by Maris­abel Brás, Ph.D.

Of all Span­ish colo­nial pos­ses­sions in the Amer­i­c­as, Puer­to Rico is the only ter­ri­to­ry that nev­er gained its inde­pen­dence.  Inter­nal and geopo­lit­i­cal dynam­ics dur­ing the last quar­ter of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, nev­er­the­less, brought dra­mat­ic polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic changes to the island, set­ting the stage for the devel­op­ment of its nation­al insti­tu­tions and the trans­for­ma­tion of its polit­i­cal sys­tem as a Unit­ed States ter­ri­to­ry dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

Map of Puerto Rico with administrative subdivision into departamentos 1886

Map of Puer­to Rico with admin­is­tra­tive sub­di­vi­sion into depar­ta­men­tos 1886

After four cen­turies of Span­ish colo­nial rule, the peri­od between 1860 and 1898 wit­nessed a pro-inde­pen­dence rebel­lion, colo­nial reform, the estab­lish­ment of the first nation­al polit­i­cal par­ties, the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, and a short-lived exper­i­ment in auton­o­my under Span­ish rule.  The polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary strate­gies of a decay­ing Spain and the emerg­ing region­al pow­er of the Unit­ed States at the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, placed Puer­to Rico, along with Cuba, at cen­ter stage in the Caribbean.  The dynam­ics of this pow­er imbal­ance cul­mi­nat­ed in the for­mal trans­fer of the island to the Unit­ed States in 1898 at the end of the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War.

Last Decades under Spanish Rule.

Locat­ed at the north east of the Caribbean Sea, Puer­to Rico was key to the Span­ish Empire since the ear­ly years of con­quest and col­o­niza­tion of the New World. The small­est of the Greater Antilles, Puer­to Rico was a major mil­i­tary post dur­ing many wars between Spain and the oth­er Euro­pean pow­ers for con­trol of the region dur­ing the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies; a step­ping stone in the pas­sage from Europe to Cuba, Mex­i­co, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, and the north­ern ter­ri­to­ries of South Amer­i­ca. Through­out most of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Puer­to Rico and Cuba, remained the last two Span­ish colonies in the New World and served as the final out­posts in Span­ish strate­gies to regain con­trol of the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent.

Intentona de Yauco

Inten­tona de Yau­co

Dur­ing the ear­ly 1860s, local Span­ish author­i­ties, alarmed by con­spir­a­cies from sep­a­ratist groups, applied severe mea­sures against all acts of dis­si­dence on the island. Free­dom of the press was non-exis­tent, and group dis­cus­sions were mon­i­tored by the gov­ern­ment. The island was ruled by “leyes espe­ciales”; extra­or­di­nary decrees dic­tat­ed by the Cap­tain Gen­er­als, or gov­er­nors, appoint­ed by Spain.

By 1867, Puer­to Rico had 656,328 inhab­i­tants; its pop­u­la­tion record­ed as 346,437 whites and 309,891 “of col­or” (this cat­e­go­ry includ­ed blacks, mulat­tos and mes­ti­zos). Out of this het­ero­gene­ity, a sense of nation­al cul­ture had been estab­lished, as rep­re­sent­ed in music, the arts, col­lo­qui­al lan­guage, and archi­tec­ture. The major­i­ty of Puer­to Ricans lived in extreme pover­ty and agriculture–the main source of income–was lim­it­ed by lack of roads, rudi­men­ta­ry tools and equip­ment, and nat­ur­al disasters–such as hur­ri­canes and peri­ods of drought. While illit­er­a­cy was 83.7 per­cent, the intel­lec­tu­al minor­i­ty remained rel­a­tive­ly active with­in the lim­i­ta­tions imposed by local Span­ish author­i­ties.

First Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. Image from the Library of Congress

First Supreme Court of Puer­to Rico. Image from the Library of Con­gress

Many sup­port­ers of Puer­to Rican inde­pen­dence and oth­ers who sim­ply called for lib­er­al reforms under Spain were jailed or exiled dur­ing this peri­od. In addi­tion, Puer­to Rico suf­fered at the time a severe eco­nom­ic cri­sis due to increas­ing tar­iffs and tax­es imposed by a mer­can­tilist Spain on most import and export goods–the Span­ish Crown bad­ly need­ed these funds to sub­si­dize its troops in an effort to regain con­trol of the Domini­can Repub­lic.

Frus­trat­ed by the lack of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic free­dom, and enraged by the con­tin­u­ing repres­sion on the island, an armed rebel­lion was staged by the pro-inde­pen­dence move­ment in 1868. The so-called “Gri­to de Lares” broke in Sep­tem­ber 23, 1868. The rebel­lion was planned by a group, led by Dr. Ramon Eme­te­rio Betances and Segun­do Ruiz Belvis, who in Jan­u­ary 6, 1868 found­ed the “Comité Rev­olu­cionario de Puer­to Rico” (Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee of Puer­to Rico) from their exile in the Domini­can Repub­lic. Betances authored sev­er­al “Procla­mas” or state­ments attack­ing the exploita­tion of the Puer­to Ricans by the Span­ish colo­nial sys­tem and called for imme­di­ate insur­rec­tion. These state­ments soon cir­cu­lat­ed through­out the island as local dis­si­dent groups began to orga­nize. Secret cells of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee were estab­lished in Puer­to Rico bring­ing togeth­er mem­bers from all sec­tors of soci­ety, to include landown­ers, mer­chants, pro­fes­sion­als, peas­ants, and slaves. Most were “criol­los” (born on the island). The crit­i­cal state of the econ­o­my, along with the increas­ing repres­sion imposed by the Span­ish, served as cat­a­lysts for the rebel­lion. The strong­hold of the move­ment was found in towns locat­ed on the moun­tains of the west­ern part of the island.

Spanish defenders of Guayama

Span­ish defend­ers of Guaya­ma

Although orig­i­nal plans called for the insur­rec­tion to begin on Sep­tem­ber 29, Span­ish author­i­ties on the island dis­cov­ered the plan forc­ing the rebels to move up the date. It was then agreed to first strike at the town of Lares on Sep­tem­ber 23. Some 400–600 rebels gath­ered on that day in the hacien­da of Manuel Rojas, locat­ed in the vicin­i­ty of Pezuela, on the out­skirts of Lares. Poor­ly trained and armed, the rebels reached the town by horse and foot around mid­night. They loot­ed local stores and offices owned by “penin­su­lares” (Span­ish-born men) and took over the city hall, pro­claim­ing the new Repub­lic of Puer­to Rico. Span­ish mer­chants and local gov­ern­ment author­i­ties, con­sid­ered by the rebels to be ene­mies of the father­land, were tak­en as pris­on­ers. The fol­low­ing day, Sep­tem­ber 24, the Repub­lic of Puer­to Rico was pro­claimed under the pres­i­den­cy of Fran­cis­co Ramí­rez. All slaves that had joined the move­ment were declared free cit­i­zens. The rebel forces then depart­ed to take over the next town, San Sebastián del Pepino. The Span­ish mili­tia, how­ev­er, sur­prised the group with strong resis­tance, caus­ing great con­fu­sion among the armed rebels who, led by Manuel Rojas, retreat­ed back to Lares. Upon an order from the gov­er­nor, Julián Paví­a, the Span­ish mili­tia soon round­ed up the rebels and quick­ly brought the insur­rec­tion to an end. Some 475 rebels were impris­oned, among them, Manuel Rojas. On Novem­ber 17, a mil­i­tary court imposed the death penal­ty, for trea­son and sedi­tion, on all pris­on­ers. Nev­er­the­less, in an effort to appease the already tense atmos­phere on the island, the incom­ing gov­er­nor, José Lau­re­ano Sanz, dic­tat­ed a gen­er­al amnesty ear­ly in 1869 and all pris­on­ers were released.

