Early History – A Hub of the Caribbean

            Puerto Rico was first explored by Europeans when Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1493 during his second voyage. He named the island San Juan Bautista, in honor of St. John the Baptist. Columbus claimed the island for Spain and his lieutenant, fellow explorer Juan Ponce de León, founded the first European settlement on the island, called Caparra. In 1521, Caparra was renamed to Puerto Rico, or “rich port.” Ponce de León would later serve as the island’s first governor. Caparra, a port city, would later receive the name San Juan, now the territory’s capital. San Juan is the oldest European-established city under United States sovereignty.

            Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector had not yet taken off; large sugarcane farms on nearby islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Guadalupe became major hubs in the slave trade. Puerto Rico instead consisted of dense port cities that saw heavy military fortification to defend against the Dutch, the French, and the British, and internal subsistence communities. Urban planning revolved heavily around ensuring Puerto Rico remained in Spanish hands.

            With the advent of the 1700s, Spain sought to focus on making their New World colonies prosperous. Puerto Rico quickly became a haven for cash crops like sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco, and a hub for trans-Atlantic trade. Already a stopover for the African slave trade, Puerto Rico itself would become a large patron of the trade.

            In an effort to secure its political standing with the island, Spain recognized Puerto Rico as an official province and gave them a right to elect representatives in 1809. As the Spanish kingdom went through parliamentary reforms, Puerto Rico would lose and regain its autonomy as the traditional monarchy of Spain was twice restored. However, by the 1800s, an independence movement amongst Spanish colonies began to spread from South America. Simón Bolívar’s movement for the United Provinces of New Granada and Venezuela include Puerto Rico and Cuba. Spain’s reaction was to revive a royal decree from 1815, which allowed roughly half a million immigrants to settle on the island. Intended to attract non-Spanish Europeans, the act offered free land to immigrants as long as they swore allegiance to the Spanish Crown and the Roman Catholic Church. With non-Spanish immigrants flocking to the island to claim their land, Spain hoped that the political scales were tipped away from an independence movement.

            Slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873, and the island ended the 1800s with a brief stint of autonomy as an “overseas province” of Spain.

Twentieth Century – A Growing Identity Crisis

            Puerto Rico had long been drafted as an opportune annexation for the United States in the Caribbean, dating back to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln (R-IL). Tensions boiled for military and trade control of the Caribbean just before the turn of the century, culminating in the Spanish-American War. The U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, leading to Spanish cession of the island, as well as Guam and the Philippines to the U.S. The subsequent Foraker Act of 1900 afforded Puerto Rico a civilian government, with the upper chamber and governor appointed by the United States.

            The Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, a bill of rights, and a popularly elected Senate.

            In addition to the island’s stunted growth during the back-and-forth forms of government, as well as the effects of war, Puerto Rico was hit especially hard during the Great Depression after a series of natural disasters, all keeping the island impoverished during its first few decades under American control. In 1947, Congress passed the Elective Governor Act, granting Puerto Rico the right to vote for their own governor.

            Despite the growing autonomy handed down from Congress, Puerto Rico faced many internal struggles, as a growing independence movement clashed with the Insular Government. The Insular Police, effectively Puerto Rico’s National Guard, opened fire on an independence protest in 1937, which was later declared a massacre and police mob action. As members of Congress introduced bills for Puerto Rican independence, arguably fanning the flames in a controversial movement, the Puerto Rican government took steps to quash the independence movement.

            In 1948, members of the Puerto Rican Senate introduced a bill that silenced and restricted the rights of Nationalist and independence movements. The Senate, presided by Luis Muñoz Marín, approved the bill and was signed by the U.S.-appointed governor. Under the new law, it became a crime to print, sell, publish, or display any materials against the Insular Government, or to organize under the intent of dismantling the government. The law also criminalized the display of the flag of Puerto Rico. Harsh punishments followed for violation of the law, with sentences of up to ten years in prison and fines of up to $10,000 – roughly $120,000 in today’s value.

             In the 1948 election, Luis Muñoz Marín became the first elected governor of Puerto Rico. In 1950, Congress granted Puerto Rico the right to draft and adopt a constitution, which was approved by 82% of the voters, allowing Puerto Rico to become a commonwealth of the United States.

