The governor is the head of state of Puerto Rico and leads the executive branch (he is Puerto Rico’s chief executive). The governor is responsible for ensuring that the administration fulfills its role of maintaining the social order that organizes daily life and has the responsibility for ensuring that the government serves the interests of the community (efficiently and fairly), through effective management of political polices and state rules. The governor is also responsible for economic policy, with the goal of providing prosperity and for representing Puerto Rico in the community of nations, which includes coordinating relations with the United States government. The resident commissioner, despite formally representing the Puerto Rican people before the United States Congress, is subordinate to the governor and is subject to the governor’s authority and supervision. Under modern democratic norms accepted worldwide, the chief executive or head of state, which in the case of Puerto Rico is the governor, is elected by the people in periodic elections with universal suffrage. The executive power of the governor constitutes just one of the three branches of the government, however.

But it has not always been this way. For more than four centuries of imperial rule, the island of Puerto Rico was governed as a territory or possession, first by the Spanish monarchy and later by the United States Congress. In Spanish times, the governor was nominated by the Indies Council and appointed by the king. After the change of possession, for nearly half a century the president of the United States appointed the governor. In both cases, the governor exercised power on behalf of those higher authorities and was subject at all times to the will of the imperial power and the supervision of its administrative institutions. The governor in office had the responsibility of implementing current state policies, protecting the integrity of the territory, facilitating military security, ensuring political stability, guaranteeing social order and the good government and well being of the territory’s residents. Additionally, because Puerto Rico had important military value during those many centuries and was considered an essential part of the main line of defense for the maritime borders of both empires (strategic value), governors often had close ties with the military. Spain, ruled by an absolute monarchy that did not recognize separation of powers and sought to centralize all public authority in the figure of the king and his personal representatives, consolidated the posts of governor and captain general in Puerto Rico. These officials were appointed by the king after being nominated by the bureaucracy of the Indies Council. The governor and captain general, through the delegated authority of the king, exercised political control over all aspects of government, including church affairs. The Spanish governors were always born in Spain, usually military officers, sent to Puerto Rico, typically for short periods of time, to manage the crown’s political interests. Their performance was not subject to question by the community they governed, but only subject to the will of the king.

The European monarchies during the early centuries of the empire were dominated by absolutist practices that did not incorporate separation of governmental powers. Instead, all public roles, including legislative and judicial, were organized in pyramid form with the king at the top as supreme authority. The authoritarian administrative structure that developed the Spanish empire in the Americas was institutionally complex and capable of adapting to the diverse circumstances that arose over time. On occasion, administrative reforms were adopted that adapted government policies to new times and experiences. An example was the territorial redistribution of the 18th century and the renewed economic development policies promoted by the Bourbon dynasty. At all times, however, the empire maintained the principle of managing the territories in accordance with royal interests, which in Puerto Rico meant that there was never a Puerto Rican governor or any political and administrative institutions that limited royal authority and represented the local island community. The Spanish political culture, however, included the tradition of respecting certain local rights that dated to medieval privileges (ancestral political powers of traditional communities) before the consolidation of monarchic power. This tradition legitimized the political participation of local and regional communities (although it was limited in the Americas) and gave certain political powers and prerogatives to the councils (municipal governments). The participation of local-born residents in the councils, although limited by the heavy hand of monarchical authority, would be key for the proliferation of modern political ideas and for the emergence of independence movements that spread throughout the continent in the early 19th century. Although modern democratic ideas proliferated and spread to every corner of the empire after the French Revolution, encouraged in large part by the local councils, the Spanish state kept executive power over its overseas territories in the hands of officials sent from Spain. In Puerto Rico, the governor was an all-powerful and despotic figure.

When the United States successfully invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War (1898) and took possession of the island, it found itself needing to implement a civil government for the new territory. But the political regime established by the emerging empire showed more continuity than change, at least in terms of the institution of the governor. On one hand, it had promised to replace Spanish absolutism with modern and democratic institutions, but at the same time it believed that the island, because of its location and high strategic (geopolitical) value, would play a key role in the new empire’s naval expansion. And because in Washington it was thought that the island had a population that was racially and culturally disadvantaged in comparison to the Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States, which left the Puerto Ricans incapable of correctly managing democratic institutions, it was concluded that it was imperative to ensure complete political control through institutions that answered directly to the government in Washington. Thus the Foraker Act (1900), which established the first civil government in Puerto Rico under the new regime, replicated the Spanish imperial tradition of concentrating political power in an executive branch directed by a governor appointed by the imperial authority, in this case the president of the United States. The appointment was for four years, but the president could dismiss the governor at any time. The post of governor created by the Foraker Act displayed the dual nature as chief executive of the island government and representative of the United States government. Although the law also created a Legislative Assembly with a lower house (House of Representatives) that was elected by the people every two years, instead of an elected Senate it established an Executive Council appointed by the U.S. government, of which six government cabinet members, also named by the president, were members. At the same time, despite the formal designation of the Department of the Interior as the federal agency to oversee Puerto Rico affairs, the Navy assumed a dominant role in colonial policy from the beginning. This situation did not change with the constitutional reforms instituted by the Jones Act (1917), although a Senate elected by the people replaced the Executive Council. The governors, however, continued to be sent by Washington and have quasi-absolute power. The brutal political repression by Governor Blanton Winship of Puerto Rican nationalists in the 1930s echoed the extreme actions by the “omnipotent” Spanish governors against political dissidence during the 19th century. Until the end of World War II (1939-1945), Puerto Rico had U.S. governors appointed by the president of the United States without involvement of any part of the Puerto Rican community.

But World War II would change the imperial political environment. The economies of Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union were disrupted by the effects of the war, while the other traditional European empires, such as France and Britain, were in a process of withdrawal. Only the United States showed signs of growing power, which gave it economic and political leadership over the rest of the world. Decolonization of territories in the former empires was the order of the day, and the creation of the United Nations was evidence of this worldwide trend toward democratization. In the Caribbean, former British, French and Dutch colonies became independent, while the United States, in response to this pressure to decolonize, sought ways to democratize the government in its colony of Puerto Rico without negatively affecting its strategic (geopolitical) interests in the region.

The first important change with respect to the institution of governor came in 1946 when President Truman, at the suggestion of outgoing Governor Rexford Tugwell, named a Puerto Rican, Jesús T. Piñero, governor of Puerto Rico. It was the first time in history that a person born in Puerto Rico assumed the post of governor. A year later, the Congress approved the Elective Governor Law, putting an end to the presidential appointments and recognizing the right, consistent with the principle of free determination, to elect a chief executive for the island every four years through universal suffrage. In 1948, little more than half a century ago, Puerto Rico elected its first governor: Luis Muñoz Marín. Four years later, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Constitution was approved. This organic law organized the island’s government and established the political principles that give shape to the state. It validated periodic elections (every four years) of the governor by popular vote and described his role as chief executive. For the first time, the governor of Puerto Rico became, in both real and symbolic terms, the most important and powerful political figure in Puerto Rico, representing the expressed will of the community he or she served.

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

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