A few reminders about the history and political status about Puerto Rico: With the Carta Autonómica, Spain had given Puerto Rico the capacity to govern itself. Elections were held, with a new Parliament being seated on July 13, 1898. The Americans invaded on July 25. A press release by the McKinley State Department stated, “Once taken it will never be released. It will pass forever into the hands of the United States.”
The American investors were promptly given control of the Bank of Puerto Rico. The Foraker Act structured the government in such a way that the Governor of Puerto Rico would be appointed by the President of the United States. Education was restructured, with classes conducted entirely in English, with Spanish treated as a special subject.
In 1899, a hurricane hit, and property taxes were exponentially increased. Most landowners were forced to either sell their property, or seek American financing.
Puerto Rico’s diversified agricultural economy was transformed into a monoculture of sugar plantations. Local plantation owners could finance their operations only via local banks which offered high interest rates, compared to the low rates that American companies received from the commercial banks in Wall Street. This factor, plus the tariffs imposed by the US Congress, forced many of the local sugar plantation owners to go bankrupt or to sell their holdings to the more powerful American sugar companies.
According to the New York Times in 2015, “The most unfair law of all is the Merchant Marine Act of 1920… which requires that every product that enters or leaves Puerto Rico — cars from Japan, engines from Germany, food from South America, medicine from Canada — must be carried on a United States ship. A foreign-flagged vessel may directly enter Puerto Rico — but only after paying taxes, customs and import fees that often double the price of the goods it carries.”
On March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act. While it did further democratize the government of the island, most fiscal and economic matters remained subject to Washington’s approval. Their new citizenship meant that Puerto Ricans were eligible for travel to the United States without a passport. It also meant that, when Congress passed the Selective Service Act two months later, conscription was extended to the island. 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted during World War I.
Anything resembling pro-Independence activism was ruthlessly crushed. For example, on March 21, 1937 the Nationalist Party organized a peaceful march to commemorate the anniversary of the end of slavery in Puerto Rico. Under the orders of the US appointed governor at the time, police fired into the crowd, killing 20 and wounding hundreds more.
In 1948, the American governor instituted the Ley de La Mordaza. This made it illegal to fly the Puerto Rican flag, or publicly express support for Independence.
In 1950, the Nationalists staged an uprising, which coincided with an assassination attempt on President Truman. Insurgents succeeded in seizing the town of Jayuya. The government responded by leveling the town with P-47 Fighter Bombers.
In February 1952, the Constitution of Puerto Rico was instituted, organizing the island as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Shortly thereafter Operation Bootstrap was organized to industrialize the island. Governor Marín enticed US mainland investors to transfer or create manufacturing plants by granting them local and federal tax concessions, and with the promise of a worker base that could be paid much lower than in the United States.
In the 1960s, the FBI and CIA conducted COINTELPRO projects in Puerto Rico to investigate, undermine, and discredit the Independence movement. According to FBI Director Louis Freeh, “there had been egregious illegal action, maybe criminal action, by the FBI in Puerto Rico.” Over 80,000 suspected Independence activists were under surveillance, and any method was used by the FBI to disrupt their lives, whether that was breaking up marriages, getting them fired, and otherwise discredit them in the community.
The United Nations established the Special Committee on Decolonization in 1961. They immediately called for Puerto Rico’s independence.
Even into the 21st century, suppression of Puerto Rican activists has persisted. In 2006, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was killed in his home by the FBI. While the FBI defended their conduct during the raid, the Civil Rights Commission of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico determined that it had been an “illegal killing.”
In 1976, Congress altered the tax code, allowing American companies to operate in Puerto Rico without paying corporate taxes. But in 2006 they closed this loophole, causing a massive flight of capital from the island, plunging it into its current recession. The entirety of debt is owned by Wall Street banks, but due efforts by the late Strom Thurmond, American bankruptcy law has been amended to exclude Puerto Rico from Chapter 9 bankruptcy protections.
In 2016, the US Congress created PROMESA to restructure Puerto Rican debt. This has included measures such as shutting down hospitals to send the money that would otherwise be spent funding them to Wall Street banks.
Puerto Ricans have increasingly been turning out in periodic referendums in favor of Statehood, with over 60% of Puerto Ricans favoring it in 2012. Of course the next step in the process of Puerto Rico would be Congressional action. But given that the Republican Party has grown increasingly hostile to Hispanic people, they are not eager to admit a state that would likely vote Democrat.
So to recap:
Puerto Ricans are taxpaying citizens. They can travel to the US without a passport. They pay income taxes to the Commonwealth, who in turn pool those taxes and pays them to the US Federal Government.
However, Puerto Ricans are entirely disenfranchised in the American political process. They do not send Representatives or Senators to Washington. They cannot vote for President. Their only avenue of participation in the national political process is voting in the Democratic and Republican Party Presidential Primaries.
Their economy has been devastated by over a century of American economic exploitation. 45% of Puerto Rican citizens live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate on the island is 12.4%. And virtually the entirety of their industry and economic resources are owned by mainland American corporations.
“The natives are a uneducated, simple-minded and harmless people who are only interested in wine, women, music and dancing.” -New York Times, 1899
“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” -President Donald Trump, 2017