            Puerto Rico made a massive shift from agriculture to manufacturing in the 1950s in a jointly-launched New Deal-esque initiative called Operation Bootstrap. As the island attracted large American companies, manufacturing and tourism came with it. In addition to being a major tourist destination, Puerto Rico is also a global center for pharmaceutical manufacturing.

            However, the cost of industrialization saw a mass exodus for agricultural workers between 1950 and 1970. As low-education jobs were phased out, many islanders left to the mainland United States, which created massive Puerto Rican communities in several large cities across the country.

Geography

  1. San Juan – Located on the northeast shore and home to over 300,000 of the island’s inhabitants, San Juan is the capital of the territory and the hotbed of economic activity.
  2. Northwest – Home to Aguadilla, the site of Columbus’ landing in 1493, tourist towns, and the center of Puerto Rico’s lace-making industry; the Arecibo Observatory, operated by the National Science Foundation and Cornell University; and beautiful beaches and caves.
  3. Dorado and the North Coast – The oldest resort town on the island, just east of San Juan.
  4. El Yunque – A sprawling tropical forest, marinas, and small resort towns.
  5. Southwest – Home much local history, including the sites of early sugarcane plantations, blends of culture in the large cities of Ponce and Mayagüez, as well as historical and architectural relics.
  6. Southeast – The least developed coastline, small towns, farms, and cliffside attractions.
  7. Offshore Islands – Puerto Rico’s offshore islands of Culebra and Vieques are almost entirely tourist-based, while the island of Cayo Santiago is home to a medical experimentation center run by the U.S. Public Health Service. Monkeys originally imported from India are studied here.

Current Political Leanings – An Uncertain Future

            There have been multiple initiatives to grant Puerto Rico statehood, or at least more clearly define its political status, since it became a commonwealth in the 1950s. Currently, Puerto Rico can elect a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, known as the Resident Commissioner. As in the other territories, this delegate can sit on committees and sponsor legislation, but cannot vast floor votes. Puerto Rico can vote in presidential primaries but cannot vote in presidential elections since it is not a member of the electoral college.

            Separate votes in 1967, 1993, and 1998 all reaffirmed Puerto Rico as a commonwealth. In 2012, a majority of residents opted for statehood, but with nearly half a million blank ballots cast, the result was not entertained by Congress. Another referendum in 2017 also produced a majority-vote for statehood, but was also ignored by Congress because of the historically low turnout of only 23%.

            Puerto Rico also enjoys a multi-party political system, mainly consisting of the New Progressive Party (NPP), the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), the Citizens’ Victory Movement, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, and Project Dignity. All five parties possess some forms of control or representation in San Juan, but the most powerful are the PDP and the NPP, with the former being centered around a more liberal school of thought, and the latter being a more centrist party concerned with Puerto Rican statehood.

            The incumbent Resident Commissioner is Jenniffer González Colón, a member of the New Progressive Party. She is also aligned with the Republican Party.

            The incumbent governor is Pedro Pierluisi, also the party leader for the New Progressive Party.

            Calls continue to be renewed for Puerto Rican statehood, with the next referendum scheduled for August 2024, sponsored by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS). It’s unclear what Puerto Rico’s impact would be on congressional balance of power, mainly due to the nuanced political parties and somewhat tainted relationship with the mainland U.S. Although more socially liberal than other Hispanic voters, Puerto Rico is still a mostly Catholic territory. They’re likely to be sympathetic to the Democratic Party, since that party has been the most vocal in advocating for statehood.

            Puerto Rico would likely be a blue-leaning battleground, with more Republicans elected locally than federally. However, the island’s future remains uncertain, as consensus towards statehood continues to be ambiguous and the poverty keeps the territory in an economic slump.

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Matt Meduri serves as the Editor in Chief of the Messenger Papers and writer of America the Beautiful and This Week Today columns. As a graduate of St. Joseph's University, Matt has been working in the political journalism field for over 5 years. He is a multi-instrumentalist, enjoys cooking and writing his own recipes, and traveling throughout the United States including Guam.