Between 1869 and 1873, the estab­lish­ment of a lib­er­al gov­ern­ment in Spain led to ample lib­er­ties in the Caribbean, includ­ing the rights of Cubans and Puer­to Ricans to send rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the Span­ish Cortes. The lib­er­al reforms extend­ed to the island, to include the sta­tus of Diputación Provin­cial (mak­ing the island a Province of Spain), and paved the way for the estab­lish­ment of the first nation­al polit­i­cal par­ties. While the pro-inde­pen­dence move­ment remained dis­band­ed and most of its lead­er­ship was still in exile, con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­er­al fac­tions took over the local polit­i­cal are­na, lead­ing to a more open debate on the polit­i­cal sta­tus and social demands of the times. The con­ser­v­a­tive fac­tion, most­ly rep­re­sent­ed by “penin­su­lares”, favored a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sta­tus quo that would main­tain the local gov­ern­ment under hand-picked Cap­tain Gen­er­als rul­ing by decree, and favored slav­ery, as well as all the priv­i­leges until then giv­en to the pre­dom­i­nant­ly Span­ish rul­ing class. The lib­er­al fac­tion, on the oth­er hand, called for the total inte­gra­tion of Puer­to Rico as a province of Spain, there­by extend­ing to the island all the priv­i­leges of the then-lib­er­al Span­ish régime. They also called for the abo­li­tion of slav­ery and ample polit­i­cal reforms at the local lev­el.

In Novem­ber 1870, the lib­er­als found­ed the Par­tido Lib­er­al Reformista (Lib­er­al Reform Par­ty), led by Román Bal­do­ri­o­ty de Cas­tro, José Julián Acos­ta, and Pedro Gerón­i­mo Goico, among oth­ers. Its lead­er­ship, how­ev­er, was divid­ed into two fac­tions; one sup­port­ed total assim­i­la­tion to Spain, while the oth­er, the “auton­o­mis­tas”, called for self-gov­ern­ment under the Span­ish flag, sim­i­lar to the British polit­i­cal arrange­ment with its for­mer colonies. The news­pa­per El Pro­gre­so served as a vehi­cle for pub­lic expres­sion of the lib­er­als’ views.   Soon there­after, the con­ser­v­a­tives found­ed the Par­tido Lib­er­al Con­ser­vador (Lib­er­al Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty), using the news­pa­per Boletín Mer­can­til as the con­ser­v­a­tive means for dis­sem­i­nat­ing their views. Although Puer­to Rican rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the Span­ish Cortes suc­ceed­ed in their efforts to obtain polit­i­cal reforms dur­ing this peri­od, in prac­tice, local Span­ish author­i­ties kept a tight grip on the island, threat­ened by rumors from abroad of plots and poten­tial insur­rec­tion by the sep­a­ratists.  In this, cen­sor­ship of the press was par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive as were gov­ern­ment repres­sion and polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion direct­ed at the lib­er­al camp.

In 1873, the Span­ish Con­sti­tu­tion­al Monar­chy was replaced by a repub­li­can gov­ern­ment.  Although short-lived, the new Span­ish Repub­lic approved the abo­li­tion of slav­ery on the island on March 22, 1873.  While the new law was con­sid­ered a step for­ward by Puer­to Rican lib­er­als, it did not pro­vide for imme­di­ate and total free­dom of the island’s black pop­u­la­tion.  Efforts for fur­ther lib­er­al reform on the island were abort­ed in 1874, when the Span­ish Repub­lic fell as the result of a mil­i­tary coup, lead­ing to the return of the Span­ish Monar­chy.  Span­ish author­i­ties once again appoint­ed as gov­er­nor José Lau­re­ano Sanz, who imme­di­ate­ly over­turned all estab­lished demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices.   Thus, Puer­to Rico returned to its colo­nial sta­tus, ruled by spe­cial laws dic­tat­ed by a repres­sive ruler.

Between 1876 and 1898, the two lib­er­al wings came togeth­er behind the idea of polit­i­cal auton­o­my, leav­ing behind the notion of assim­i­la­tion with Spain. Dur­ing the mid-1880s, they worked on a par­ty plat­form call­ing for self gov­ern­ment and renamed them­selves the “Par­tido Auton­o­mista Puer­tor­riqueño” (Puer­to Rican Auton­o­mist Par­ty). The pro-inde­pen­dence move­ment, mean­while, planned sev­er­al inva­sions from exile which nev­er mate­ri­al­ized for lack of funds and sup­port.

