By 1897, the issue of autonomy reforms had become critical and had drawn international interest. In November of that year, the Council of Ministers in Spain approved three decrees to reform the colonial regime in Puerto Rico and Cuba. The first decree was to extend to the Antillean residents Title 1 of the Spanish Constitution, which recognized individual rights. The second decree applied the electoral law of 1896, giving the right to vote to all men 25 years of age or older who had not lost any of their civil rights. The third decree was the Autonomic Charter, which established changes in the colonial government.

Under the Autonomic Charter, the governor chosen by the king was the Crown’s representative and exercised total executive authority on the island. He was in command of the armed forces on land and sea and was responsible for public security and order in Puerto Rico. Among other duties, he appointed the officials of the colonial administration. The legislative branch consisted of two bodies: the Administration Council and the House of Representatives. The Council consisted of 15 members, seven of whom were named by the governor for life and eight who were elected. Belonging to the Council granted a privileged status, and only those with money and social prestige could be part of the Council. Members had to be born on the island or have lived there at least four years, not have lost any of their political rights and have an annual income of 4,000 pesos. In short, the Council consisted of businessmen, landowners and other influential professionals. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives consisted of 32 members who had to meet the same requirements as the members of the Council, except for income. The representatives were elected for five years and could be re-elected any number of times. These two bodies had the power to legislate over anything related to the administration of Puerto Rico: treasury, public works, trade, budget and industry. They also negotiated trade agreements with foreign countries, although the agreements had to be approved by the government in Madrid.

Although the Autonomic Charter did not recognize free trade between Puerto Rico and Spain, it allowed the Council and the House to be involved in setting the tariffs that governed trade relations. The Charter also affected municipal politics. Also allowed municipalities to determine their own budgets and decide local issues related to public education, transportation, health, and hiring of employees. It provided men with the right to vote, recognized individual rights, increased Puerto Rican representation in the Cortes, decreased the power of the colonial governors, created elected local councils and allowed participation by locals in administrative affairs.

The Autonomic Charter was considered the end of a long struggle to achieve participation in the administration of the island. Although the Spanish protectionist system remained in place, Puerto Ricans had a role.

Author: Zahira Cruz
Published: September 12, 2014.

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