language, the school system, cultural patterns, religious principles, and many other social practices and customs. Even the official Spanish name of the island was changed to Porto Rico. The main point of contention was the imposition of English in the schools and in government proceedings.

Puerto Ricans firmly resisted cultural assimilation, especially regarding the loss of Spanish, their mother tongue. Led by pro-independence groups, intellectuals and Spaniards established on the island, Puerto Ricans challenged the measures imposed by Americans in different ways: some by openly challenging them, others through legal action, and, most importantly, through literary and artistic activities that appealed to a sense of centuries of history. Through this activity, the sectors that opposed assimilation began shaping a Puerto Rican identity based on a Hispanic heritage. Regardless of how limited, exclusionist, and controversial this definition may be, it has been adopted as a canon since the 1930s, and has laid the foundation for a unique sense of identity, different from that of Puerto Rico’s fellow citizens to the North.

During the second half of the 20th century, this potent cultural discourse was consolidated in the creation of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (1955) and spread into the world of sports. Even though the concept of identity is changing constantly and is the object of critical analysis, the intention of reaffirming our way of being persists in its multiplicity of definitions, spearheaded by the tenacious defense of Spanish as the mother tongue. English is recognized as the language of those that live in the United States. In this process a cultural nation has been consolidated, relegating the political discourse of becoming a politically sovereign nation to a secondary level.

Besides the most obvious forms of cultural penetration, there are those that while being more subtle, are quite effective. There is no doubt that Puerto Rican society has been deeply influenced by the American lifestyle. This could hardly be avoided, in view of the intense media exposure, through all available means, to this dominant social model, supported by close economic ties. It is in fact quite admirable that such a small country, geographically speaking, in spite of the limitations it has faced, has survived among more powerful and overbearing models, making a name for itself in the international community. Puerto Rico, which has celebrated five hundred years of having been discovered by a European country, is once again at a new crossroads in which it will have to decide the nature of its political destiny and find a development model that will make it possible for the island to overcome its economic dependence.

María de los ángeles Castro-Arroyo
University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras


Author: Dra. María de los Ángeles Castro 
Published: September 04, 2014.

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