Puerto Rico occupies a crux position in the history of the American continent. Colonized by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León in 1508, the island contains the oldest European-founded settlement under US jurisdiction. Long before Sir Walter Raleigh and the Pilgrim Fathers had tested the waters of the tempestuous Atlantic, the first granite ramparts of El Morro fort in Old San Juan had been chiseled deftly into place. Nearly 500 years later, they’re still there.
As countless historical writers have noted, Puerto Rico is flavored with contrast and contradiction, a blending of cultures and nations that is highly eclectic and not easy to pigeonhole. While technically a US commonwealth, some natives still feel that the island should be a full-blown American state, others an independent nation, and still more, a compromise solution that is neither of the above. Then there is the exotic cultural breakdown: the caustic blending of ancient Taíno with brutally exploited Africans into a historical melting pot that contained Spanish, French, Cuban, Dominican and even Lebanese elements. What you’re left with is the essence of modern Puerto Rico, a proud Caribbean nation with a distinctly Latin temperament that also happens to be good friends with the USA.
The Taíno were an Arawakan Indian group who inhabited Puerto Rico and the other Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola and Jamaica) at the time of Columbus’ arrival in 1493. Arawaks had first started settling on the island around AD 700, following a gradual migration north from the Orinoco River delta in present-day Venezuela, and by the year 1000 a distinctive Taíno culture had begun to emerge based on agriculture, fishing, hunting and the production of cassava bread. Taíno believed in a complex religious cosmology and lived in small, round wooden huts called bohios where they smoked cohibas (cigars) and slept in hamacas (hammocks). They called their newly adopted island Borinquen (Land of the Noble Lord) and practiced basic crafts such as pottery, basket weaving and wood carving. The native society was relatively democratic and organized around a system of caciques (chiefs). Below the caciques was a rank of medicine men, subchiefs and, below them, the workers. At the time of Ponce de León’s arrival in 1508, the chief of all chiefs was a cacique called Agüeybana who presided over Borinquen’s largest settlement sited on the Guayanilla River near present-day Guánica.
For leisure, the Taíno built several ceremonial ball parks where they played a soccer-like game with a rubber ball between opposing teams of 10 to 30 players. Winning was supposed to ensure good health and a favorable harvest. At Tibes near Ponce in the south, and at Caguana near Utuadu in the north, archaeologists have discovered and preserved these impressive courts that were marked by rows of massive stone blocks. Here, native rituals were practiced – tribal events that brought the communities together and kept the collective spiritual and social memory alive. Drums made from hollow trunks, as well as maracas and güiros, provided the percussive accompaniment – instruments that still fill the sounds of Puerto Rican traditional and popular music today.
Approximately 100 years before the arrival of the Spanish, Taíno culture was challenged by the Caribs, a fierce and warlike tribe from South America who raided Taíno villages in search of slaves and fodder for their cannibalistic rites. The simmering tensions that developed between the Taíno and Caribs were still very much in evidence when Ponce de León took possession of the island in 1508 and was probably misinterpreted by the Spanish as Taíno aggression. In reality the Taíno were a friendly, sedentary people who put up little initial resistance to the new colonizers and ultimately paid a huge price.
Testimonies vary as to how many Taíno inhabited Borinquen at the time of the Spanish invasion, though most anthropologists place the number between 20, 000 and 50, 000. In 1515 – after nearly a decade of maltreatment, a failed rebellion, disease and virtual slavery – only about 4000 remained. Thirty years later, a Spanish bishop put the number at 60. Some historians have claimed that a small group of Taíno escaped the 16th-century genocide and hid in Puerto Rico’s central mountains where they survived until the early 19th century, but the claims have no proof and are impossible to substantiate.
While Taíno blood may have all but disappeared in modern Puerto Rico, the native traditions live on. Puerto Rican Spanish is dotted with traditional native words such as yucca (a root vegetable), iguana, manatí (manatee – a sea mammal), maracas and Ceiba (Puerto Rico’s national tree); and some terms have even found their way into modern English: think huracan for hurricane and hamaca for hammock. Musically, the Taíno contributed the maracas and the güiro to modern percussion, while gastronomically their heavy use of root vegetables has found its way into traditional comida criolla (Puerto Rican cuisine).
In the golden age of piracy, Puerto Rico was revered by booty-seeking buccaneers like no other Spanish port. Everyone from daring British dandy Francis Drake to common cutthroats such as Blackbeard tried their luck against San Juan’s formidable defenses. Few were successful.
