The Puerto Rican flag hanging on a pole by the beach.
Image Source: Ana Toledo on Unsplash

Puerto Rico and the History of Colonization

Last month, the House introduced the Puerto Rico Status Act. If it’s passed, the citizens of Puerto Rico will have the liberty to vote on its status – an independent nation, a state of the United States, or a sovereign body that has “free association” with the United States (Axios). None of these reflect the territory’s current state, which means there’s no turning back, regardless of which the people choose. Puerto Rico has already voted six times for sovereignty from the U.S., but those votes were non-binding, so Congress did not have to abide by them (Bianca Graulau). With this bill, Congress would have to respond appropriately to what the people choose.

The bill is far from perfect, and many logistical details need to be determined regarding exactly how this process would unfold. For LatinoRebels, Pablo Manríquez interviewed Dem. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She highlighted some of the issues that need to be addressed. It is well worth a read.

Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. has been hotly contested. Currently, it’s considered a commonwealth of the U.S. Puerto Ricans elect a non-voting representative in Congress. It’s not part of the electoral college, so Puerto Ricans can’t vote for president outright, but they’re still subject to federal laws. There’s also controversy as to whether Puerto Rican citizens residing on the island should be considered American citizens (Scholars Collaborative).

TAKE ACTION

• Learn why Puerto Rico isn’t currently considered a state in this video by Bianca Graulau.

• Reflect: How much have you learned about colonization? How many of the stories that you’ve read center the U.S. as a colonizing country?

But what’s clear is that Puerto Rico has been subjected to unfair treatment by the U.S. since its initial colonization. Puerto Rico has been a colony for the past 124 years. In the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines over to the U.S. (Zinn Education Project).

Before then, the Spanish colonized the island in the early 1500s, a violent and oppressive occupation that exploited its people, decimated its local culture and exhausted the island’s abundant and diverse ecology. The U.S. has not just exerted its control over the past century but actively benefited from the colonization of the Taíno people centuries before (Yale). 

Throughout its history, the U.S. has demonstrated a clear lack of respect for the culture and history of the island and its people. A series of laws established English as the official language of the island, despite the fact that it wasn’t spoken by the majority of its inhabitants. In addition, the first governor appointed by the U.S. didn’t speak Spanish. The U.S. quickly implemented eugenicist practices on the island after falsely stating that overpopulation would worsen social and economic conditions. By 1976, the U.S. had sterilized over 37% of women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico. Many were not told that the procedure was permanent and irreversible. It also tested contraceptive drugs on women after being barred from conducting similar trials on women in the U.S. (Eugenics Archive).

The U.S. quickly industrialized the island, establishing U.S.-based businesses at the expense of the local economy. In 1976, Congress passed a law allowing American firms to operate on the island tax-free. It wasn’t phased out for 20 years. Wracked with economic turmoil, Puerto Rico was forced to take on debt to keep things afloat. And this was exacerbated by a series of natural disasters, starting with Hurricane Maria, which caused billions of dollars in damage in 2017. Since then, a series of earthquakes and the coronavirus pandemic have worsened economic conditions (NBC News). Despite all this, previous U.S. presidential administrations have failed to provide adequate aid in response (NBC News). Vox has a comprehensive list of how the U.S. has exploited the island and its inhabitants.

Throughout history, the U.S. actively tried to prevent Puerto Ricans from voting for independence. In 1936, U.S. Senator Millard Tydings drafted a bill that would revoke U.S. citizenship, impose high tariffs and reduce (already limited) financial citizenship if Puerto Rico voted for independence. More radical or violent attempts to overthrow U.S. colonialism only worsened relationships between the island and the U.S. 

“Puerto Ricans never asked to be colonized, never asked to be denied their Puerto Rican citizenship and never asked to have U.S. citizenship imposed on them. They are colonial subjects of the United States.”

Legal professor Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán for the Washington Post

With this context, the introduction of the Puerto Rico Status Act is significant, as it acknowledges the history of colonization against Puerto Rico and sets a path for radically shifting the island’s relationship with the U.S. But regardless of how it performs in the House, the proposition is expected to fail in the Senate. And this alone wouldn’t repair the decades of harm inflicted against the island’s people.

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