Why has Puerto Rico never become either independent or an incorporated state of the United States of America?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

27 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction.

2. Historical Background

3. Analysis of historical sources in search of reasons
3.1 General Miles 1898
3.2 William McKinley 1899
3.3 Downes vs. Bidwell 1901
3.4 Theodore Roosevelt 1906
3.5 Post World War II and The Establishment of the Commonwealth 1953
3.6 John F. Kennedy 1958/ Gerald R. Ford 1977/ Ronald Reagan 1982/ George Bush senior 1989
3.7 Referenda 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017
3.8 Recent past

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

„We are and we are not an integral part of the United States.

We are and we are not a foreign country.

We are and we are not citizens of the United States.

The Constitution covers us and does not cover us.

It applies to us and does not apply to us“ (San Juan News 1901)

Excessive debts, mass emigration, industrial collapse, school closures, general strike, public uproar ... The sad negative headlines that repeatedly bring the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico into the focus of the world public do not stop there.

Within 20 years, the burden of loans grew from 15 to over 74 billion dollars, probably also because the US Special Administrative Region borrowed massive amounts of money on Wall Street from 1999 onwards with the help of specially issued Puerto Rico bonds, the interest rates of which it could no longer service afterwards. The country, which had been economically battered for decades, invested much of the capital it had gained in large-scale construction projects, financing bureaucracy and maintaining hospitals, schools and sports fields (cf. Zschäpitz 2017: 1). The industrial companies that had been settling in rows since the tax levies of the 1970s were brought back to the mainland from 2006 onwards through US initiative and the cancellation of these levies had the result that the already rampant unemployment became worse than ever (cf. von Petersdorff 2015: 1). This led to a migration of more than 250,000 Puerto Ricans since 2005 (cf. ibid.: 2) and 58% of all Puerto Ricans now live on the mainland of the USA (cf. Castillo 2012: 1). But the underlying causes of the above-mentioned problems are of course of quite a different nature: Since the transfer of the island state from Spain to the United States in the course of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the constitutional status of Puerto Rico hasn’t changed that much – it went from a militarily governed colony at the beginning of the 20th century to a Commonwealth in 1952, which was, at that time, the people of Puerto Rico’s own choice of labelling for a so-called non-incorporated territory that guarantees its inhabitants only the fundamental rights of the United States of America. This is reflected in many ways both in the economy and in the missing representation of Puerto Rico in Congress, the lack of voting power for the president of the United States of America, as well as in the general sovereignty and the limited self-government and legal possibilities of the island that this entails. Since 2012, dissatisfaction with the status quo from 1952 rose and has been reflected in several ambiguous referendums on the status of Puerto Rico, in which the majorities chose statehood, but they suffered from boycotts resulting in low voter turnout or of invalid votes (cf. Ballotpedia 2020: 1).

Thus, the recent referenda show not only a lack of legitimacy of the results of the vote, but also a kind of fragmentation in the political landscape that is not so easy to explain at first glance. For in order to put an end to Puerto Rico's awkward economic and political situation, the most obvious thing would be for the people of the island to speak out clearly in favor of one of the two classic solutions - statehood or independence. These developments continue to raise many questions and the issue of Puerto Rico’s status comes up in the U.N.’s decolonization committee still every year (Puerto Rico Report 2018: 1), which is why this issue can still be considered relevant and topical and serves as the basis for this work. The research question here is "Why has Puerto Rico never become either independent or an incorporated state of the United States of America?" and focuses on making visible the reasons for the absence of a decision for a clear status of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The first part of the paper will briefly outline the history of the Caribbean island before the main part will examine historical speeches, documents, status referenda, special events and monographs concerning Puerto Rico and the reasons for the lack of incorporation or independence from both the Puerto Rican and the United States point of view. One of the main points of interest will be to uncover possible racism as a motive for the USA to keep the colony in possession, since it has always been prevalent in the pejorative treatment of non-white minorities (Tourse et. al. 2018). In addition, it will be clarified why the inhabitants of Puerto Rico have long supported or endured the unclear status of the Commonwealth. The investigation of the various sources is to be done chronologically in order to discover a possibly changing approach to the Caribbean island. The majority of the sources were downloaded as primary source in online format from the Miller Center of the University of Virgina and were transferred to Word in their original formatting in order to be able to indicate page numbers when citing. In selecting the sources, emphasis was placed on the relevance and representation of the spirit of time of different decades/ epochs. Sources were relevant if they provided essential reasons for the topic defined as a research question. In terms of the representation of different decades/ epochs, sources were selected at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, because at that time the USA entered the stage of world politics and acquired its first overseas possessions like Puerto Rico (cf. Carr 1984). It can also be assumed that the subject of racism played a major role in these years. Since the first impression is often a lasting one, some focus of the selection of sources was placed on this point in time. Sources that cover the time period post World War II mark a period in history in which decolonization was high on the agenda of the UN (cf. United Nations General Assembly 1960: 1), so they may prove valuable in analyzing why this has not happened. For this instance, the monograph of Raymond Carr from 1984 provided the necessary insight. Since it might have been of strategic value to keep Puerto Rico, several separate sources were analyzed for their close proximity to the growing influence of Communist regimes during the Cold War. Other sources were chosen because they were either created directly at the end of the Cold War or are from the recent past. The final part of the work consists of the conclusion with a final compilation of the reasons for the still ambiguous status of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and an assessment of the situation.