One of the colony’s earliest invaders, Francis Drake first arrived in Puerto Rico in 1595 in pursuit of a stricken Spanish galleon – holding two million gold ducats – that had taken shelter in San Juan harbor. While the plucky Brit may have singed the king of Spain’s beard in Cádiz a decade earlier, the Spaniards quickly got their own back in Puerto Rico when they fired a cannonball into Drake’s cabin, killing two of his men, and – allegedly – shooting the great explorer’s stool from underneath him. Drake, who had initiated his attack by burning a dozen Spanish frigates in the harbor, was forced to make a hasty retreat and left the island empty-handed. He died the following year of dysentery in Panama.
On a stinging revenge mission, San Juan was attacked by the British navy again three years later under the command of the third earl of Cumberland. Learning from Drake’s mistakes, Cumberland’s 1700-strong army landed in what is now Condado and advanced upon the city from the east, crossing into San Juan via the San Antonio Bridge. After a short battle with Spanish forces, the city surrendered and the British occupied it for the next 10 weeks, before a dysentery epidemic hit and forced an ignominious withdrawal.
In response to frequent British incursions, San Juan’s defensive walls were repeatedly strengthened in the early 17th century, a measure that allowed the Spanish to successfully repel an ambitious attack by the Netherlands in 1625. Acting under the command of Captain Boudewijn Hendricksz, the Dutch fired over 4000 cannonballs into the city walls before landing 2000 men at La Puntilla. Although the invaders managed to occupy the city temporarily and even break into the Fortaleza palace, the Spanish continued to hold El Morro fort and, after less than a month, with Puerto Rican reinforcements arriving, Hendricksz beat a hasty retreat, razing the city as he went.
San Juan’s second great fort, San Cristóbal, was inaugurated in the 1630s and the city saw no more major attacks for almost two centuries. It wasn’t until 1797 that the British, at war again with the Spanish, tried their luck one last time. The armada, which consisted of over 60 ships and 10, 000 men, was one of the largest invasion forces ever to take on the Spanish in the American territories, but after two weeks of often vicious fighting, the British commander Sir Ralph Abercromby withdrew in exasperation. Noble in defeat, Abercromby reported that San Juan could have resisted an attack force 10 times greater than the British had used.
As it was throughout the Caribbean, slavery was employed to develop the Puerto Rican economy, primarily in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The two types of slaves that were brought to the island – ladinos, born and acculturated in Spain, and bozales and Yoruba people, brought from Africa – were first used to mine the limited gold and silver deposits. Once these deposits were depleted, the slaves were used primarily in the sugarcane industry and other areas of agriculture, predominantly in the coastal areas of the island. While the rest of the population experienced normal growth due to reproduction and voluntary migration, the slave population rose much faster throughout the late 18th century, with census figures in 1765 showing the slave population was 5400. By 1830 the slave population had increased to more than 31, 000, mainly due to the introduction of new slaves directly from Africa and other parts of the Caribbean. However, despite these increases, by 1795 the majority (more than 60%) of black and mulatto people living in Puerto Rico were free. This trend, unusual for the Caribbean at the time, is often attributed to the island’s asylum policy, which granted freedom to fugitive slaves from throughout the region.
There is considerable historic debate as to how slaves were actually treated on the large sugarcane estates. Some accounts claim conditions were better in Puerto Rico than in other colonies due to Spain’s relatively strict slave code, which provided more protections and benefits than elsewhere. Other studies discount this argument, pointing to evidence of runaway slaves who preferred living as fugitives to living on a plantation. Regardless, by the late 1830s, as it became increasingly apparent that slavery was not going to be justifiable for much longer, plantation owners began enacting measures guaranteeing cheap access to other laborers – jornaleros. The landed sugar elite utilized both low-wage jornaleros and slaves to generate wealth for themselves and grow the island’s economy. In both cases, the exploitation by European whites of African- and island-born blacks and mulattos led to the perpetuation of racial myths that allowed for the continuation of social inequities and racism.
Many slave uprisings occurred on the island, some larger than others. Later this resistance by the black population ran parallel with a political movement for emancipation led by Julio Vizcarrondo, a Puerto Rican abolitionist living in Spain, as well as island-based political leaders such as Segundo Ruiz Belvis, Roman Baldorioty de Castro and Ramón Emeterio Betances. After years of struggle, the Spanish National Assembly abolished slavery on March 22, 1873.
Today the African presence in Puerto Rican culture is striking, described by the late Puerto Rican cultural and social writer Jose Luis González as el primer piso, or ‘the first floor’ of Puerto Rican culture. In its music, art and religious icons, African traditions are powerfully felt. And despite the racial stereotypes and inequalities that continue to exist on the island and within the Puerto Rican diaspora, Puerto Rico will always be considered an Afro-Indigenous-Caribbean experience.
