America's Occupation of Puerto Rico

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America's Occupation of Puerto Rico

On July 25, 1898, American troops led by General Nelson Miles landed at Guanica and began the military invasion of Puerto Rico. Within three days, Miles and his troops secured the city of Ponce and rendered a Spanish surrender a matter of time. Although the Island was taken by force and placed under martial law, the general reaction to the United States invasion was very much positive. In fact, the Puerto Rican people admired U.S. political and economic ideals so much that one local newspaper told it's readers, “from a people who are descendants of Washington, no one should expect a sad surprise ... we trust, with full confidence in the great Republic and the men who govern her.” [1] Unfortunately that confidence was short lived, as the realities of American political and economic agendas set in and led Puerto Rico to be “stranded in a sea of ambiguity, racism, audacity and indifference.” [2] U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico was marked by severe contradictions of so-called `American' ideals pertaining to new and established policies that were extended to Puerto Rico and these contradictions have had profound and long-lasting effects on the development of the island politically, economically and socially.

In 1897, Spain established self-government in Puerto Rico and the people drafted a constitution. One year later, the Spanish would cede Puerto Rico to the United States and that constitution would go basically unrecognized. On the island, the local politicians realized that “`through fate of war' and the force of arms, their constitution was ... irrelevant.” [3] Although the islanders lost their constitution, their confidence in the U.S. coupled with a pledge from General Miles, in which he describes the U.S. goal as, “ promote your prosperity, and to bestow upon you the immunities and the blessings of the liberal institutions of our government,” [4] had them expecting to eventually write a new and improved constitution as soon as the military government was abolished. Unfortunately, while the Puerto Rican people patiently waited for the Great Republic to deliver liberty, the Americans argued for almost two years about what to do with their new possession.

On April 12, 1900, President McKinley signed the Foraker Act (also known as the first organic act) into law and sealed the political fate of the Puerto Rican people. The act called for a Governor, an Executive Council, and a House of Delegates to govern the island.

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Both the Governor and the six department heads that comprised the Executive council were appointed by the President, and could be removed at any time according to the President's will. The House of Delegates was the only chamber of government that the Puerto Rican people could actually vote for. Unfortunately, the only real power the House had was to veto any legislation initiated by the Executive Council. The basic premise of the Foraker act was that the Puerto Rican people were unable to govern themselves, and that America must “give them small doses of democracy, one pill at a time.” [5] In fact, a Senate committee justified the act by reporting that “if a territory should be inhabited by a people of wholly different character, illiterate, and unacquainted with our institutions, and incapable of exercising the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution .... it would be competent for Congress to withhold from such people the operation of the constitution and the laws of the U.S.” [6] The primary goal of the U.S., explained by William Wolloughby, was to assure an efficient administration with the largest degree of self-government possible. What the Foraker act essentially did was to effectively place all the power in the United States' hands, and eliminate any possibility of independence.

Ironically, the Puerto Rican people found themselves with less freedom and liberty under American rule than they did under the Spanish. They lost full representation in the legislature, which may be the biggest contradiction of American policy that I have ever seen, and the right for every man to vote. They were also stripped of the right to government by the consent of the governed, which happens to be a major ideal in the American political system. Although the system of government established through the Foraker act was not well received by the islanders, it has remained basically intact with some minor changes. In 1917, the Jones bill was signed and basically re-distributed the power among the chambers of government. Although there were a few improvements, all the meaningful power was still `in the hands of the U.S. colonial administrators.'

Economically speaking, the Americans wasted no time arguing about policies. In 1898, less than one month of U.S. occupation, President McKinley established tariffs on Puerto Rican commercial goods. The purpose of these tariffs was to raise the funds needed to administer the military government, but the actual result was devastating to the Puerto Rican economy that relied heavily on agricultural goods. Due to post-war taxes imposed by Spain and Cuba, along with U.S. tariffs, Puerto Rico could no longer compete with other markets. Coffee, Puerto Rico's principal crop in 1897, quickly fell from 65.8 percent of foreign trade to an incredible 6 percent within 18 months. [7] Since the islanders had trouble selling their crops, many of the native farmers found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. Puerto Rico became completely dependent on American products and trade, while the U.S. was reaping the benefits of their new policies.