The term Commonwealth is a reflection of that indefinite status of Puerto Rico as described above. It is a somewhat clumsy English translation of the Spanish term "Estado libre associado de Puerto Rico" (ELA), which actually means directly translated "Free Associated State of Puerto Rico". This term is supposed to describe that Puerto Rico chose to be associated with the USA of its own free will, because in 1952 there was a vote on whether the Commonwealth should be established and it reached 60% agreement on this term. The legitimacy of this vote is sometimes doubted, because there was only a voter turnout of 75% and thus, measured against all eligible voters, there was no absolute majority (cf. Nohlen 2005: 552). The Commonwealth status mainly served to cement the modest concessions that the USA had made to Puerto Rico (no federal taxes, free access to the mainland market, election of the governor of the island, basic US civil rights) and without which the upswing in the 60s and 70s would not have been possible. Critics described the solution as a lazy compromise, as it would not change Puerto Rico's predicament and had turned Puerto Rico into a helpless and dependent economy of the USA. Puerto Rico was apparently not a Commonwealth like Australia or Massachusetts, had no foreign policy of its own, let alone its own army (cf. Carr 1984: 3-7).

When talking about racism in this paper, reference is made to the following definition of the Duden: "(mostly ideological in character, developed to justify racial discrimination, colonialism, etc.) teaching, theory, according to which people or population groups with certain biological characteristics should be naturally superior or inferior to others in terms of their cultural ability" (cf. Bibliographisches Institut GmbH 2020: 1).

The state of research in Germany for critical examination in Puerto Rico is relatively sparsely populated. However, the Munzinger Länder-Chronik concerning Puerto Rico, which was last edited on 17.09.2019 gives a good overview of the most important political aspects of the Caribbean island, e.g. the current political situation, the constitution and the mass media, and is worth mentioning. In addition, the last section of the chronicle contains recommendations for literature about politics in Puerto Rico, which have been included here for the sake of completeness. Another important work from the German-speaking world was written by Gerhard Rieger in 1994 and is called "Die Karibik zwischen Souveränität und Abhängigkeit". However, Rieger does not only focus on Puerto Rico, but takes a look at the entire Caribbean region and explains in detail to what extent we can speak of a common identity and how this has influenced e.g. the relations with the USA, which with its Big Stick Policy has also had a strong political influence in this cultural area.

In the English-speaking world, however, there is a lot more literature, which focuses more on Puerto Rico and its relation to the USA. Raymond Carr's work "Puerto Rico - A Colonial Experiment" from the year 1984 is based on a detailed description of the political events on the island, together with its party landscape. It thus describes for example how it could be that the population of Puerto Rico at the beginning of the 50s of the 20th century cemented a status with the term Commonwealth, which is extremely vague in the constitutional sense. Also because of the large number of original sources cited in this book, this work is part of the literary basis of this work. Finally, the works mentioned by the Munzinger Länder-Chronik are listed, which give a deeper insight into the politics of Puerto Rico: Jorge Duany work “Blurred borders: Transnational migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States” Chapel from the year 2011, Sam Ermans very recent monograph “Almost citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and empire” from the year 2018, Pedro Malavets paper from the year 2007 “America's colony: The political and cultural conflict between the United States and Puerto Rico” and José Ramón Boricua Sánchez monograph “Power: A Political History of Puerto Ricans in the United States” from the year 2007.

