In March of 1917, the Jones Act was approved by Congress and signed by President Woodrow Wilson. Introduced a year earlier by Congressman William Atkinson Jones, the law reorganized the island’s political structures and gave U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. This essay focuses on the road to the law’s approval and how it modified the Foraker Act and the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.

The invasion and military government made clear the imperialist intentions of the United States toward the island and extinguished hopes for equal and just treatment that many had put in the United States. This new situation led to the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s political parties. Leaders of the old autonomist parties thought that annexation was now the way to achieve the political and economic freedom they desired. The Historical Autonomist Party, led by José Celso Barbosa, reorganized in March of 1898 as the Puerto Rican Republican Party. Meanwhile, the party led by Luis Muñoz Rivera, the Liberal Fusionist Party, did the same under the name American Federal Party.

Though they had similar platforms and objectives, the parties differentiated themselves in two main ways. First, the strong rivalry between their leaders deeply affected their ideological differences. Second, the socio-economic profile of their members was very different, which affected how the two groups defined and understood annexation to the United States. Among the ranks of the Republicans were professionals, business owners, bankers, artisans and landowners. The Federals consisted of coffee and sugar plantation owners. Barbosa and the Republicans identified with the United States and the policy it implemented on the island. The Republicans favored statehood, they were hopeful that it would open the U.S. market to businesses on the island and provide more political freedom. However, beginning with the invasion, the political institutions were dismantled along with the little autonomy that was given to the autonomous cabinet that had been led by Muñoz Rivera under Spanish rule. When the Foraker Act was approved in 1900, all hopes were extinguished. The law made Puerto Rico an unincorporated territory, which meant its status was that of a colonial possession.

After the retreat of the Federals in the elections of 1900, the Republicans held posts in the House of Delegates. That was when the rivalries between the Republicans and Federals broke out into violence. The so-called Republican turbas (violent mobs) attacked Federal leaders and burned the press of Muñoz Rivera’s newspaper, El Diario. The violence continued intermittently until the elections of 1902. In that vote, the Republicans, loyal to U.S. interests, again controlled the House of Delegates. If the political conditions were discouraging, the social conditions were worse. Absentee (U.S.) sugar capital created a deep economic and social dependence. The material conditions were alarming. Diseased, exploited and tired Puerto Ricans suffered from extreme poverty. The depth of the economic and social crisis and the lack of political movement led many civic groups to raise their voices in protest.

Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón and Manuel Zeno Gandía, along with other leaders, founded a civic group called the Union of Puerto Rico. The group’s objective was to defend the interests of the general public. It later became a political party. Dissatisfied with their respective political parties, both Republicans and Federals, along with other workers, joined the ranks of the Union Party. Notable among its members was Luis Muñoz Rivera. In the elections from 1904 to 1928, the Union Party became the dominant political force on the island. The Unionists, from the beginning, opposed the political, economic and social conditions imposed by the Foraker Act. The Unionists impugned Puerto Rican citizenship, considering it questionable and inferior because it did not have international legal standing. They also criticized the House of Delegates, pointing out that this body had no real political power, that it was merely a puppet of the interests of the agrarian absentee capital. They also objected that the governor and the Executive Council favored foreign capital at the expense of local businesses.

The struggle intensified between the two legislative houses. The House of Delegates, in a revolt against the regime, refused to approve the budget until the Executive Council approved measures for more political and economic freedom. The governor, H. Regis Post, and the Executive Council refused to do so. The two sides took the stalemate to Congress, which supported Governor Post and the Executive Council. To prevent this kind of standoff, then-President Taft suggested amendments to the Foraker Act that limited the House of Delegates’ power to decide the budget. The result was the Olmstead Amendment, which established that the previous budget would remain in effect if the House did not approve a new budget for the following year. With the Unionists defeated, the battle made clear the limitations of the Foraker Act.

Changes in the legal structures that ruled the island were aired in the U.S. Congress. The elections of 1916 were postponed. The Resident Commissioner from the Union Party, Luis Muñoz Rivera, negotiated with little success for a new law that would provide reliable political and economic freedoms for Puerto Rico. In the middle of the negotiations, his health deteriorated. Without seeing the fruits of his hard work, he died in November of that year. Finally, President Woodrow Wilson approved the Jones Act in 1917. In comparison to the Foraker Act, the Jones Act represented progress. Without great alterations, it remained in place until 1952. Several of its dispositions are still in effect.

The Jones Act conferred U.S. citizenship on all Puerto Ricans. With the United States’ entry into World War I, the military draft was imposed on the new U.S. citizens, who briefly participated in the war. As for its dispositions on the island’s governmental apparatus, it established an elected senate to replace the Executive Council, with two senators elected from each of the seven districts into which the island was divided by the law. It also included five senators elected at-large. However, the governor continued to be selected by the president and his cabinet was named by Congress. In economic issues, the law allowed a portion of the sugar produced on the island to be refined locally and required that trade between the island and the United States be done on U.S.-flagged ships. The Jones Act thus reinforced Puerto Rico’s economic dependence on the United States.


Author: Yanelba Mota Maldonado
Published: August 24, 2015.

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