Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History
Historical parallels are often misleading, never exact, and they have been much abused by historians who follow fashion. Nevertheless the fate of Puerto Rico as a Spanish colony, described in the first seven essays of this collection, does cast a light on—or one might say a shadow over—the experiences of the island as a colony of the United States since 1898. Under Spain, as the vast fortifications of Old San Juan testify to this day, Puerto Rico was a presidio—a garrison outpost protecting the sea lanes to the richer colonies of Mexico and Central America. To Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, disciples of Captain Mahan who conceived of Puerto Rico as an American Malta, the island was desirable “war booty” in 1898 because of its utility as a naval base.
Roosevelt Roads remains as an integral part of the Caribbean and western Atlantic defense system—there are no Puerto Rican senators or congressmen to raise inconvenient protests on behalf of their constituents. The offshore island of Vieques is still coveted in the Pentagon as a convenient bombing target. Puerto Rico was the military base for Spain’s attempts during the Latin American wars of independence to defeat the rebel colonists—the guerrillas of the national liberation movements of the day; now the US government proposes to move the military training school for Latin American officers from Panama to Puerto Rico. During the early years of the nineteenth century, loyalist exiles, fleeing the new republics of the mainland, flooded the island where they became fanatic counterrevolutionaries. Today refugees from Castro’s Cuba have, for the most part, prospered exceedingly, earning a reputation as the “Jews of Puerto Rico”; they share President Reagan’s conviction that communism is an evil to be extirpated in the Caribbean.
The pattern of colonial politics has persisted. From the early nineteenth century the Puerto Rican political elite divided in its attitude to Spain as its members now divide over the issue of their status, i.e., what is the desirable relationship with the United States. Whether the electorate shares the status obsessions of its political leaders is another question. Conservative assimilationists were the incondicionales, unconditional supporters of the rule of the Spanish metropolis; their heirs are the members of the New Progressive Party (PNP) who want Puerto Rico to become a state of the Union. Liberals proposed home rule without severing the link with Spain: this autonomist tradition is now represented by the architects and defenders of the present Commonwealth, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD). There used to be a minority of separatists. Now the independentistas of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) are fighting for a Puerto Rican Republic.
During the later stages of Spanish colonialism the assimilationists argued that home rule was a perilous step on the road to separation and independence; so does the present pro-statehood governor, Carlos Romero Barceló. Luis Muñoz Rivera, leader of the Autonomist Party during the 1890s, formed an alliance with Sagasta, the Spanish Liberal prime minister, in order to squeeze autonomy out…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.