Puerto Rico: History
Before the Spanish arrived the island was inhabited by the Arawak people, who called the region Borinquén or Boriquén. Christopher Columbus visited the island in 1493 and named it San Juan Bautista [St. John the Baptist], but he sailed on to Hispaniola to plant a settlement. Juan Ponce de León began the actual conquest in 1508, landing at San Juan harbor, which he called Puerto Rico [Span.,=rich port]. A settlement was founded in 1521 on the site of present-day San Juan. As hardship, disease, and Spanish massacres eliminated the Arawaks altogether, they were replaced as plantation workers by African slaves, first introduced in 1513. Deposits of placer gold were virtually depleted during the 1530s, after which the Spanish devoted their full attention to the sugar plantations.
Raids by the nearby Carib and by British, French, and Dutch pirates, however, hampered agricultural prosperity. San Juan, meanwhile, became a leading outpost of the Spanish Empire. Treasure-filled Spanish galleons that anchored there on their long trip to Spain attracted buccaneers. George Clifford, earl of Cumberland, held Puerto Rico for five months in 1598, and the Dutch besieged the island in 1625. Spain's response was to build several fortresses (whose walls still stand) that made San Juan virtually impregnable. Coffee was introduced in the 18th cent. to supplement sugar.
Beginning in the 1820s there were some uprisings against Spanish rule, but all were put down. Most notable was the Lares rebellion (Grito de Lares) of 1868. As part of a Spanish reform movement that extended to Puerto Rico, slavery was abolished in 1873, and the new Spanish republican constitution of 1876 granted Puerto Rican representation in Spain's parliament.
A movement for self-government, supported by liberal groups in Spain, grew in Puerto Rico during the 1880s. Finally, in 1897, largely through the efforts of the Puerto Rican statesman Luis Muñoz Rivera, Spain signed a charter granting the island some autonomy. The new form of government had little chance to operate, however, for a few months later the Spanish-American War erupted. U.S. troops landed at Guánica on July 25, 1898, and occupied the island without much difficulty. By the Treaty of Paris (Dec. 10, 1898), which ended the war, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States.
Puerto Rico remained under direct military rule until 1900, when the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, setting up an administration with a U.S. governor, an upper legislative chamber appointed by the U.S. president, and an elected house of delegates; the U.S. Congress was given the right to review all legislation. Meanwhile, a movement for Puerto Rican independence gained strength as pressures to define the island's political status grew, and in 1915 the house of delegates supported independence. In 1917 the Jones Act stipulated that Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory whose inhabitants were entitled to U.S. citizenship. The act provided for election of both houses of the Puerto Rican legislature, but the governor and other key officials were still to be appointed by the U.S. president, and the governor was empowered to veto any legislation.
During World War I, U.S. holdings in Puerto Rico increased, and the change to a one-crop economy was completed. The island's territorial status gave Puerto Rican sugar a ready market within U.S. tariff walls; however, large corporations encroached on land where foods had been raised for subsistence, thus causing social upheaval in the countryside and necessitating greater food imports. Absentee ownership and one-crop culture aggravated the ills of overpopulation. Sanitary and health improvements under the U.S. occupation further accelerated population growth. Many Puerto Ricans criticized the American regime for its menace to the Hispanic roots of Puerto Rican culture. Criticism intensified when the sugar market dropped in the 1930s and many workers, always near the edge of starvation, became even more desperate. The 1930s also saw Puerto Rican nationalists turn to violence in an effort to secure the island's independence.
Recovery measures were taken during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and especially under the governorship (1941–46) of Rexford G. Tugwell. Military activities related to World War II also aided the economy. The Popular Democratic party, headed by Luis Muñoz Marín, adopted a program based on economic reform and expansion, but other political parties were more concerned with U.S.–Puerto Rican relations. The Conservative Republicans advocated statehood; the Independentists, led by Gilberto Concepción, and the Nationalists, headed by Pedro Albizu Campos, favored immediate independence.