The literature on which the work was based consisted mainly of the above mentioned work of Raymond Carr "Puerto Rico - A Colonial Experiment", the very extensive historical work "The History of Puerto Rico, from the Spanish Discovery to the American Occupation" by R. A. Van Middeldyk from 1903, several newspaper articles from the recent past, several articles from Puerto Rico Report and of course as a main source for the analysis of the reasons for Puerto Rico remaining a colony, the speeches of various US presidents and generals on Puerto Rico, gathered as primary sources from the online library of the Miller Center.

2. Historical Background

Puerto Rico came into the field of vision of European powers through the discovery of Columbus in 1493 (cf. van Middeldyk 1903:17-21), but was colonized only under Juan Ponce from the year 1500 onwards, in part very bloody (cf. ibid.: 21-24). In 1508 the first European settlement, Caparra, was founded there (cf. ibid.). Caparra was renamed Puerto Rico (rich port) in 1521. Over the centuries, the Spaniards exploited the island's wealth and pushed for the extinction of the native Indians (cf. ibid.: 64-75). Since the island was strategically located, it was gradually fortified against the attacks of the British, Dutch and French from 1555 onwards (cf. ibid.:84-87).

In summary, Puerto Rico saw a changing political and economic autonomy under the Spaniards. The rule of the Spaniards was ended abruptly 1898 in the course of the beginning Spanish-American War: After American troops had landed on July 25, 1898 and defeated the local military, Puerto Rico was officially handed over from Spain to America after the Treaty of Paris 1899. For the Americans, Puerto Rico was only an appendage in the fight for the liberation of the violently oppressed inhabitants of Cuba. It was generally considered the pearl of the Antilles because of its strong economy, well-fortified status and natural conditions. Unlike Cuba, where the security of the considerable investments made by American companies in the sugar industry led to intervention, the takeover of Puerto Rico was a consequence of the successful war, not its cause (cf. Carr 1984: 22). This development may well be considered paradoxical, since Cuba, with its strong sugar cane economy and many American investments, was for a long time the object of desire of the expansionists (cf. ibid.). For the citizens of Puerto Rico, however, a new era dawned, because with the Americans came the hope of belonging to one of the economically and militarily strongest countries on earth, and also because it was hoped that the Spanish rule had ended. The speech of General Miles, shortly after the conquest of the island, to the population of Puerto Rico, may have fed these hopes considerably. The exuberant greeting of the Americans, led to the fact that they felt strengthened in their faith to act correctly (cf. ibid.: 28).

While most citizens had either accepted the Americans with apathy or greeted them effusively, the island's political elite optimistically believed that they would soon be endowed with republican freedoms even greater than the autonomy granted them by Spain (cf. ibid.: 30-31).

During the transition period to the Foraker Act, military governors were installed on the island, some of whom ruled with a similar repressive regime as the Spaniards before them: The press was censored, ministers from the previous government were sacked, and education and government laws were passed. For the Puerto Ricans, this was a bitter step backwards, especially if one considers the actual proclamation of the then military governor Miles, which every Puerto Rican who groans under the yoke of colonialism remembers (cf. ibid.: 32).

3. Analysis of historical sources in search of reasons

In this section, the main part of the work, historical sources will be analyzed with regard to the reasons for Puerto Rico's still vague state of constitutional law and it will be revealed whether racial, economic, military or political reasons were decisive for this. The sources will be examined chronologically one after the other in order to illustrate a possibly changing mood in the population of Puerto Rico and/ or the political sphere of the USA over time. At the end of the chapter, the reasons worked out from the sources are listed once again.

3.1 General Miles 1898

In order to put yourself in the shoes of the people of Puerto Rico and in their euphoric cheers to the liberators who embodied the values of democracy, economic prosperity and freedom in the eyes of Puerto Ricans, it is useful to look at the speech General Miles made to the people of the island shortly after the conquest: There Miles implored that the war against Spain was waged for freedom, justice and humanity and that the Americans wanted to give the people of Puerto Rico a helping hand (cf. Hermann 1907: 31). Thus, the first act would be to relieve the people of their obligations to their former sovereign Spain, in the hope that they would now recognize the authority of the USA. For the Americans had come to protect the people of the island and their possessions and to bestow upon them the blessings and immunities of the liberal institutions of the USA. The war against the remaining Spaniards on the island would only be waged to give the people of Puerto Rico the benefits of the enlightened civilization of the USA (cf. ibid.: 32).