As two Greater Antilles islands ruled by Spain for nearly four centuries, Cuba and Puerto Rico share a remarkably similar history. Both were colonized in the early 1500s, both retain vestiges of their indigenous Taíno culture, both were heavily influenced by the African slave trade (a cultural stimulant that contributed to their unique hybrid music and distinct Afro-Christian religious beliefs) and both remained Spanish colonies a good 80 years after the rest of Latin America had declared independence. The irony, of course, lies in their different paths post 1898 and the fact that today, Puerto Rico remains a staunch US ally, whereas Cuba is ‘public enemy number one’, a former Soviet satellite state that has been ostracized with the most draconian (and longest) trade embargo in modern history. So what happened?
While the bulk of Spain’s American colonies rose up under the leadership of Simón Bolívar in the 1820s, Puerto Rico and Cuba’s conservative Creole landowners, rich on sugar and spice and all things nice, elected to stay put – at least for the time being. But, as economic conditions worsened and slavery came to be seen as an ailing colonial anachronism, the mood started to change.
During the 1860s, links were formed between nationalists and revolutionaries on both islands, united by the same language and inspired by a common Spanish foe. The cultural interchange worked both ways. Great thinkers such as Cuban national hero José Martí drew a lot of his early inspiration from Puerto Rican surgeon and nationalist Ramón Emeterio Betances, while Mayagüez-born general Juan Rius Rivera later went on to command the Cuban Liberation Army in the 1895–98 war against the Spanish.
Ironically it was the Puerto Rican nationalists who acted first, proclaiming the abortive Grito de Lares in 1868. Following their lead two weeks later, Cuba’s machete-wielding mambises (19th-century Cuban independence fighters) unleashed their own independence cry and, with wider grassroots support and better leadership, were able to wage a brutal, though ultimately unsuccessful, 10-year war against the Spanish.
While the rapid defeat in Puerto Rico was a major political setback for the nationalist movement, all was not yet lost. Igniting a second Cuban-Spanish Independence War in 1895, José Martí proclaimed that Cuba and Puerto Rico still stood shoulder to shoulder as ‘two wings of the same dove’ and, had it not been for the timely intervention of the Americans in 1898 when the Spanish were almost defeated, history could have been very different.
Cuba and Puerto Rico’s political divergence began in 1900 when the US Congress passed the Foraker Act (1900), making Puerto Rico the first unincorporated territory of the US. Cuba meanwhile, thanks to the so-called Teller Amendment (passed through Congress before the Spanish-American War had started), gained nominal independence with some strings attached in 1902.
Resistance to the new arrangement in Puerto Rico was spearheaded by the Partido Unión de Puerto Rico (Union Party), which for years had been calling for a resolution to their lack of fundamental democratic rights. The Union Party was led by Luis Muñoz Rivera, one of the most important political figures in the history of Puerto Rico. But unlike his more radical Cuban contemporaries, such as José Martí and – later on – Fidel Castro, Muñoz Rivera was a diplomat who was willing to compromise with the US on key issues. Under pressure from President Woodrow Wilson he ultimately ceded on his demand for outright independence in favor of greater autonomy via an amendment to the Foraker Act.
In 1917, just months after Muñoz Rivera’s death, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act. It granted US citizenship to all Puerto Ricans and established a bicameral legislature whose decisions could be vetoed by the US president. No Puerto Ricans were involved in the debate over citizenship.
Questioned by many before the ink had even dried, the Jones Act failed to provide any long-term solutions. On the contrary, the debate over the future of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US continued to intensify and helped define the political careers of two major figures who would emerge in the late 1920s and early ’30s on the island: Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the pro-independence Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist Party); and Luis Muñoz Marín, who established the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD; Popular Democratic Party) in 1938.
As son of the widely respected Muñoz Rivera, Luis Muñoz Marín avoided the radical politics of Albizu, and took a more conciliatory approach to challenging the colonial situation of Puerto Rico. While the US Congress sidestepped the status question, Muñoz Marín’s PPD pressed for a plebiscite that would allow Puerto Ricans to choose between statehood and independence as their final options. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the majority of the PPD favored independence. However, neither President Franklin D Roosevelt nor the Congress seriously considered it as an option, and laws were enacted to criminalize independence activities such as those waged by the Nationalists.
