Imperialist expansion and the economic interests of the United States in Spain’s last possessions in the Caribbean brought the Spanish-American War to the coasts of Puerto Rico. The first thunder of cannons was heard on the morning of May 12, 1898. Under the orders of Admiral William Sampson, a fleet of 11 ships fired on the capital for three hours. Despite the intense bombardment, material damages were not great and caused only two deaths. However, it led to panic among the residents of the capital and many decided to flee the city.

The trauma of the bombardment added to the scarcity of food and other basic goods. Hunger had already been felt as a result of the economic crisis gripping the island, and was aggravated by the naval blockade the U.S. military imposed on Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans’ loyalty to Spain weakened due to the uncertainty. Hunger and the perennial shadow of disease drifted through the Puerto Rican people. War had come to the island and the help from the “mother country” did not arrive. It never arrived. The Spanish fleet, led by Admiral Pascual Cervera, was trapped and destroyed in Cuba by the forces led by Admiral Sampson in the month of July.

The experience of the bombardment, along with information provided by U.S. military intelligence, let Washington know just how weak the Spanish defenses were in Puerto Rico. At the same time, U.S. public opinion, heated up by an imperialist press with investment interests, favored taking possession of the island. President William McKinley, following the platform of his presidency and the Republican Party, ordered General Nelson A. Miles to invade Puerto Rico. An experienced military leader, Miles immediately laid out a plan of attack that included the use of fresh troops. On July 17, 1898, Miles defeated the Spanish at Santiago in Cuba. Four days later, 10 ships triumphantly sailed toward Puerto Rico under Miles’ command.

On July 25, U.S. troops landed on the coast at Guánica. At first, Miles planned to land at Fajardo. However, Miles changed his plans while at sea. Landing at Guánica allowed him to easily capture the cities of Ponce and Yauco, where separatist sentiments were waiting to be tapped. From the beginning, having the support of these broad and influential sectors of the island was important to legitimize the military invasion.

The Associated Press compared the military operation on Boricua soil as a picnic. The resistance was minimal and the number of casualties relatively few. The Spanish troops, few in number and poorly supplied, gave ground and the invading troops were able to occupy the main cities in the south and west of the island: Yauco on July 27, Ponce on July 28, and Guayama on August 5. A significant part of the population was pleased to see the U.S. troops and in other towns there was a boisterous uproar. Many saw the blue uniforms and the stars and stripes as liberation from the Spanish yoke and the possibility of political and economic recovery. In that spirit, Nelson Miles stated the following in a nearly messianic speech on July 28 in Ponce:

“To the Inhabitants of Puerto Rico: In the prosecution of the war against the kingdom of Spain by the people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Puerto Rico. They come bearing the banner of freedom, inspired by a noble purpose to seek the enemies of our country and yours, and to destroy or capture all who are in armed resistance. They bring you the fostering arm of a free people, whose greatest power is in its justice and humanity to all those living within its fold. […] The chief object of the American military forces will be to overthrow the armed authority of Spain, and to give the people of your beautiful island the largest measure of liberty consistent with this occupation. We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves, but to your property; to promote your prosperity, and bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government.”

After the surrender of Ponce, part of the U.S. troops went west and were able to capture Mayagüez. The others marched up the central highway to Juana Díaz and Coamo. In the Asomante sector, the Spanish troops dug in and stopped the advance toward Aibonito. Poorly equipped and without support, the troops fought heroically against the U.S. Army.

The armistice between the forces in the war was signed on August 12. While the conversations went on in Paris, the Spanish ceded the island to U.S. forces and left Puerto Rico. On October 18, the last Spanish forces left the island and the U.S. flag flew above public buildings. The tumultuous time that came after the armistice allowed old resentments to come out between different sectors of the population. Seditious gangs or “tiznados” began to attack the plantations in the mountains, causing fear and violence. U.S. troops, trampling the image of liberators that many workers had of them, defended the interests of the landowners, business owners and Spaniards.

While the United States was committed to the independence of Cuba, with Puerto Rico there was no political commitment or any agreement. Puerto Rico was seen as the spoils of war, a prize for the U.S. military effort. On December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Spain ceded to the United States total control of the island of Puerto Rico. A military government was installed on the island under the command of General John R. Brooke. Soon, the aspirations for autonomy or independence were extinguished under the reality of the new military and colonial regime that lasted for two years.

 

Author: Yanelba Mota Maldonado
Published: August 25, 2015.

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