Although this is a very benevolent announcement, General Miles can be seen to have a belief in the superiority of his own country's culture, institutions and values, usually combined under the keyword exceptionalism. In relation to the natives the narrative of the superior saviour is thus constructed, who offers the Puerto Ricans "a fostering arm" (ibid.: 31). The hopes connected with this speech must have been enormous, after all the USA back then was already a superior economic power. However, Carr describes that even under Spanish rule there had been little resistance to the repressive policy and that the natives had come to terms with the situation (cf. Carr 1984: 29). The population also lacked civic commitment to the idea of independence and a common identity (cf. ibid.: 30). It therefore seemed that Puerto Ricans could overnight change from Spanish patriots to decent, freedom-loving US citizens (cf. ibid.: 29), especially since the local political elite could identify well with the values and virtues of the new conquerors (cf. ibid.: 30).

3.2 William McKinley 1899

In McKinley's third annual address, the conditions on Puerto Rico are also discussed: the main topic of the section was that the present military government there would be replaced in the very foreseeable future by a civilian government consisting partly of natives and partly of citizens of the United States of America (cf. McKinley 1899: 59). The laws that will be enacted there are to be examined beforehand by the President or Congress. In the communities, the "intelligent citizens" are then to learn the duties and the conditions for independent, autonomous government solely through practical experience (cf. Ibid.: 59-60). However, McKinley does not consider it wise to let the locals determine the entire government of the island themselves, since their habits, experience and training would make them unsuitable for such a great task (cf. ibid.). The fundamental requirement for these people is education and that it is adapted to "history and ethnic characteristics" (ibid.). This would enable them to enjoy the blessings of an independent government. Finally, McKinley emphasizes how important the legally embedded judicial system is to Americans, how it must be respected and how misconduct would be punished (cf. ibid.: 60).

It is only too obvious how racist issues can be found here in McKinley's speech: For one thing, the population of Puerto Rico, which has a much darker skin tone than large parts of the American population because of Indian, black and Spanish ancestors, is denied the ability for immediate self-government. This would probably be because they have neither the education, nor the experience, nor the habits to enforce it, as referring to McKinley. This last point in particular shows a thinking of inferiority of people with dark skin compared to the white population, although this is not mentioned explicitly. On the other hand, the locals are generally denied any kind of education. In contrast to this, McKinley calls the population "intelligent", which at first glance may seem contradictory to the following statements. However, if one relates this to the fact that they are intelligent as long as they followed his advice and were first active on the political level of the communities, the phrase makes sense. McKinley's statement regarding the legal system also seems hair-raising: Here it can be assumed that he is assuming chaotic conditions on the island, because self-evident things do not usually have to be mentioned. In fact, McKinley considers the islanders to be underdeveloped savages, helpless children, as it were, who are dependent on the firm and caring hand of a developed Western civilization. This fits very well into the beliefs of the own exceptionalism. Section 3.4 will discuss this point in more detail.

3.3 Downes vs. Bidwell 1901

The legal case of Downes vs. Bidwell, which was heard by the US Supreme Court, is similar to McKinley's speech. The case is taken from a series of lawsuits concerning the island colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa and the Philippines, called "Insular Cases". Lawyers disagree on exactly how many insular cases there were. Some speak of 6, others count more than 20. What they do agree on is when and how they began: The case of Downes v. Bidwell and DeLima v. Bidwell in 1901, just after the Spanish-American War. Congress passed the Foraker Act in November 1900, which provided Puerto Rico with a civil government and its own revenues without declaring it a United States territory. However, the Foraker Act also levied a 15% duty on all goods imported from Puerto Rico into the United States, which left it unclear whether Puerto Rico was foreign or part of the United States, because Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution actually states that all duties and fees must be the same throughout the federal territory. The case of Downes vs. Bidwell was intended to clarify whether Puerto Rico and the other newly acquired territories were subject to this section of the Constitution and whether the Constitution was applicable in the territories at all or whether they were not perhaps rather subject to the jurisdiction of the Congress (cf. Sparrow 2006: 80ff).