Towards the end of the 1880s, the island’s pop­u­la­tion suf­fered from a severe eco­nom­ic cri­sis. The local monop­oly of Span­ish mer­chants fueled resent­ment and led to the estab­lish­ment of secret societies–organizations pro­mot­ing the boy­cott of Span­ish mer­chants and greater sup­port for local busi­ness. There were many vio­lent inci­dents against Span­ish com­mer­cial estab­lish­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly loot­ing and arson. The gov­ern­ment and its Civ­il Guard respond­ed with a series of raids and impris­on­ments, apply­ing severe tor­ture mea­sures which became known as “com­pontes”. The social con­di­tions of the island were also crit­i­cal dur­ing this peri­od. In addi­tion to a lack of civ­il lib­er­ties, approx­i­mate­ly 85 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion remained illit­er­ate. Mal­nu­tri­tion and extreme pover­ty were wide­spread through­out most of the coun­try­side.

Puer­to Ricans final­ly were grant­ed self-gov­ern­ment by Spain, when the “Car­ta Autonómi­ca” (a form of con­sti­tu­tion­al auton­o­my) was approved by the Span­ish Cortes in Novem­ber 25, 1897. Nev­er­the­less, by the time of the first elec­tions in March 1898, ten­sions were already build­ing up between Spain and the Unit­ed States, and the short-lived self-gov­ern­ment exper­i­ment came to an abrupt end one month lat­er with the advent of the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War.

The dawn of a new colonial era under the United States.

The 45-star flag, used by the United States during the invasion of Puerto Rico, was also the official flag of Puerto Rico from 1899 to 1908.

The 45-star flag, used by the Unit­ed States dur­ing the inva­sion of Puer­to Rico, was also the offi­cial flag of Puer­to Rico from 1899 to 1908.

The strate­gic val­ue of Puer­to Rico for the Unit­ed States at the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry cen­tered in eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary inter­ests. The island’s val­ue to US pol­i­cy mak­ers was as an out­let for excess man­u­fac­tured goods, as well as a key naval sta­tion in the Caribbean. US Navy Cap­tain Alfred T. Mahan became the lead­ing strate­gist and advi­sor to his gov­ern­ment dur­ing the 1880s. He joined the fac­ul­ty of the US Naval War Col­lege in 1884 and became its pres­i­dent in 1886. Mahan for­mu­lat­ed a strate­gic doc­trine based on naval pow­er as the main ele­ment of mil­i­tary suprema­cy. Thus, the strate­gic doc­trine of the Unit­ed States, until then focus­ing on ground war­fare, was replaced by the pri­ma­cy of naval pow­er. US naval pow­er in the hemi­sphere, result­ing from the ascen­dan­cy of its naval tech­nol­o­gy at the time, thus became the strate­gic basis of US mil­i­tary doc­trine and for­eign pol­i­cy dur­ing the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.

Mahan played a key role in the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War, as a mil­i­tary strate­gist and close advi­sor to Pres­i­dent McKin­ley through­out the con­flict. Over­all, the US war strat­e­gy called for a pre­dom­i­nant­ly mar­itime con­flict in which the new­ly upgrad­ed US Navy could dis­play its might.

Dur­ing 1894 the first plans for a mil­i­tary con­flict with Spain were for­mu­lat­ed at the US Naval War Col­lege. In 1896, a for­mal war plan was devel­oped by Lieu­tenant William W. Kim­ball, a naval intel­li­gence offi­cer at the War Col­lege. The stat­ed objec­tive was to ‘lib­er­ate Cuba’ from Span­ish rule. The main the­ater of oper­a­tions would be the Caribbean, focus­ing on the Cuban and Puer­to Rican coastal regions, and the con­flict would involve exclu­sive­ly naval oper­a­tions. Accord­ing to this plan, US naval pow­er would be employed against the Span­ish Navy at those points where the ene­my would face an equal or supe­ri­or force.

