For my research, I looked into how the debate over solving Puerto Rico’s status issue has changed over time and how the national identity and economy of the island have affected this debate. Starting with the end of Spanish control over the island, I began by looking into how relations between the United States and Puerto Rico developed.
It soon became clear that the debate over status is heavily influenced by the presence of a strong national pride that Puerto Ricans have and the economic crisis the island is currently facing.
At first I was mostly focused on the independence option and analyzing how support for this alternative has changed over the course of the twentieth century. While going through different pieces that take opposing viewpoints I became more interested in looking into the status issue as a whole. This allowed me to find more information about the full effect of the Puerto Rican identity and economy on the status debate.
When looking at the debate over the status of Puerto Rico one cannot overlook history of the political relationship between the island and the United States. By analyzing the development of the commonwealth status a clearer understanding of the debate can be obtained. This history begins with the end of Spain’s control over the island which lasted for 405 years. During this time those living within Cuba and Puerto Rico were seen as second-class citizens and lacked control over their internal affairs. As conclusion to the Spanish-American War, the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10th, 1898, gave the United States control of Puerto Rico. Following this transfer of control, the United States began to assert its political dominance over the island.
Initially the United States began a military occupation which would set the foundation for the island to become a sovereign state within the union. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Foraker Act was developed as a way to facilitate the process of annexation similar to Alaska and Hawaii. Instead it resulted in the development of a political relationship similar to the one between the American colonies and England. It became clear that Puerto Rico had found itself in a situation which mirrored their colonial past. By 1915, the majority political party in Puerto Rico, the Union Party, made it clear that the island should be independent of the United States as a way to pull away from becoming another colony. The United States instead began to tighten their grip on the island.
With World War I approaching the United States saw maintaining power within the Caribbean as a necessity and began to increase their presence. The passing of the Jones Act in 1917 imposed United States citizenships on the Puerto Rican population making them eligible for the war’s draft.
This caused the Puerto Rican population to begin to further question the
current relationship with the United States. Economic prosperity was still out of reach for the island and they were now United States citizens who were unable to vote for president or have a voice in congress. This then led to the Puerto Ricans demand for a plebiscite to determine the status fate of the island.
Development of the Commonwealth
The ambiguous colonial style relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico set the framework for the development of the commonwealth. Motivations for the redevelopment of this relation came from the preservation of economic interests on the island. At this time Puerto Rico was seen as investors as a “new tropical investment paradise, replete with political stability, low wages and a compliant government”. By creating a new type of relationship these interests could be preserved in a way which directly benefited investors. During the 1930s the economy of Puerto Rico became dominated by absentee landowners from within the United States. Over the course of the next twenty years the United States would begin to try and pull away from Puerto Rico being seen as a colony.
Puerto Rico was removed, by the United States, from the list of non-self-governing territories, meaning that the United States no longer had to report on the condition of the island annually. It was at this time that the Popular Democratic Party, PPD, in Puerto Rico began to shift their focus from independence towards fixing the current status. Under the leadership of Luis Munoz Marin the PPD began to work on modifications that would integrate the Puerto Rican economy with that of the United States in a way that would be lower poverty rates on the island which would be referred to as the Estado Libre Asociado. Over time this developed into a way for the island to receive more autonomy and led to Munoz Marin calling for a new plebiscite in 1967. Since it was not initiated by Congress, this vote was only to show the amount of support this new reimagined vision for the island.
After returning to office in 1973, the PPD began to bring new reforms to the commonwealth status. A commission was established to look into ways of improving this status in a way that would give Puerto Rico more of a political voice. The report issued by the committee also highlighted the “if the colonial formula were not reworked… Puerto Rico would relinquish its status a center for capital accumulation”. Following the party’s loss in the 1980 elections, members then began to approach the United Nations Decolonization Committee. These events have led to the development of the current commonwealth status of Puerto Rico.
Those in support for the annexation of Puerto Rico have been present since the island was under United States control. During this time it was primarily the elite of the island the island that saw this as the best possible outcome. Groups such as the Partido Republicano became strong supporters for the annexation of the island stating that it would give Puerto Ricans political power and freedom that they were denied when under Spanish rule. By the 1930s the Partido Republicano began to lose support and joined with the Partido Socialista to keep their cause from dying out.
Following World War II support for statehood began to increase. The name of the Partido Republicano was changed to Partido Estadista Republicano, PER, as a way to make it clear that statehood was the number one priority. The revival of this position was also brought on by the industrialization of the island. Between the years 1952 and 1956 the PER gained 103 percent more votes. This took place around the same time as the development of the commonwealth status showing that there was a strong push away from a colonial political relationship. In recent plebiscites the votes going towards statehood have continued to grow since many believe it will help end the economic crisis the island is facing.
During the 1930’s a strong support for independence began to spread across Puerto Rico. The Great Depression was taking its toll on the Puerto Rican economy and for many it signaled the time for drastic political change. The Nationalist Party was led by Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard educated Puerto Rican who possessed an anti-imperialism rhetoric. In 1936, the group led a march in the city of Ponce where they were met with violence resulting in what is known as the Massacre of Ponce. The Nationalist Party saw independence from the United States as complete sovereignty and the ability to self-govern.