The proceedings showed that the opinions of the judges presented differed, but racist motives determined the case: It was argued that blacks "are not listed in the Constitution under the word citizens and therefore they cannot claim these rights and privileges which this instrument provides and secures for citizens of the USA" (cf. US Supreme Court 1901a: 21- 22). Likewise, the "[...] African race is not intended to be one [...]" (ibid: 22). The case quoted by the judge was embedded into a framework of slavery and racism and if the constitution would have been applicable to a runaway slave and it was stated that “none of the rights and privileges which that instrument [the Constitution; note from the author] provides for and secures to citizens of the United States” (ibid.: 22-23). The comparison with this case makes it clear that the judge, in this case Mr. Justice Brown, sees, if not the same, then a similar frame of reference. In addition to racist references, the motif of the American Empire also appears here: Justice White saw the USA as a helpless child in the family of nations, unless the USA was capable of appropriating foreign territories, because it had to fear the consequences of immediate incorporation, which is why it should be rejected (cf. ibid.: 52). The Court finally decided that “The Island of Porto Rico is not a part of the United States within that provision of the Constitution which declares that "all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States." (cf. US Supreme Court 1901b: 1).

3.4 Theodore Roosevelt 1906

Roosevelt's 1906 speech makes direct reference to the Foraker Act of 1900, which established a civil government for Puerto Rico. An island government was formed, consisting of a Governor, an Executive Council consisting of 11 members and a House of Representatives. The Executive Council was appointed entirely by the U.S. President, with 5 of the 11 members being locals. So, although only half of the House of Lords was made up of Americans from the mainland, Roosevelt praised "our people" (Roosevelt 1906: 1) for their faithful and efficient administration of the island and for being rightly proud of them. Furthermore, the most remarkable thing is how much the educational system has been developed to eventually fully exploit the industrial, agricultural and commercial potential of the island and its people (cf. ibid.). A remarkable aspect is Roosevelt's appeal to grant full citizenship to the citizens of Puerto Rico, after they have been strengthened in spirit and character in the island's schools. They are now loyal and happy to live under the U.S. flag, and are also making rapid progress toward an "orderly liberty" (ibid.: 3). Roosevelt, too, emphasizes that the island has been granted the greatest possible degree of self-government that can be allowed to it at the present time from the perspective of security (cf. ibid.). He also euphemistically says that Puerto Ricans have complete and absolute autonomy in matters of state, and that the only power over them (the governor and the executive council) is merely to free them from corrupt and incompetent politicians (cf. ibid.). In fact, the laws conferred by the legislative freedoms guaranteed by the Foraker Act require the approval of the island's governor, appointed by the U.S. president, and can be overruled by both his veto and Congress (cf. Public Law 56-191 1900:7). Nevertheless, further changes to this system are not recommended at the moment, since this year's elections were absolutely trouble-free and the Governor and the Executive Council are working to educate the inhabitants of Puerto Rico in orderly freedom. For it had not been easy "to instill into the minds of the people unaccustomed to the exercise of freedom the two principles our American system - the principle that the majority must rule and the principle that the minority has rights which must not be disregarded or trampled upon" (Roosevelt 1906: 3-4).

Roosevelt also makes it clear that there are still some prejudices regarding the "character" and "education" of the island population which, although they do not resemble the racist echoes found in McKinley's work, do strike a chord with the missions of civilization. Since the 15th century, these missions have served as justification for European powers to annex colonies on foreign continents (cf. Barth 2005) under the premise of transmitting Western values to the natives. Rudyard Kipling's work "The White Man's Burden" illustrates very well the spirit of the time in that it is the narrative of the white race, which is morally obliged to civilize the non-white savages and enable them to make economic, moral and cultural progress (cf. Kipling 1899: 1) by people, who believe in their own exceptionalism. It is precisely this education in cultural and moral progress that is found in Roosevelt's speech when he speaks of the fact that Puerto Ricans have now been strengthened not only in spirit but also in character by the newly established school system (cf. Roosevelt 1906: 1) and that it was not easy to introduce them to the American virtues (cf. ibid.: 3-4). In the same light, the economic developments of the island under the American flag are mentioned when Roosevelt speaks of the fact that in 1905 Puerto Rico achieved twice as many exports as in the best year among the Spaniards.

