domingo, 18 de mayo de 2008

Highlights of Puerto Rican History

by José R. Bas García*

The following are just some of the events I consider important in the history of my country.  It is intended to offer little-discussed information on how our relationship with other countries has influenced, conditioned and affected our development as a Latin American nation. 

No historian is totally objective. I make no claims about being either a Historian or objective. Although I do make an effort not to impose my personal opinions and judgments, I have been selective in choosing those readily found in many published texts, and the language I used inevitably portrays my personal thoughts and feelings.  My hope is to balance others' opinions and judgments that may be equally subjective.

 1-       November, 1493 – On his second trip on behalf of the Catholic Kings of Spain, Christopher Colombus landed somewhere on the western shores of Puerto Rico.

 2-       1508 – Juan Ponce de León is sent to Puerto Rico to lead the Spanish conquest. The extraction of gold, agricultural products and the enslaving of Taíno Indians was authorized.

 3-       1513 – Taínos were required to adopt the Christian faith in order to keep their "free man" status.  By 1510 the Orden de los Dominicos priests were already established in the nearby La Española, now the Dominican Republic.  Due to the fast extinction of the Taíno population in Puerto Rico, it was authorized to import Africans as slaves to gradually substitute the Indians on the hard labor jobs.

 4-       1647 – The first indigenous cultural, art and identity manifestations took place. An important Puerto Rican "criollo", Diego Torres de Vargas, referred to Puerto Rico in one of his writings as his "patria" (homeland).  The construction of churches promoted arts like painting and sculpture. José Campeche (1751-1809) was one of our first and best painters.  On 1690 the first Latin American novel was published by the Mexican, Carlos Singüenza y Góngora and the Puerto Rican, Alonso Ramírez.

 5-       September 23, 1868 – El Grito de Lares was the first independence Puerto Rican uprising against Spain.  It coincided in time with the Cuban Grito de Yara. It occurred a few decades after the liberation of the other Spanish colonies in America from 1810 to 1825.  The Republic of Puerto Rico was then proclaimed, but the more powerful Spanish military defeated the uprising.  This is considered the first historical expression of Puerto Rican self-awareness of a distinct identity as a nation.

 6-       1823 – United States unilaterally proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine announcing that any European attempt at expansion in the Hemisphere or regain the former colonies in Latin America would be considered as an "unfriendly" initiative against the United States.

 7-       November 1897 – Spain provides, not independence, but an autonomic rule for Cuba and Puerto Rico, its last colonies in America. (Autonomic Charter or Carta Autonómica)

 8-       February 1898 – The Maine, a US ship anchored in Cuba, was blown up and sunk in Havana harbor. The United States declared war on Spain -known as the Spanish-American war.  Even though Puerto Rico had nothing to do with what caused this war, the US attacked San Juan on May, 1898 and later, on July 25, landed troops on Guánica, on the south west of the island.  This began the military occupation of Puerto Rico by the US.

 9-       December 10, 1898 – The Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the war between Spain and United States. By it, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to US.  It also stated that the civil rights and the political conditions of the residents, natives of Puerto Rico would be determined from then on by US Congress.

 10-    July 25 to May 1900 – US Generals headed a military government on the island. They made changes on the existing judiciary system and established a military judiciary system for civilian cases which evolved to become what at present is the Puerto Rico District Court for the District of Puerto Rico under the federal system.  Proceedings are exclusively in English to this day, even though more than two-thirds of the population in Puerto Rico admits to speaking no English.

 11-    1899 – The population of Puerto Rico was 953,243

 12-    1898 – 1901 – During and after this transition public education had to be in English.  On 1898, there were 529 public schools run under the Spanish regime.  By 1901 the number increased to 733.  Also, there were improvements in health services, communications and roads.

 13-    May 1, 1900 – US Congress approved the Foraker Act to establish a civil government for Puerto Rico.  The Governor was appointed by the US President. An Executive Council had dual duties, as the Governor's cabinet and as part of a legislative branch resembling a Senate.  The people of Puerto Rico could only elect 35 deputies to the House.  The post of Resident Commissioner was also created by this law and it still exists.  The law classified those born on the Island as "citizens of Puerto Rico", but it had neither real meaning nor international recognition.  It also eliminated the Puerto Rican currency and established a rate of exchange of $0.60 for each Puerto Rican peso. Merchandise to and from the US had to be carried on US merchant marine ships.

 14-    1900 – The Foraker Act created an Instruction Department.  Its Director would be appointed by the President and would also be a member of the Executive Council.  He would be in charge of implementing the policy of "Americanization".  American teachers were brought to work in public schools and all subjects were taught in the English language.

 15-   1900 – An order from President McKinley established the principle of a "real and absolute" separation between the State and the church.  This caused problems for the Catholic Church because it depended on public funding.   Although protestant churches were allowed to work in Puerto Rico during the second half of the 19th century, the President's order made it easier for the protestant denominations to expand in Puerto Rico to try to pre-empt the influence of the Catholic Chrch.  This was considered being part of the "Americanization" policy.

 16-   1897 - 1930 – In 1897, only 19% of Puerto Rico's commercial activity was with US. It had increased to 37% by 1899; to 68% by 1900 and by 1930, it had reached 94.3%.  Puerto Rico's agriculture became single crop farming.  Most of the land was dedicated to sugar cane and was controlled by four American absentee corporations with capital yields of 22.5%.  By 1930 the average family income living in rural areas was between $250 and $275 a year.

 17-   1901 – On one of the Insular Cases, Downes v Biswell, the US Supreme Court declared that Puerto Rico is a "territory belonging to the US" that is not "part of the US", thus creating the category of "non-incorporated territory" to be ruled by Congress under the Territory clause of the US Constitution.