The support for independence hit its peak in the 1970s with the help of the Partido Socialista Puertorriqueño. This was due to the increasing rise in nationalism and a unified Puerto Rican identity which could potentially be
lost with annexation into the United States. Along with the fall of socialism came the decreasing popularity of the PSP. Following this the independence movement has not been able to gain the same momentum it had during the mid-twentieth century.
Roles of Nationalism and Economy
Puerto Rican Nationalism
Scholars today have been looking at the way that the status issue has evolved and changed over time. When going through this one of the main factors that is brought is the concept of the Puerto Rican identity. Ruben Berrios Martinez, president of the Pro-independence party, argues that statehood has become inviable due to the implication of cultural assimilation. This argument lays the groundwork for understanding how the culture and identity that Puerto Ricans possess will complicate the process of annexation. The question of how this group of people would fit into the rest of American society, being a largely Spanish speaking population, makes the possibility of statehood seems less realistic. It is described by Christina Burnett that Puerto Rico could become the Spanish speaking equivalent of Quebec.
Opposition to this claim of the strength of a national identity comes with the divisions among the Puerto Rican population. Juan Manuel Carrion describes the political, ideological and diverse social classes as problems that can deter away from a strong national identity. He goes on to state that there is clearly a Puerto Rican nation that exists. This shows that even with the diverse population a common identity is formed. By acknowledging this one now must question what assimilation into United States society would look like for this group. For many it is still an impossible option with those citing linguistic and cultural barriers as major obstacles. Personally I think that the Puerto Rican identity would not combine with the American identity. At this point in time the pride that people have on the island is so engrained in their culture that it would take many generations to come close to any type of assimilation. When it comes to fitting in as a state I do believe that Puerto Rico would look similar to places like Quebec. It would maintain its language and culture while still being a part of the rest of the nation.
When discussing the evolution of the status debate many scholars focus on the how the economy impacted support for certain status options. By looking at data and analyzing the economic patterns of Puerto Rico, such as the high unemployment rate compared to the United States, one can clearly see that the island is currently going through a recession. This current economic state was brought on by the system of dependence that the early relationship with the United States has forced the island into.
Each of the status options has gained support due to a desire to change the current economic situation. For independence it was the desire to break away from imperial force that would allow the island to develop on its own. Having this sovereignty would put more power in the hands of the government on the island and allow them to maintain economic growth. Those who pushed for the development of the commonwealth were simply trying to find a compromise that would move away from being economically treated as a colony and instead improve the economy by working with the United States. The increasing popularity for statehood can be brought back to the desire to receive more federal economic aid to the island. The research I have done has led me to believe that the United States, especially during the early twentieth century, prevented the economy of Puerto Rico from becoming prosperous. It was then further damaged by the heavy influence of foreign investors and the rise in tourism. Through this it became clear that there needs to be some change in the status issue in order for the economy of the island to be rebuilt.
Suggestions for further research
For scholars looking to do more work in this field I would suggest going out and talking to people in Puerto Rico and finding out which of these status options is most appealing. Recent plebiscites have proven to be problematic and many argue that it fails to give an accurate portrayal of what a majority of the people believe. Ideally these interviews will not only include policy makers and members of the government but also people from different social classes. By getting many voices from different groups there will be less of a chance of misrepresenting the population.
I also think that a way to solve the economic crisis is to recreate commissions that are devoted to fixing the status issue. When reading about the work the Munoz Marin and his party did I realized that having a group devoted to researching alternatives and proposing changes could go a long way in finding a solution. This would include working with the United States government and keeping an open dialogue between the two nations where each has an equal say. The lack of a voice for the Puerto Rican population has only helped place the island in the current crisis it finds itself in today. In order for drastic positive changes to be made it is important that the needs of the Puerto Rican population are not pushed aside.
In the future, I believe that there will be a reevaluation of the development of the commonwealth. When researching the topic many articles called the commonwealth a clear example of colonization. This is only reinforced by the lack of a representation that Puerto Rico has in Congress. Finding a solution to the status issue will involve a large amount of cooperation between the United States and Puerto Rico that has been virtually nonexistent in the past. Lastly, I believe that the key to changing the current status of the island is in the hands of the people. In the modern era the role of social media cannot be overlooked. It provides a medium that could allow the Puerto Rican population to have a voice that could make a lasting impact on how the island is seen by not only the United States government but the American society as well
David J. Mojica is a senior at Rutgers University and is a Latino and Caribbean Studies major. Throughout high school and college he has had two main passions, music and giving back to the community. David played cello for eight years and at the age of sixteen played in Carnegie Hall as a part of the East Brunswick High School Orchestra. He also was heavily involved with community service projects around the New Brunswick area. Once in college, David joined the radio station 90.3 The Core where he currently hosts “Movin’ and Groovin'” a weekly jazz music show. At the station he also produces a weekly podcast style program entitled “Core of the Matter” that highlights issues within the Piscataway and Rutgers communities. Growing up in a Puerto Rican family and having heard the history of the island from his family made this research even more enjoyable for him. In his eyes it has all come full circle and now it is time to move on to achieve great accomplishments.