As has been shown here, the mission of civilizing and educating the natives of Puerto Rico thus served as legitimization of the occupation of Puerto Rico, since de facto the island was neither independent nor a U.S. state at that time, as it was later. It is unclear why Roosevelt and McKinley express themselves both positively regarding civic virtues (McKinley 1899: 59-60; Roosevelt 1906: 3) and negatively regarding the change in the current status of the island (McKinley 1899: 59; Roosevelt 1906: 3) and mention that under the given circumstances it was not possible for security reasons (Roosevelt 1906: 3). Are there perhaps hidden reasons behind the openly presented ones for the legitimacy of the occupation? Here it might be helpful to take a look at the further foreign policy activities of the United States at that time, which can be seen above all in the so-called Big Stick Policy and later on in an addendum to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 - the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904.

Roosevelt's foreign policy since 1902 was based on the recent military successes during the McKinley era, so he did not consider the use of direct force necessary. Instead, it contained only the element of a thinly veiled threat, without actually making direct use of it (cf. Lumen Learning 2020: 1). This approach was named after the African proverb "speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far". (cf. ibid.). The Roosevelt Corollary went on step further: Whereas the Monroe Doctrine merely regulated that there should be no interference by European powers on the American continent and is therefore rather passive in nature (Office of the Historian 2020: 1), the Roosevelt Corollary postulates “that the United States would intervene as a last resort to ensure that other nations in the Western Hemisphere fulfilled their obligations to international creditors, and did not violate the rights of the United States” (ibid.).

In practical terms, the Corollary provided for the use of military means and an arbitrary function to preserve the internal stability of the American continent (cf. ibid.). Since the United States also repeatedly exerted pressure on the governments in Cuba, it can therefore be assumed that they did not want to lose the already existing influence in Puerto Rico. In connection with the sphere of influence of the USA in the Caribbean is the appeal of US Navy Captain A.T. Mahan. In his manifesto from 1890 "The Influence of Sea Power upon History" he stated that colonies belonging to the fatherland are the surest means of projecting one's own sea power abroad and that the USA has none of these means to date (cf. Mahan 1890: 83). Also “it is imperative to take possessions, when it can righteously be done, of such maritime positions as contribute to secure command” (quoted in Carr 1984: 26).

Even Roosevelt argued that a West Indian naval base would bring a proper navy, which would be able to serve U.S. plans to protect the Panama Canal from German U-boats patrolling Caribbean shipping lanes (cf. History, Art & Archives 2020: 1). In connection with the change in US foreign policy in the wake of the Roosevelt Corollary, it can therefore be assumed that Puerto Rico, with its strategically favorable location, was at that time considered an important factor in preventing European influence on the American continent and provided a conveniently located naval base, which was requested by several leading personalities.

3.5 Post World War II and The Establishment of the Commonwealth 1953

In contrast to the other sources mentioned above, the investigation of this issue deals with the perspective of the people of Puerto Rico and the events there itself. Raymond Carr's work "Puerto Rico - A Colonial Experiment" provides the appropriate source for this and offers insight into the politics of the island life. The first thing to do is to briefly outline the main party landscape in Puerto Rico: The Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) is campaigning to become a fully-fledged state of the United States, the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) is commonly associated with maintaining associate status, and the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP) is campaigning for Puerto Rican independence (cf. Carr 1984). As mentioned in the previous sections, the Foraker Act of 1900 established a civilian government in Puerto Rico that allows the local population partial autonomy. The Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917 also granted basic US civil rights to the inhabitants. All in all, Puerto Rico did not become independent, nor was the island given the opportunity to become a US state. This ambivalent position, reminiscent of a U.S. colony, persisted until the mid-20th century, when a personality entered the political arena who can be considered the most influential in Puerto Rican political history to date - Luis Muñoz Marín. Muñoz founded the PPD in 1938 (cf. Carr 1984: 112) and had to walk a tightrope with his political ambitions of island independence from the outset: On the one hand he defended the island's interests, but on the other he had to make enormous concessions in Washington as an advocate for Puerto Rico and sometimes accept the offers he could get for the benefit of his people (cf. ibid.: 113). Muñoz was, in the best Latin American manner, a man of the people and drew his emotional strength from his identification with the simple people of Puerto Rico (cf. ibid.: 115). For this reason, he saw the island's independence as a political instrument for escaping the serious economic consequences that the yoke of colonialism had imposed on Puerto Rico and had dragged it down into poverty (cf. ibid.: 114). But the island's independence would come at a price: in 1946, economist Ben Dorfman presented a study to the US Tariff Commission that would show the enormous negative effects of full autonomy on Puerto Rico's already battered economy (cf. ibid.: 117). So, it was not that Puerto Rico's independence was impossible for the USA, but the other way around. As a result, Muñoz abandoned the idea of independence and pursued a different course (cf. ibid.), which, however, did not consist of mobilizing the masses for incorporation as a U.S. state. The two options had once been described by him as the two classical solutions to the Puerto Rican problem of domination (cf. Muñoz 1953: 3), so Muñoz’ turn toward a solution that could not be understood as such in the context of his proclamation was surprising.

