To the Editors:
In “Tomorrow the World” [NYR, November 21, 2002] James Chace leaves no doubt that the United States is an imperial power. However, his review in effect ignores (as does the book reviewed) the main proof of it: the present control of Puerto Rico by the United States. Thus, the expansionists were not frustrated, but won.
The United States Naval War College discussed, beginning in 1894, the objective of invading the Puerto Rican archipelago to establish “a coaling station” here, since coal was then used to propel ships. A survey team decided that the best place to establish such a base would be what they then called “Fajardo Roads,” the triangle including Ceiba, Fajardo, and Vieques.
That was the reason why the United States Navy bombed the city of San Juan in March 1898, in the hope of forcing the Spanish government in the capital city to surrender the island and its neighboring Vieques to the United States. The island did not surrender, and the United States was forced to invade (first they thought through Fajardo, then Guanica) on July 25, 1898.
Contrary to the mythology sold for a century, less than half of the island (Ponce and Mayagüez) surrendered to the invading forces, but the invasion was literally stopped by the force of arms (according to American military historians) in the mountains between Coamo and Aibonito. However, having stopped the invaders here, Madrid decided to surrender, and the war was over.
In the discussions about the peace treaty in Paris, a problem arose when the Americans couldn’t speak Spanish and the Spaniards couldn’t speak English. Both sides had to ask for the help of a translator that knew both languages, a French official.
The Americans were insisting on “possession of the territory” while the Spaniards were insisting on “the condition of the inhabitants.” Note the difference: one a territorial emphasis, the other a human one. The French interlocutor found a word in French to try to include both concepts. That word was “status,” from the Latin stare, “to be in.” We are still living the malediction imposed on us by the French translator in Paris.
After one hundred years, our “status” debate has not solved either the possession of the territory or the condition of the inhabitants. We remain, for all purposes, the original military colony that was the cause of it all. It is time to end that.
Juan M. Garcia-Passalacqua
San Juan, Puerto Rico
James Chace replies:
Mr. Garcia-Passalacqua is right to point out that in my review of Warren Zimmermann’s book, First Great Triumph, I scanted the issue of Puerto Rico. In fact, McKinley intended to annex the island for its strategic value. It was certainly vital to a plan to build and protect any isthmian canal. No Spanish military base would have been permitted to remain so close to Cuba.
As Zimmermann writes, there was serious resistance on the island to the American invasion; “the Puerto Ricans were not about to treat the Americans as liberators” (p. 296); indeed, prior to America’s declaration of war on Spain, Puerto Ricans had wrested some degree of autonomy from Madrid (p. 295).
Puerto Rico remains essentially a colony to this day, even though it has attained “commonwealth” status. This allows the Puerto Ricans to have US citizenship and an elected legislature. Puerto Ricans, however, cannot vote for the president or Congress unless they live on the mainland, although they do participate in presidential primaries. They also receive limited federal benefits but do not pay federal taxes. They have no control over their external relations.
April 10, 2003