Rather than take to the mountains to fight – as Fidel Castro later would do – Muñoz Marín decided to adopt a strategy that incorporated the status question with other issues affecting the Puerto Rican people, such as the dire economic and social effects of the Great Depression. His crux moment came in 1946 when he rejected independence as an option and threw his political weight behind a new status granted by Congress in 1948, referred to today as Estado Libre Associado, or ELA, the Free Associated State. This approach was meant to give the island more political autonomy, yet maintain and even embrace the very close relationship between the US and Puerto Rico.
In 1952 this status description was approved by a referendum held on the island. The voters also approved a Constitution that for the first time in Puerto Rico’s history was written by islanders. Muñoz Marín became the first governor of Puerto Rico to be elected by Puerto Ricans. Nevertheless, despite claims by the new governor and his supporters that the status question was finally resolved with ELA, for all intents and purposes, nothing changed: the Congress still had plenary powers over Puerto Rico. Although islanders were now exempt from paying federal income taxes, they still had no representation in Congress (apart from a nonvoting delegate), could not vote in US national elections, and were still being drafted into the US Armed Forces to fight alongside young Americans in foreign wars.
Over the years a number of referenda and plebiscites have been held, ostensibly to allow the Puerto Rican people to decide the future of the island’s status. Two official plebiscites, in 1967 and 1993, resulted in victories for ‘commonwealth’ status, that is, the ELA. Other votes have been held, with the status options, as well as the approach to self-determination, defined in different ways. All of these popular votes have been shaped by the ruling party at the time of the vote, either the pro-ELA PPD, or the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP; New Progressive Party). None of the plebiscites held over the years have been binding for the US Congress.
In 1998, as the island was getting ready to mark the 100th anniversary of US control, another attempt to address the issue came in the form of a bill introduced by Alaskan Republican Don Young. For the first time, Congress acknowledged that the current status was no longer viable. The Young Bill called for a plebiscite on the island where Puerto Ricans would vote on only two status options: either statehood or independence. It did not provide ELA or any other form of ‘enhanced commonwealth’ as an option, angering members of the PPD. Ultimately, the Young Bill went nowhere. While it was approved in the House by a narrow margin, the Senate never seriously considered it.
Puerto Rico’s status remains a major point of contention for its political leaders and often overshadows discussions about how to resolve other issues affecting the island, such as economic development, unemployment, education and crime. In the 1990s politics were dominated by pro-statehood Governor Pedro Roselló who, when reelected to a second term in 1996, received more votes than any other governor before him. However, his obsession with the status issue and his almost fanatical desire to convince Washington to make Puerto Rico a state overwhelmed his administration, especially in his second term, when he campaigned tirelessly for the Young Bill and other status-related measures.
In the end, charges of corruption in his administration left him somewhat discredited as he left office in 2001, turning over the reigns of the governor’s mansion to the first woman ever elected into the office, Sila Maria Calderón, the standard-bearer of the PPD.
Calderón was committed to bringing back integrity to the governorship, and, not surprisingly, pushed the status issue off the agenda during her four years in office. She took a very vocal position against the US Navy and lobbied regularly to make certain that Washington would stick to its commitment to close down the Vieques bombing range and remove its forces from the island, despite opposition from certain elements within the Pentagon and more hawkish members of the US Congress. However, she did not run for reelection, instead passing the baton to Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the young former resident commissioner for Puerto Rico (nonvoting delegate to the Congress).
Ironically, Acevedo’s primary opponent in the November 2004 election was Pedro Roselló. Once again, the voters were split almost precisely down the middle, with Acevedo narrowly beating the former governor by 3566 votes, a result that was immediately challenged by Roselló. In the latest example of the contradictions in Puerto Rican politics and its relations with federal authorities, the ultimate winner was not officially declared until the first US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled in late December that a federal court in Puerto Rico did not have jurisdiction in the recount dispute involving the November 2 gubernatorial election. Once again, a non-Puerto Rican entity, in this case a US court, had the final word in determining who was to be governor of the island.
In January 2005 Acevedo was sworn in as the island’s eighth democratically elected governor but he soon faced a hostile legislature dominated by the opposing PNP. Blankly refusing to accept Acevedo’s budget-balancing proposals, the legislature came up with its own plan which the new governor promptly vetoed. A stalemate ensued, a situation which ultimately led to a massive budgetary crisis that wracked Puerto Rico in May 2006, when the government was forced to literally ‘shut down’ after it ran out of funds to pay over 100, 000 public sector employees. The crisis lasted two weeks before a grudging compromise was reached, but it made a laughing stock out of the Puerto Rican government and drew intense criticism from business leaders, Puerto Rican celebrities and the general public.
In March 2008 Acevedo was indicted by the US on corruption charges after a two-year grand jury investigation. He has denied any wrongdoing and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.