Muñoz himself justified the third way, that is, the proclamation of Puerto Rico's voluntary association with the United States, with the words "If we seek statehood we die waiting for Congress, and if we adopt independence we die from starvation" (quoted in Carr 1984: 76). His main concern was to base the island's political regime not on the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, which was passed by the US Congress, but on a constitution elected by vote by the people of Puerto Rico itself (cf. ibid.). De facto, however, the new constitution, introduced by a referendum with 76.5 percent acceptance of the voters on July 25, 1952, contributed very little to the self-determination of the Puerto Rican population and made little change to its colonial status, as was criticized by some parties even then. It should also be noted, however, that the referendum was boycotted by the supporters of statehood and independence. Nevertheless, each of the various status groups would have claimed victory: The Independistas because their boycott was so effective, the Commonwealth supporters because they won a clear majority, and the statehood supporters because of their strong gains (cf. Garrett 2011: 13).

It was probably more of a psychopolitical ploy to smooth the waves of anti-colonial protest (cf. ibid.: 80-81), since Muñoz was able to convince supporters of Puerto Rico's admission as a U.S. state by using the word "Estado" (state) and the inauguration of the Commonwealth on the day the U.S. troops landed, bringing freedom to an oppressed colony. On the other hand, he silenced the independence supporters by adopting the old separatist flag and its anthem La Borinqueña and using the word "libre" (free) (cf. ibid.: 80). The general international climate of opinion and most Puerto Ricans accepted the interim solution of the Commonwealth as an outstanding political invention, which also solved Muñoz’ puzzle about the unification of Puerto Rico's various political rope teams into a democratic entity and the continuing economic advantages in trade with the United States (cf. ibid.).

The Commonwealth 's declaration led to the fact that the United States could declare, in a self-congratulatory rhetoric, that Puerto Rico was no longer a colony because the inhabitants had voluntarily associated themselves with the United States through an informed and democratic process and the UN had to remove Puerto Rico from its decolonization agenda for now (cf. ibid.).

Nevertheless, the events surrounding the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico illustrate very well how deeply divided the domestic political and party landscape and its supporters were on the issues of independence and statehood. This is probably also rooted in the history of Puerto Rico, because, unlike Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico did not develop revolutionary radical militarism or authoritarianism, and since the first deputies in 1869 it has instead followed the tradition of being politically active within the existing colonial order in order to liberalize civilian government on the island (cf. Martínez-Fernández 2001: 14). As a result, politicians on the Caribbean island gradually began to seek parliamentary solutions to the island's constitutional dilemma only within the colonial framework, thus decisively shaping the island's political culture (cf. History, Art & Archives 2020: 1).

The arguments for Puerto Rico's strategic location as an upstream outpost for defense and shielding against European powers, as mentioned in Chapter 3.4, gained new weight with the escalation of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis: Puerto Rico's role in the US defense strategy was emphasized during this period (cf. Ocasio 2009: 369) and was certainly another point not to shake the island's current status.

In the 1950s, initiatives were launched by the US government to industrialize the Caribbean island, which was still heavily dependent on sugar cane cultivation with the Operation Bootstrap program, the island was to be industrialized by providing local labor, inviting investment from external capital, importing the raw materials and exporting the finished products to the US market. To encourage participation, tax exemptions and different rental rates for industrial buildings were offered. (cf. Rivera 2020: 1). In addition, in 1976 substantial tax breaks were granted to US corporations operating in Puerto Rico to attract them to the island. Puerto Rico's economy depended heavily on these incentives. Some companies were also allowed to import their products into the United States duty-free (cf. ibid.).