Along with the new tariffs, the U.S. made an assumption that would have “a ripple effect for virtually every man, woman, and child on the island.” [8] Before the U.S. invasion, Puerto Rico used silver pesos as their currency. No one at the time had an exact scientific calculation of the peso's value, but on international money markets, the peso was valued at seventy-five cents to the dollar. Shortly after the invasion, General Miles arbitrarily set the exchange rate “on the assumption that a peso was worth in bullion value less then half of one dollar.” [9] This solution to the currency issue robbed the islanders of 40% of their money and effectively destroyed the economic standing of the island. The reduction of the net worth of the islanders, coupled with the dramatic increase in the cost of living, doomed the islanders to a life of poverty. They found themselves struggling to earn an income, while the cost of everything around them, including dietary staples of life, dramatically rose. Those two factors set the tone for the Puerto Rican economy, and in my opinion, strengthened the dependency on the United States.

The adverse effects of the U.S. invasion can be seen clearly in terms of politics and economics, but the social effects may have been the most devastating. From the moment of American invasion, the Puerto Ricans were confronted with blatant racism and discriminating assumptions. As the United States decided the fate of the island, they often discussed the inferiority of the Puerto Rican race. According to the Black Legend, a heritage of undesirable Spanish characteristics, “Puerto Ricans were an inferior offspring of an already middle-level race” that were incapable of self-government and democracy. In fact, according to Atterson Rucker, a race as mixed as the Puerto Rican was doomed to inferiority. Rucker said, “The production of children, especially of the dark color, is largely on the increase. The country ones are naked until they reach the age of 10 or 12 years.... Their food consists mainly of the windfall of fruit and refuse, if they beat the dog or the hog to it.” [10] These comments were coming from the people who were responsible for governing the islanders and implementing a fair system of policies. How is it possible that the Puerto Ricans would ever receive fair judgments and policies if this is the prevailing view of the people.

According to George Perkins, the key to leading the Puerto Ricans to liberty was through education. He felt that, “....Generation after generation must first be educated in the school of civil and religious liberty before they can fully appreciate the benefits they may enjoy under a republican form of government.” [11] This view was adopted into the Jones act, and a commissioner of education was established. This commissioner had total control over the curriculum of Puerto Rican schools, and his main objective was to influence the hearts and minds of the Puerto Rican children. Through an `Americanized' form of education, the Puerto Ricans would be able to rid themselves of their inferior heritage and their lowly past. But what the Americans did not realize was that through all the insults, indifference and discrimination, Puerto Rican identity was effected.

Puerto Rico was ruled for almost four-hundred years by the Spanish, and when the Americans invaded, they found the islanders “poor, underfed, living in shacks subjected to a state of social degradation.” [12] After thirty years of American rule, the island was in the same condition, but according to the U.S., it was the people's own fault. In fact, many policies that the U.S. established closely resembled Spanish practices. How is it possible for the Great Republic, whose message is freedom and liberty, to rule like a tyrant? How is it possible to levy taxes on a people who have no representation in the legislature, when our founding fathers revolted when the English did it? The many contradictions of American rule in Puerto Rico are a result of the racism and total disregard, coupled with the absolute power and trust generated by the Great Democracy. The policies of racism and indifference that were implemented during the early years of U.S. occupation have set the foundation for the Puerto Rican politics, economy, and self-image, and their effects carry on into the present.


[1] Fernandez, Ronald. “The Disenchanted Island: Puerto Rico and the United States in
the Twentieth Century” (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1996) Page 4.

[2] Fernandez. Page 2.

[3] Fernandez. Page 4.

[4] Fernandez. Page 3.

[5] Fernandez. Page 10.

[6] Trias-Monge, Jose. “The Shaping of a Colonial Policy” from : Trias-Monge, Puerto
Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World (New Haven: Yale U Press, 1997)
Page 41.

[7] Fernandez. Page 5.

[8] Fernandez. Page 6.

[9] Fernandez. Page 6.

[10] Fernandez. Page 57.

[11] Fernandez. Page 13.

[12] Fernandez. Page 98.

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