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 of Madrid. His son Muñoz Marín, founder and democratic caudillo of the PPD, cultivated friends in the Democratic Party establishment from Mrs. Roosevelt down; the party’s present leader, Rafael Hernández Colón, boasts of his friendship with Senator Edward Kennedy.

Puerto Rico was conquered in 1898, the year after the apotheosis of British imperialism, the Diamond Jubilee. Such minor residues of imperialism can be embarrassing and expensive, as Britain has discovered in the Falkland Islands. Puerto Rico presents a problem. No party in Puerto Rico supports the existing relationship with the United States embodied in the Commonwealth or Free Associated State of Puerto Rico that was negotiated by Muñoz Marín in 1952. The Commonwealth arrangement grants common citizenship (hence the unrestricted entry of Puerto Ricans into the US mainland) and a degree of self-government roughly similar to that of a state of the Union but without representation in the US Congress, which makes the laws that increasingly have come to impinge on almost every aspect of Puerto Rican life. The PNP wants statehood and the end of what it regards as “second-class citizenship”—an inadequate reward for loyal Americans who have paid a “blood tax” by serving in the wars of the United States. The PPD demands a “culminated” or “perfected” Commonwealth—an enlargement of existing autonomy that will, for instance, give Puerto Rico some control over federal legislation. The PIP aims to achieve an independent social democratic republic by peaceful means. The small Socialist Party (PSP) though it participates as a legal party in elections does not exclude “armed struggle” in order to install a Puerto Rican Cuba. Like the old Nationalist Party in the 1950s, it would seek to resist statehood by terrorism both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland. But it claims to be separate from, though it sympathizes with, the incendiary FALN group, led by such men as William Morales who was recently rearrested in Puebla, Mexico.


Professor Morales Carrión, the editor of the book under review, is not only a distinguished historian; he was deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the Kennedy administration and an active politician in the PPD. It is as a historian that he triumphs in his description of the tortured relationship between an indifferent Congress—not devoid, in the early years, of racist prejudices common to all imperialisms but more blatant among Southern senators—and an aggrieved island thrust into the constitutionalist limbo of an “unincorporated territory.” His detailed account of the coming of Commonwealth in 1952 and its subsequent development—or rather failure to develop, in spite of insistent efforts by the PPD to persuade Congress to enlarge the bounds of autonomy—ends in 1969 with the retirement of Muñoz Marín.

Muñoz towered over Puerto Rico politically and morally as his physical stature towered over that of his fellows; his ghost haunts Puerto Rican politics as the creator of what Morales Carrión calls the consensus behind Commonwealth, now lost, it would seem, forever.

Muñoz started life as an independentista; his early articles, classics of political journalism, were a denunciation of the economic consequences of sugar colonialism. But by the 1940s he had come to realize that the American connection, which provided privileged access to US markets and to the US capital that underpinned the industrialization of the island, rescuing it from being the poorhouse of the Caribbean, was indispensable. The US connection created an economic bond which, if it were severed for the sake of political independence, would condemn Puerto Rico to the fate of its neighboring banana republics. Independence, Muñoz insisted, meant starvation. As the present leader of the Independence Party puts it, the American connection has become a “fix”; fear of losing the drug of the consumer society inhibits Puerto Ricans from voting for independence.

Muñoz’s superb talents as a political engineer and persuader therefore sought to make the political link with the United States respectable by insisting it be based on democratic principles. He could thus ensure the permanence of the island’s economic privileges. His solution was Commonwealth status, a “third way,” a new relationship with the United States somewhere between the classical choices of independence and statehood, a relationship that was endorsed by the democratic device of a referendum.

The baroque constitutional intricacies of Commonwealth—and the debates in Congress make this clear—served to conceal but did not alter the fundamental factor in the relationship: dependence on a Congress in which Puerto Ricans had no representatives. Greeted by American politicians as a model for third world nations both for its successful economic development and free political association, the Commonwealth arrangement became increasingly unsatisfactory as federal legislation expanded. The quid pro quo, the “fix,” was the availability—at the discretion of Congress—of federal handouts to bail out an ailing economy with perhaps a third of the population unemployed or underemployed. By the 1980s, to the indignation of Senator Jesse Helms and the exponents of Reaganomics, some 60 percent of Puerto Ricans were in receipt of food stamps. The other hidden benefit was the capacity to export to New York the unemployed for whom the island’s industrialization program could not provide jobs.

The present frustrations that bedevil Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States are in part the result of congressional indifference—to most congressmen Puerto Rico is a marginal issue and there is no electoral mileage in an island with no voters—and of American ignorance which the present governor describes as “massive.” But such frustrations are in part self-induced. American policy has always professed a desire to respect the wishes of the Puerto Ricans whatever they may be—independence included. But what are the wishes of the Puerto Rican people? The Muñoz consensus has vanished. Neither of the two major parties supports the status quo but neither can win the decisive majority that will force the hand of Congress. They are almost equally balanced.