Thus, it becomes obvious that the island would hardly have been able to stand on its own feet without the help and incentives of the US mainland. On the other hand, the tax breaks and the cheap local labor offered an El Dorado for pharmaceutical companies, for example, from the 1970s onwards. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico's economic difficulties may have been sufficient reason for the US Congress to decide that neither statehood nor independence seemed a more acceptable status vis-à-vis the Commonwealth.

3.6 John F. Kennedy 1958/ Gerald R. Ford 1977/ Ronald Reagan 1982/ George Bush senior 1989

In the wake of the Cold War, it is likely that Puerto Rico's strategically favorable geographic location, not far from Communist-ruled Cuba and the U.S. coast, would further increase in value from US perspective.

Confirming this fact John F. Kennedy's speech in San Juan in 1958 was all about the change of attitude toward Latin America. In it, he criticizes the U.S. foreign policy and attitude toward its less developed neighbors, who are in danger of falling prey to communism due to the growing economic influence of the Soviet Union (cf. Kennedy 1958: 6-7). Instead of intervening militarily as usual (cf. ibid.: 7) or supporting dictators (cf. ibid.: 4-5), America should instead not only return to the good neighborhood policy of the Monroe Doctrine (cf. ibid.: 6), but instead distribute unconditional economic aid (cf. ibid.: 1-3; 8) and mutual understanding, mutual patience, and better communication between the two sides should prevail (cf. ibid.: 8). Interestingly, Kennedy supports the current status of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which has combined political and economic independence with political and economic stability, which would ensure that the Communists would never gain influence on this Caribbean island. (cf. ibid.: 9). Kennedy's prominent advocacy for Muños Marín's third way will presumably not only have had a positive effect on the influence of the PPD, but is also reflected in the status referendum held in 1967, where the status of the Commonwealth was affirmed with 60.4 % of the vote (cf. Nohlen 2005: 552-555).

In contrast to Kennedy’s stance, 24 years later Ford propagates annexation of the island in a letter that sets out a 10-point plan of how to achieve this endeavor (cf. Ford 1977: 1). However, it can be assumed that the reasons coincide with those announced beforehand and represent a further development of the original concept: Incorporating the Caribbean island into the federal territory of the United States would result in substantially more federal financial aid (cf. The New York Times 1982: 1), which would fit in with the general plan of economic development of the Caribbean as it was also proclaimed by Ronald Reagan in 1982. A concentration of economic development aid in the region would still serve the goal of reducing the influence of Cuba and other pro-communist nations. In concurrence George Bush senior stated 1989 that he believed that the people of Puerto Rico should have the right to determine their own political status was similarly vociferous, but he strongly advocated statehood (cf. Bush 1989: 1). Although nothing substantial happened in the direction of a change in Puerto Rico's status, it is obvious that there has been a shift in the opinion of US policy towards a statehood preference (cf. Puerto Rico Report 2019: 1).

The interests and arguments on the US side are thus largely clearly stated. The support of statehood from prominent and influential quarters not only represents a change in the spirit of the times, but should also be reason enough to invalidate Muño's third way, the Commonwealth, which, as an half-baked cementing of the concessions made by the United States since the beginning of the 20th century, has continued to exist to this day.

It is important to note, however, that the requirements that stood in the way of Puerto Rico's annexation were as serious as the economic consequences of the independence. For only the Congress of the United States of America can make a territory a state of the Union, and before it acts in this way, it must satisfy itself that two basic conditions are met: The inhabitants of the future state must have democratically expressed their wish to be incorporated as a federal state and they must be able to pay the full federal taxes (cf. Carr 1984: 136). For this reason, both points of the admission conditions will be examined in the following sections, since they are linked to the recent past of the island.


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Why has Puerto Rico never become either independent or an incorporated state of the United States of America?
University of Marburg  (Politikwissenschaft)
American Military Interventions Abroad
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Puerto Rico, USA, Colonialism, Territory
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Mathias Mißler (Author), 2020, Why has Puerto Rico never become either independent or an incorporated state of the United States of America?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/932836


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