In February 1898, Puerto Ricans had a lot to celebrate. After centuries of Spanish colonial rule, they had just become an independent part of Spain, complete with a Constitution and voting rights. But within only a few years, the U.S. would throw all that asunder, paving the way for Puerto Rico’s nonvoting territory status today.
It all started with the Spanish-American War, which began in the spring of 1898, when Puerto Rico was a Spanish territory. The U.S. invaded Puerto Rico not only because it was a Spanish territory, but also due to its interests in developing a sugar market there, says Lillian Guerra, a history professor at the University of Florida.
“When the Americans arrived, General [Nelson] Miles issued, very famously, a decree manifesto in which he promised to protect the life, liberty, and happiness of Puerto Ricans, and their property,” she says. “A lot of Puerto Ricans who were poor, who were working-class, who were peasants, took this as an invitation to side with the Americans in what was still a war against Spain.”
To support the U.S., Puerto Ricans began to attack Spanish-owned businesses and property. But “to their great shock and awe,” Guerra says the Americans did not keep their promises after they won the war, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris. The U.S. ignored the new, democratically-elected local parliament of Puerto Rico in favor of creating its own colonial system.
With the westward expansion of the 19th century, the U.S. established “incorporated territories” that could and did become formal American states—like the Colorado Territory. But in 1901, a series of legal opinions known as the Insular Cases argued that Puerto Rico and other territories ceded by the Spanish were full of “alien races” who couldn’t understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.” Therefore, the Constitution did not apply to them, and Puerto Rico became an “unincorporated territory” with no path forward to statehood.
In addition, the U.S. disrupted Puerto Rico’s coffee industry, implementing a sugar economy and creating massive poverty among the population. “Within the first 10 years of the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico, U.S. sugar interests had pretty much taken over, and the Puerto Rican coffee class has been displaced entirely,” Guerra explains.
Puerto Ricans were outraged after the war. Instead of becoming citizens, Puerto Ricans were in limbo. “They didn’t even have a passport; they didn’t have any legal standing in the U.S. system until 1917.”
That year, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens under the Jones-Shafroth act—this way the U.S. could deploy them as troops during World War I (similar to how the Emancipation Proclamation legalized the Union’s use of black troops). The federal government believed that white people weren’t suited to fight in tropical climates because they didn’t have immunity to the diseases found there. Instead, the U.S. sent Puerto Rican “immunes,” as they were called, to defend the Panama Canal.
Although they were now U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans could not vote for president or elect voting senators or representatives to the U.S. Congress. In fact, they still can’t.
Since 1901, Puerto Ricans have only been able to elect a nonvoting “resident commissioner of Puerto Rico” to the U.S. House of Representatives. Like the United States’ other territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, as well as the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., Puerto Ricans have no real representation in Congress. And unlike D.C., which gained the right to vote for president with the 23rd Amendment in 1961, none of the American citizens in these territories can vote for the president of their country.
“They have a voice in Congress who has no vote, not even on legislation related to Puerto Rico,” Guerra says. “So the result of that is that nobody cares about Puerto Rico, and its government is basically only in control of local financial matters and the distribution of aid that comes from the federal government as well as its own tax base.”
During the 20th century, various Puerto Ricans have sought to win complete independence for their islands from the United States. However, Guerra says that the federal government quashed these attempts through overt censorship and the repeated jailing of revolutionary leaders, like the independence movement leader Pedro Albizu Campo who was jailed in 1936 for organizing Puerto Rican workers.
“It’s still a country that is dominated by U.S. investors,” Guerra says. “And you should know that most U.S. companies pay virtually no taxes to the Puerto Rican state.” This combined with the local government’s massive corruption has created an economic crisis. In September 2017, these economic problems worsened with the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria, which will require extensive rebuilding.
Is there any hope for Puerto Rico becoming a state in the future? After all, the reason they’re not is because more than a century ago, a judge said that Puerto Ricans were too racially inferior to be a part of the U.S. legal system. Today, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, sits on the highest court of law in the United States—the Supreme Court.
Just a few months before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans actually voted in favor of a referendum for statehood. But unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how many Puerto Ricans vote for it. The only people who can incorporate the islands into a state are the voting members of Congress.
“It’s very unlikely that statehood will ever happen, at least not in our lifetimes, unless something in the political culture of the U.S. Congress shifts radically to suddenly embrace Latin Americans, Latinos, and Puerto Ricans,” she says. “And I don’t think we’re going that direction.”
Written by Becky Little