In 1946, the U.S. government granted Puerto Rico increased local autonomy, exemplified by the appointment of the first native Puerto Rican governor, Jesus T. Piñero. The right of popular election of the governor followed, and Muñoz Marín won the 1948 election. His administration undertook a program of agricultural reform and industrial expansion called
Operation Bootstrap. On July 25, 1952, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was proclaimed. The continuing Nationalist campaign for independence, however, was dramatized by an attempt to assassinate President Harry S. Truman in 1950 and by a shooting attack in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954. Muñoz Marín was reelected in 1952, 1956, and 1960. He was succeeded by another Popular Democratic candidate, Roberto Sánchez Vilella.
In the face of an increasingly active movement for statehood, Sánchez arranged a plebiscite in 1967 in which Puerto Ricans could choose among independence, statehood, and maintenance of the commonwealth relationship. An overwhelming majority voted for no change, but Puerto Rico's status continued to be a lively issue, with most citizens favoring either statehood (an option the U.S. Congress showed little interest in pursuing) or commonwealth; only a small percentage desired independence. In the 1970s and 80s voters chose Popular Democratic party candidates in some gubernatorial elections while favoring prostatehood New Progressive party candidates in others.
In 1992, New Progressive party candidate Pedro Rosselló was elected governor (he was reelected in 1996). In 1993 and 1998, however, voters in nonbinding referenda rejected any change from commonwealth status by narrow margins, although more U.S. politicians voiced support for the statehood option. In the same period disputes over military use of Vieques caused friction. Challenges to the tax exemptions supporting Puerto Rico's industries brought cuts in 1993 and finally their abolition, throught a ten-year phaseout, in 1996; uncertainty over the effect on the local economy was heightened by the loss of low-wage jobs in apparel manufacture to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Sila María Calderón, of the Popular Democratic party, was elected governor in 2000, becoming the first woman to hold the post.
Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, also of the Popular Democratic party, was narrowly elected in 2004 to succeed Calderón. In Sept., 2005, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a fugitive independence activist and convicted felon, was killed in a shootout with the FBI. The FBI's handling of that and subsequent incidents involving independence supporters, as well as its lack of cooperation with a Puerto Rican investigation into Ojeda Ríos's death, sparked demonstrations that continued into 2006 and protests from Puerto Rican government officials. A government financial crisis in May, 2006, led to a partial government shutdown for two weeks until the governor and legislature agreed on an emergency loan plan as a solution to the crisis. In 2008 Acevedo was charged with corruption and violating campaign financing laws, which he denied. He subsequently lost (Nov., 2008) his reelection bid to Luis Fortuño, the New Progressive party candidate; Acevedo was acquitted in Mar., 2009.
In the 2012 election Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic party defeated Fortuño; a plurality of the voters favored statehood in a nonbinding ballot question concerning Puerto Rico's status. In 2015 the governor announced the island would not be able to pay off its debt obligations and would seek to negotiate with its creditors; a combination of factors, including fiscally irresponsible island governments and the end in 2006 of federal tax breaks the island's economy had received, contributed to the debt crisis. In mid-2016 Congress passed legislation placing Puerto Rico's government under a U.S. financial control board, effectively reducing the island's autonomy, and in 2017 the island essentially declared bankruptcy. The commonwealth then began the process of attempting to restructure more $120 billion in debt and unfunded pension obligations. New Progressive Ricardo Rosselló, an ardent advocate of statehood, won the governorship in 2016. A new nonbinding referendum (2017) on the island's status produced an overwhelming vote in favor of statehood, but less than a quarter of the electorate voted.
In Sept., 2017, Hurricane Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit the island in almost a century, devastated the Puerto Rico's agriculture and infrastructure, especially its aging electrical power system, which took more than a year to repair. Although 64 deaths were initially officially attributed to the storm, that was revised after a study to 2,975, with many resulting in the weeks after the storm as a result of impacts on medical care and infrastructure. In the immediate aftermath, an estimated 185,000 people (more than 5% of the population) relocated to the mainland United States, with most of them remaining there a year later. Widespread protests provoked by a leaked chat marked by sexist, homophobic, and other insulting comments led to Rosselló's resignation in Aug., 2019. Wanda Vázquez, the secretary of justice, succeeded him, after the swearing in of Pedro Pierluisi, the not-yet-confirmed secretary of state, was ruled unconstitutional. A series of earthquakes in Dec.,2019–May, 2020, many of them magnitude 4.5 or greater, affected SW Puerto Rico, causing causing more than $100 million in damage.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Caribbean Political Geography