In 1980 the PNP governor Romero Barceló, after campaigning for statehood, just scraped into office against Rafael Hernandez Colón, with his “New Thesis” advocating an enlargement of Commonwealth autonomy. After the election the two parties became engaged in a prolonged exhibition of tribal politics, struggling to get the single seat that would give one or the other a majority in the Puerto Rican House of Representatives. Congressmen are flummoxed when confronted with Puerto Rican políticos canvassing mutually conflicting solutions to the age-old status question. The Puerto Rican backing that President Reagan had demanded for statehood, which he supports, has not been forthcoming.


Underlying this impasse is a deeper cultural division. During the 1930s a survey in the magazine Indice addressed itself to the question “What is it to be a Puerto Rican?” in a country whose incipient regional culture, the relic of four centuries of Spanish Catholic rule, was subjected to an intensive course of Americanization after the conquest of 1898. As a consequence of the industrialization program of Muñoz Marín’s PPD, Puerto Ricans in their daily behavior are enthusiastic participants in the American consumer society; to the visitor they seem engulfed in mindless materialism—a development that Muñoz foresaw and deplored but that, as his admirer Professor Morales Carrión admits, he could not combat. Yet there remains, rooted in the everyday use of Spanish which all the efforts of the Americanizers’ zeal for the teaching of English have proved incapable of destroying, a sense of separate cultural identity. This cultural identity is regarded by the advocates of statehood as mere folklore which can easily be assimilated into a culturally diverse America.

To the PPD—and even more radically to the independentistas—the persistence of this culture shows the existence of a national conscience and constitutes a case for special political treatment. It is a pity that the section on culture in Morales Carrión’s collection does not examine more seriously the more modern literary exponents of Puerto Rican identity. Most intellectuals, including the best pop singers, are more or less violently anti-American and supporters of independence. Prominent among them are the novelists Pedro Juan Soto, whose son was killed in a police trap designed to discourage militant independentistas, and René Marqués, and the Marxist José Luis González, one of the best Latin American literary critics. No historical work exposes the ravages of superficial Americanization revealed in the mumbo jumbo of the colloquial language as painfully as the novel La Guaracha del Macho Camacho (translated into English as Macho Camacho’s Beat) by Luis Rafael Sánchez. It is a bitter portrait of a futile, frustrated society corrupted by the materialism celebrated in the jingle sung by Iris Chocón, the sex symbol of Puerto Rico: “Life is a phenomenal thing in front and behind.”

The problem for the independentistas is to destroy a way of life that most Puerto Ricans have voluntarily adopted, not because it is American but because it is considered desirable per se. The ills of Puerto Rico, from drug addiction to mugging, are not specific to Puerto Rico or solely a consequence of the American presence, as the independentistas insist. They can be found in practically all societies that have undergone a process of rapid industrialization and urbanization.

Most Americans have been dismissive of Puerto Rican claims to a separate cultural identity—the Americanization of the early years was based on assumptions of cultural superiority, a mission civilatrice to what some were prepared to call a race of mongrels. They cannot see that, even if the “culture” of the Puerto Ricans appears shoddy and provincial, it is their own. Others see the persistence of a Spanish Caribbean culture, embodied in a separate language, as an absolute impediment to statehood.

The advance of Hispanics, now 6.4 percent of the population of the US, is seen by many Americans as a threat to a society where English is the instrument of social mobility and the mark of commitment to American values; Hispanics, they maintain, will not assimilate like previous waves of immigrants. George Ball believes that heavy immigration is a threat to national sovereignty and that the admission of Puerto Rico to statehood would be a “supreme folly.” Puerto Rico’s claims are judged according to the supposed delinquent behavior of the two million Puerto Ricans in New York and elsewhere. They have become involved in domestic controversies: for instance, over bilingual education which is advocated, not only as a pedagogic device, but as an instrument to maintain a separate identity; and the contest between blacks and Puerto Ricans for jobs and welfare payments.

The relationship of Puerto Rico and the United States has been dogged by such failures of perception. The frustration of the present post-Muñoz generation creates only occasional ripples in Washington as políticos—practitioners of what a previous and liberal governor, Rexford Tugwell, called “the colonial whine”—arrive in Washington to complain, for example, that in its initial form Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative, conceived in the interest of US policy in the Caribbean, threatened to bankrupt Puerto Rico. Professor Morales Carrión concludes that the tie with the United States “cannot be a common vernacular language or common historical and ethnic traditions,” a claim that would be rejected as nonsense by advocates of statehood. The future will test the capacity of the Puerto Ricans to reach a new consensus, which alone could persuade the United States to desert what Morales Carrión describes as its “self-centered parochialism.”

Nor is the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States any longer a domestic concern, as the frequency with which the issue is raised in the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations confirms. Of course the official position of the United States delegation, which has succeeded by the skin of its teeth, has been to keep it off the agenda of the General Assembly which, in 1953, recognized the Commonwealth as a legitimate form of decolonization. President Wilson considered the colonial status of Puerto Rico an international embarrassment, irreconcilable with the liberal traditions of the United States. It still is.

This Issue

August 18, 1983