“”This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.
“”The Puerto Ricans forming the ranks of the gallant 65th Infantry on the battlefields of Korea … are writing a brilliant record of achievement in battle and I am proud indeed to have them in this command. I wish that we might have many more like them.
|—General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.|
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated United States territory that was won from Spain in after a splendid little conflict known as the Spanish-American War. And Spain had previously taken Puerto Rico from the natives, and then of course all but exterminated them. In spite of having over twice the population of Hawaii, which joined the Union at around the same time, this unique US territory is still not yet a state; taxation without representation much? Reasons for why this is the case range from "it's too poor and they'll have to pay income taxes" to, strangely enough, "they aren't Americans", while in reality, it's quite likely this is related to its strong support for the Democrats. However, among other territories like the other Washington and Guam that are also vying for statehood, it is the most likely to get statehood as there are already even some Senate Republicans who'd support the idea (e.g. Marco Rubio, Rick Scott)- and because PR's nonvoting delegate is a Republican, proving that it would likely be a purple state, where the GOP could maybe get at least one senator elected and win at least a few of the five congressional districts it would likely have, if the Dems don't gerrymander of course. The region and "country" are divided between statehood, independence, or status quo.
Puerto Rico was first settled by humans sometime around 2000 BCE. By around 1000 CE, the Taíno people had become dominant. They were already fighting with the Caribs from the Antilles before their downfall, but contact with the Spanish would result in them dying out, but some of their culture, like hammocks, maracas, and words like "iguana" and "huracán" (hurricane) still remain. Speaking of the Spanish, the first to arrive was Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. At the time, there were 30,000-60,000 Taíno on the island. Columbus called the island "San Juan Bautista" after St. John the Baptist (yeah, he had an obsession with naming islands after saints). The first colony was founded by Juan Ponce de León in 1508. Five years later, he would set sail and reach Florida, the first time a European would reach the mainland U.S.. The Spanish would set up a system called the "encomienda", which basically allowed Spanish officials to enslave the native population. This led to a revolt in 1511, which was easily crushed by Ponce de León, and within a couple decades the remaining native population would die due to disease and genocide. African slaves had to be brought in to replace the native ones, although Puerto Rico didn't have as much slaves as places like Haiti or the Virgin Islands.
Despite killing off the native population, control of the island didn't come easily for the Spanish, as other European powers realized the potential of the islands. In 1528, the whole island aside from the capital San Juan was ransacked by the French before a local militia was able to drive them off. They attacked again in 1538 and 1554. In 1594, the English privateer Sir Francis Drake tried to sack the island but was driven back by soldiers entrenched in the forts. Three years later, the English navy came and succeeded in taking the island, but they were forced to abandon it due to an outbreak of dysentery. The Dutch attacked the capital in 1625, but were driven off. In 1702, England would have another unsuccessful attempt to take the island. It would later become a theater for the French Revolutionary Wars, with Britain attacking in 1797 as the Spanish were allied with the French, but once again were unsuccessful. The Napoleonic Wars, which resulted in Spain being occupied, allowed Puerto Rico to get a bit of autonomy, and resulted in them opening their borders to other countries besides Spain, however, the restoration of the Spanish monarchy led to Puerto Rico being a colony again. There were several slave revolts during this time, the most famous being led by Marcos Xiorro in 1820. The slave trade was abolished in 1833 and slavery itself wouldn't be abolished until 1873. Around 11% of Puerto Rico's population was enslaved.
The majority of the population of Puerto Rico at the time was poor and illiterate. The infrastructure was terrible for Puerto Rico's agricultural economy, and increasing taxes and tariffs levied by the Spanish crippled the economy. Furthermore, the Spanish government would jail anyone who wanted to talk about liberal reforms. The Grito de Lares (Lares cry) was the first revolt against Spanish rule. Although quickly controlled by the Spanish, it did result in reforms such as the abolition of slavery and the beginning of Puerto Rican political parties. In 1897, the territory was given some level of autonomy (though there was still a Spanish-appointed governor) and allowed them to trade with the U.S. and the rest of Europe. Guess what would happen one year later. Expanding into the Caribbean was always popular in the U.S. since Southerners wanted to add slave states to the union (before the Civil War), with the Golden Circle being one such plan. The U.S. finally saw their opportunity when the U.S.S. Maine blew up in Cuba, and used it as a pretense to take Spain's colonies. The U.S. quickly blockaded Puerto Rico, but unlike in the rest of the war the Spanish put up a decent fight there and still held on to half of the island at the end of the war. Ultimately, however, Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. after Spain got their asses kicked in Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam. The island was put under military rule and renamed "Porto Rico" (it would be changed back in 1935). The Foraker Act of 1900 would grant limited civilian governance, and the Jones–Shafroth Act of 1917 would grant Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. The Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950 allowed Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution, which was approved two years later. Several nationalist revolts occurred, including the Jayuya Uprising and an incident in which two nationalists tried to assassinate Harry Truman. In 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists shot into the Capitol, wounding five Representatives, this would be the last insurrection at the Capitol until the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot. These incidents led to the U.S. cracking down on the Puerto Rican independence movement.
