The History of Puerto Rico

By Katie Lloyd

Puerto Rico is a small island in the Caribbean Sea of the Atlantic Ocean. It lies east of Cuba and Hispaniola, the island that encompasses the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The land is mountainous and hilly; the tectonic features that created such a landscape additionally cause sporadic earthquakes. Another frequent natural disaster that affects the island is hurricanes. With the tropical climate, temperatures only vary slightly, with the average at 78 degrees Fahrenheit (Wagenheim et al, 2021). These features have been generally consistent for Puerto Rico, but what has not been is its provocative history.

The first inhabitants of the island were Taínos. The population probably reached around three million before European contact (Poole, 2011). The Taíno people lived in small clans and organized, widely distributed villages and survived by fishing, hunting, and farming (History, n.d. & Poole, 2011). Taínos mainly grew beans, maize, sweet potatoes, and yuca. They never developed writing, but made pottery, balls from rubber, and canoes large enough to hold a hundred people (Poole, 2011). Most of this changed when Columbus landed on the island in 1493. His arrival led to the end of Taíno autonomy and their way of life (History, n.d.).

The island became a colony of the Spanish Crown around 1509 when Ponce de León subdued the majority of the Indigenous population after conflict arose between the two groups (Poole, 2011 & Puerto Rico, n.d.-a). The encomienda system was put in place, a form of native labor organization, forced Taínos to perform various labor assignments (Yeager, 1995). This, along with European diseases, caused a relatively rapid decrease in the native population. In 1520, a royal decree freed the remaining Taínos, but in practice the system did not end. Enslaved Africans were brought to the island to make up for this lack of labor force. Both enslaved Africans and natives were forced to work in gold mines or on farms that supplied the mines. Overtime, this subsistence agriculture turned into a plantation system that grew coffee, sugarcane, and tobacco (Puerto Rico, n.d.-a).

A separatist movement first appeared in 1868 with the Grito de Lares, an event in which several hundred people revolted against Spain in hopes of Puerto Rican independence. While this attempt failed, the town of Lares became a place for supporters of independence. In 1897, Spain granted the colony some freedom after United States pressured them to improve their relationship with their colonies, allowing Puerto Rico to form a legislature (Chronology of Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War, n.d.). After several events, like the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine and calls for war with Spain from the American public over the treatment of Cubans, the United States government declared war on Spain in April of 1898 (Chronology of Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War, n.d. & The Spanish-American War, 1898. n.d.). In July, an American Lieutenant General publicly proclaimed that the purpose of invading Puerto Rico was to bring the country freedom. By October, Puerto Rico had been abandoned to the U.S. and by the new year a peace treaty had been ratified between the two countries (Chronology of Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War, n.d.).

The treaty effectively ended Spanish imperialism in the Americas and officially gave control of the island to the United States. Gold mines had already been nearly depleted by the time this occurred, but there was other strategic value in the acquisition in Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico, n.d.-a). It would be a place to import manufactured goods and a place for naval stations in addition to the cash crops that already grew on the island. Military control of the island ended, and civilian government began in 1900 with the passing of the Foraker Act (Brás, n.d.). Not much would change until the Jones-Shafroth Act that passed in 1917, which granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship just in time for conscription into the First World War (Blakemore, 2020). Then in 1950, the territory was granted permission to create a constitution, which was adopted two years later. The people of Puerto Rico still lack rights that Americans on the mainland have; they have a representative in Congress, but that person does not have voting power (Blakemore, 2020).

The more recent history of Puerto Rico is fraught as well. In 1976, a tax incentive in the U.S. tax code brought a boom in manufacturing, but 20 years later, this incentive was phased out and left the territory with a small economic crisis. The 2008 Great Recession combined Puerto Rico’s economic issues, making the matter worse. Despite Congress’s attempt to help with the appointment of a fiscal control board in 2016 to restructure the debt, the island declared bankruptcy in 2017. Hurricanes Irma and Maria of the same year destroyed billions in property, adding to the debt crisis (Cheatham, 2020).

Furthermore, the territory has recently seen a lot of internal political discordance. In 2019, private chats between then Governor Ricardo Rosselló and administration officials were published, showing derogatory messages and disgusting insults, revealing efforts to steer the media, and several confidential government information being told to lobbyists (Acevedo, 2019). After enormous protests by the public, Rosselló officially resigned on August 2nd of the same year, leaving Wanda Vázquez, his secretary of justice, to fill the position (Mazzei et al, 2019). A year later, Vázquez was formally investigated for her own corruption charges (Coto, 2020).

In addition to these political problems, the interest in the changing of the territory’s relationship with the U.S. has grown. There are five major positions on the changing of Puerto Rico’s status: remaining the same, enhancing its status to allow the island to conduct its own foreign policy, free association, statehood and independence (Cheatham, 2020). The territory has held referendums before with varying results. Statehood won 52% of the vote in the most recent referendum of 2020, but only around 37% of the population voted (ELNUEVODIA.COM, 2020 & Puerto Rico, n.d.-b). These referendums do not hold any official power, as Congress has the only authority to act (Congressional Research Service, 2017).

Most recently, the problems in Puerto Rico have been related to the environment and social issues. Climate change is making hurricanes worse and in September of 2020, Governor Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency over gender-based violence, which will stay in effect until June 30, 2022 (Hersher, 2019 & Kaur et al 2021). Many advocacy groups applaud this decision as a step in the right direction, bringing hope to a long struggle against gender violence (Kaur et al, 2021). Despite these setbacks, the future is looking brighter. It has been discovered recently that millions today have inherited DNA and traditions from Taíno ancestors despite many claims to their extinction (Zimmer, 2020). Furthermore, the Biden Administration plans to release aid that was meant to go to the island after Hurricane Maria and remove restrictions on other support (Flavelle et al, 2021).

Katie Lloyd is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in History with a Latin American concentration, minoring in Museum Studies, and pursuing a Certificate of Latin American Studies. She was born and raised in Arlington, Virginia and has been learning Spanish since kindergarten. Katie has previously been an Undergraduate Intern in the Language Department of Brashear High School and Visitor Services Volunteer at various Historic Alexandria Museums. She is primarily interested in Latin American history, indigenous history, politics, and the arts. She plans to pursue a Master of Arts in History or Education.


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