Puerto Rico: The Postwar Years and Commonwealth Status

The Postwar Years and Commonwealth Status

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–Aug., 2020, many of them magnitude 4.5 or greater, affected SW Puerto Rico, causing more than $100 million in damage. Pierluisi, the New Progressive candidate, was narrowly election governor in 2020 with only a third of the vote; a majority voted in favor of statehood in a nonbinding referendum.

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