 18-    March 2, 1917 – The Jones Act, the second organic act for Puerto Rico, was approved by the US Congress.  It extended the American citizenship to Puerto Rico even though the Puerto Rican political leadership had opposed it. This law also modified the legislative branch by creating a Senate and a House of Representatives which would both be elected by direct vote of the Puerto Ricans. The US President would still appoint the governor. There were no other major changes from the Foraker Act.

 19-    1922 – In the Balzac case, the US Supreme Court stated that granting US citizenship to Puerto Rico did not change the non-incorporated status of the island and did not mean to "put the island residents on an exact equality with citizens from American homeland".  Only when Puerto Ricans moved to continental US "could they enjoy every right of any citizen".

 20-    1934 – 80% of the Puerto Rican population qualified for economic assistance, according to US Department of Interior documents, but only 42% received any relief.

 21-   1935 – 1937 – A series of important events in favor of independence and against the colonial regime occurred along with its reaction by the government.  As a result, Nationalist Party leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, was incarcerated. A project for immediate independence without any economical transition or help was drafted by Senator Tydings.  On March 21, 1937 the Ponce massacre (Masacre de Ponce) took place resulting in 19 dead and over a hundred wounded.

 22-    1940 41 – Upon US involvement on WWII, US Navy built Roosevelt Roads, a naval base in Ceiba  that used the island municipality of Vieques, off the east coast of Puerto Rico, for air-to-ground, ship-to shore and amphibious military maneuvers.

 23-   1940 – 1950 An aggressive economic program initiated by the local government and backed by the federal government promoted cheap-labor investment and rapidly changed Puerto Rico's economy from agricultural to labor-intensive industrial production.  Along with it, government encouraged farm workers to migrate to the East Coast States as an escape valve for population growth in the island.

 24-    1945 – The United Nations Charter was signed.  It made colony holding countries responsible for reporting about the colonies and their development of self government towards attaining independence.

 25-   1946 – US President appoints the first Puerto Rican Governor, Jesús T. Piñero.

 26-    1947 – US approved a law authorizing Puerto Ricans to elect a governor by direct vote.  Luis Muñoz Marín was the first colonial Governor to be elected by the people in 1948.

 27-    1950 – US Congress approves Public Law 600 which authorizes Puerto Ricans to draft a Constitution for a government that would deal only with internal matters.  All other powers would be held by Congress as before. A referendum was to take place for approval by the people and sent to US Congress for its final approval.  This law amended the Jones Act only on those articles that described the organizational structure of the colonial government. All other matters, including the power of Congress to make laws for the territory were kept intact.  On this same year, as a reaction to Public Law 600, the Nationalist Party started a revolution against the American colonial regime, in the central town of Jayuya.  The uprising was brutally suppressed by independence militant's mass arrest and incarceration without valid warrants by the colonial government, and approves legislation (the Gag Law or Ley de la Mordaza) facilitating discrimination and persecution of those advocating decolonization and independence. This action resembled that of El Grito de Lares against Spain.

 28-    July 25, 1952 – The Estado Libre Asociado –translated officially as Commonwealth- was established and is still our current form of government. Ever since that time, many Puerto Ricans question whether the so called Commonwealth Constitution, subordinate to the regulations, judicial decisions, laws, and the constitution of the United States, really decolonized Puerto Rico.  Those who thought it did claim that this was the result of a bilateral compact between Puerto Rico and USA. Not everyone was convinced that this was true. In fact, they thought that nothing had changed and Puerto Rico continued being a colony, but with a different name.

 29-    1973 – Oil price increased dramatically.  Puerto Rico's economic model based upon foreign investment, mainly American, failed to keep its pace. In 1975, the Federal government extended the food stamps program to Puerto Rico thus expanding an ever increasing dependency of the island's economy on federal funds.

30-    1988 – End of the "Cold War" and world polarization by capitalism and communism.  Communism ceased being a "threat" to the capitalistic world.

 31-    1989 – The presidents of Puerto Rico's three political parties representing virtually all of Puerto Rico's voters signed an historic declaration in the governor's mansion (Declaración de Fortaleza) declaring that since 1898 the US had never consulted the People of Puerto Rico regarding their ultimate political status.  US Senator J. Bennet Johnston proposed a Bill for a status referendum in Puerto Rico among three alternatives: commonwealth, statehood and independence.  After two years of hearings in various Senate committees, died without a floor vote.

 32-    1998 – US Representative Don Young proposed a similar bill which passed the House by one vote, but died in the Senate.  In each process, statements were made that helped clearing the status confusion created in 1952.  Government officials declared that Puerto Rico was still a non-incorporated territory of the United States under the constitution, a colony under international law.

 33-   1999 - 2000 – A military plane missed its target and accidentally killed a civilian during a military training operation in the US Navy target range in Vieques. The Puerto Rican Independence Party led a peaceful civil disobedience campaign that earned the support of the vast majority of the Puerto Ricans demanding the Navy to leave Vieques.  In 2003 the US Navy left Vieques.  It also closed the naval base in Ceiba shortly thereafter.

 34-    2005 – An Executive Order by President Clinton in 2000, subsequently adopted by President George W. Bush, created a Task Force on the status of Puerto Rico reported in 2005 what subsequently became the US Administration official position: that Puerto Rico is still a non-incorporated territory if the United States.  It also recommended what could become a decolonizing procedure to achieve a permanent, fully democratic, non-territorial status for Puerto Rico.

 35-    2007 – After several resolutions stating that Puerto Rico is a colony and has not exercised its right to self determination, the UN Decolonization Committee requested that the UN General Assembly reopen the case of Puerto Rico.  If it happens in 2008 or 2009, as expected, Puerto Rico's decolonization process could quickly advance.

 * Manuel Rodríguez Orellana, PIP's Secretary for Relations with North America, contributed to this work.



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