Embarrassing Colony

Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment

by Raymond Carr
A Twentieth Century Fund Study, New York University Press/Vintage, 477 pp., $25.00; $9.95 (paper)

There is some irony to the subtitle of Raymond Carr’s book, “a colonial experiment.” Not long ago many Puerto Ricans believed that the island’s commonwealth status represented a “compact” acknowledging Puerto Rico’s cultural identity and its right to self-determination. Today, in the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations, the United States still regularly resists being held accountable as Puerto Rico’s “colonial” mentor. But in this instance the exercise of American world power requires more than the usual disclaimer; and the world “experiment” implies conditions of scrutiny and control that scarcely apply to the case of Puerto Rico, which Carr chronicles as a history of mutual misperception, selective inattention, and abdicated responsibility.

For at least a century Puerto Rican politics have turned on the issue of political status. In the closing years of Spanish rule the choices facing the islanders were those of continuing to accept annexation, working for autonomy, or demanding independence. Any change would have required concerted pressure by the island’s leaders on the regime in Madrid. In 1897, in a futile effort to stave off what was about to become the Spanish-American War, Spain granted Puerto Rico a charter of autonomy whose provisions, it is often alleged, were more generous than even the terms of the present commonwealth “compact.” In any case the new legislative assembly dissolved when a week after it was convened, American troops landed.

After the occupation the shell game went on. Since 1952 the possible choices have been statehood, commonwealth status, and independence, but now each requires broad electoral endorsement, which the Puerto Ricans are reluctant to give. Although for a while it seemed that the prize lay under the commonwealth shell, economic pressures and political frustrations of the past decade have reopened the game, so that Carr likens the commonwealth to a palimpsest: “The message inscribed in 1952 is fading, to reveal beneath it an older inscription: statehood or independence.”

Raymond Carr, the warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and an accomplished historian of Spain with a broad knowledge of Latin America, was picked by the Twentieth Century Fund, after a long search, to conduct its study of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican and American scholars were found to have excessive parti pris. A scholar of “dispassion and sensitivity” was needed, or, in the sporting tradition, a referee. Carr has done the job with more dispassion but less cultural sensitivity than Gordon K. Lewis—another Oxonian and a professor at the University of Puerto Rico—whose book on Puerto Rico has for two decades been acknowledged as the best account in English of the island’s politics, society, and culture. It was this book that kindled Carr’s first interest in Puerto Rico, and he now confirms many of Lewis’s gloomier predictions.

Carr, however, was asked to concentrate on the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, and thus he tends to emphasize what some young Puerto Rican historians call the “leadership vision” (visión del …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.