Today, the area is still in its odd state between statehood and colonialism, which allows businesses and the government to use it as a source of cheap labor. Over 43% of Puerto Ricans are living below the poverty line (by comparison, that's more than double Mississippi which is at 19%) and the island's government was bankrupted due to forced dependency. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have migrated to the U.S. as a result of this in just the past few years alone. The debate over statehood still continues to this day.
Puerto Rico's politics are somewhat different than the rest of the United States. There are three major political parties in Puerto Rico, and it's worth noting that none are directly analogous to the Democratic Party or Republican Party, as members of the same Puerto Rican party sometimes caucus with opposing parties on the national level. The three main parties are:
- Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party), abbreviated the PNP, is the party that advocates for PR statehood. Currently, both their governor and their non-voting House delegate are members of this party. Although members of this party have aligned with both the Democrats and Republicans, it is typically seen as a somewhat more conservative party.
- Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party), abbreviated the PPD, is the more centrist party and currently holds the majority in the House and a plurality in the Senate. The party advocates for Puerto Rico to continue its status as a U.S. territory.
- Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Independence Party), abbreviated the PIP, is a social democratic party that advocates for Puerto Rican Independence. It is currently by far the smallest of the parties, having one seat each in the House and Senate.
Puerto Rico currently has more autonomy than Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or American Samoa do, but there are conditions to this. As its status as a territory rather than a state grants it fewer protections under the U.S. Constitution, its autonomy could be revoked by an act of Senate. Furthermore, it can't vote for President (except during primaries) nor does it have any representation in the Senate, and only a non-voting delegate in the House. On the other hand, it has its own teams in international sports competitions such as the Olympics as if it were independent.
Puerto Ricans have voted for statehood six times. The first in 1967 resulted in a large victory for remaining a commonwealth. 1993 was a much closer vote where being a commonwealth won a minor plurality. Then in 1997, with a choice between statehood, remaining a commonwealth, free associaton, and independence, the winning option was... "None of the above" at 50.3% (largely because the poll was criticized over some of its definitions). On the fourth in 2012, residents were first asked whether they want to keep the current commonwealth system, which 54% said no, and the most popular alternative option was statehood, with over 60% supporting it (if being a commonwealth was off the table). A fifth one occurred in 2017, where the only two options were statehood and full independence/free association. Statehood won overwhelmingly, but as this vote was boycotted by supporters of commonwealth status, the turnout was low. Finally, in 2020, a nonbinding referendum was held where the two options were statehood or not becoming a state. Statehood won out, 52.52%-47.48%.
Statehood is not only a divisive issue on the island, but also on the mainland United States. PR statehood is very popular among the Puerto Rican community in Florida, to the point that even the Republicans who get elected there have to portray themselves as being not entirely opposed to the idea. This is largely because Florida is the state that would see the most benefits from Puerto Rican statehood, as the potential economic benefits to PR and added interconnectedness that would result from statehood would likely result in a boost to Florida's tourism industry and would allow Puerto Ricans living in Florida to see their family members more often. However, in New York, the other state with a large Puerto Rican population, the issue of statehood is much more controversial, and Chuck Schumer and AOC (the latter of whom is herself of Puerto Rican descent) have both waffled on the issue.
One of their governors, Ricardo Rosselló, was forced to resign in 2019 after text messages were leaked of him and his cabinet making numerous offensive, homophobic, and sexist comments, including mocking the victims of Hurricane Maria, threatening the mayor of San Juan, and discussing how they would use the media to target political opponents. This alongside other incidents of corruption led to massive protests, in one particular incident, around one million protesters (about a third of the island's population) shut down one of the major highways in order to demand the governor's resignation. Ultimately, he was replaced by Wanda Vázquez Garced, who would be primaried by Pedro Pierluisi.
Famous Puerto Ricans
- Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, two musicians who gave us the infamous "Despacito".
- Ricky Martin, singer, gay icon, and activist
- Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York, her family is Puerto Rican.
- Many, many more
- Looks quite similar to the flag of Cuba, doesn't it?
- The 65th Infantry Regiment in Korea 1950-1954.
- Adding Puerto Rico as a state will drag us down: Your Say, USA Today
- Brian Glassman, A Third of Movers From Puerto Rico to the Mainland United States Relocated to Florida in 2018, census.gov 26 Sep. 2019
- Laura Sullivan, How Puerto Rico's Debt Created A Perfect Storm Before The Storm, NPR 2 May 2018
- Joshua Keating, An Uncertain State, Slate 16 Mar. 2021
- Puerto Rico governor resigns after mass protests, BBC 25 Jul. 2019
- Un millón de personas habría asistido al Paro Nacional, Telemundo Puerto Rico 23 Jul. 2019