Accord­ing­ly, the US Depart­ment of the Navy began oper­a­tional prepa­ra­tions ear­ly in 1898. These took into con­sid­er­a­tion a wealth of intel­li­gence reports on the weak­en­ing con­di­tions of the Span­ish forces. The mys­te­ri­ous explo­sion of the Maine bat­tle­ship in the Havana har­bor, killing some 300 US marines on Feb­ru­ary 15, 1898, was the turn­ing point for the Unit­ed States to start its war oper­a­tions. On April 21st, Pres­i­dent McKin­ley for­mal­ly request­ed that the US Con­gress declare war against Spain. Although the US war effort had, in ret­ro­spect, its tac­ti­cal and logis­ti­cal faults, its unques­tion­able mil­i­tary supe­ri­or­i­ty over Span­ish forces led to a quick US vic­to­ry.

The Span­ish-Amer­i­can war last­ed some four months. On May 1st, US forces destroyed the Span­ish fleet in Mani­la Bay, the Philip­pines deal­ing a deci­sive blow to the Span­ish arma­da. Giv­en the weak­ness of the Span­ish forces, the US then decid­ed to expand its cam­paign, and bring in ground troops. It also changed its strat­e­gy for Cuba and planned for mil­i­tary oper­a­tions against Havana, the island’s cap­i­tal city and key post of Spain in the Caribbean. US troops land­ed in Cuba late in June and on July 17 destroyed the Span­ish fleet sta­tioned in San­ti­a­go de Cuba Bay, thus secur­ing total con­trol of the water­ways in the Caribbean. Fol­low­ing these events, Pres­i­dent McKin­ley set forth the con­di­tions for peace nego­ti­a­tions. The evac­u­a­tion of Cuba by Span­ish forces and its trans­fer to the Unit­ed States was the pre­lude to impo­si­tion of order and for­ma­tion of a sta­ble gov­ern­ment on the island. McKinley’s sec­ond demand was the trans­fer of Puer­to Rico from Span­ish author­i­ties to the Unit­ed States with­out com­pen­sa­tion.

Although Span­ish sur­ren­der was cer­tain at this point, the occu­pa­tion of Puer­to Rico fol­lowed in an effort to secure the US pres­ence on the island pri­or to the ini­tial dis­cus­sions of a peace set­tle­ment. On July 18, Gen­er­al Nel­son A. Miles, com­man­der of the invad­ing forces, received orders to sail for Puer­to Rico. Some 18,000 US troops with a naval escort depart­ed for Puer­to Rico from Guantánamo Bay and the east coast of the Unit­ed States. They land­ed at Guánica Bay on July 25, imme­di­ate­ly mov­ing to the city of Ponce and oth­er towns locat­ed on the south­ern part of the island. The US troops then pro­ceed­ed north towards San Juan, Puer­to Rico’s cap­i­tal and the main mil­i­tary post of Span­ish forces on the island. But before they could reach San Juan, Spain agreed on August 13th to sign a peace treaty with the Unit­ed States, putting an end to all mil­i­tary hos­til­i­ties.

Pres­i­dent McKinley’s con­di­tions for a peace agree­ment pre­vailed through­out the peace nego­ti­a­tions and were final­ly rat­i­fied in the Treaty of Paris, signed on Decem­ber 10, 1898. The for­mal trans­fer of Puer­to Rico to the Unit­ed States took two months, from August 12 to Octo­ber 18, when the last Span­ish troops sailed back to Spain and the US flag was raised in most pub­lic build­ings on the island. A mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment was estab­lished under the com­mand of Gen­er­al John R. Brooke.

The Treaty of Paris gave the Unit­ed States full con­trol over all for­mer Span­ish mil­i­tary instal­la­tions as well as some 120,000 acres of land for­mer­ly owned by the Span­ish Crown on the island. The main mil­i­tary posts were locat­ed in the cap­i­tal city of San Juan along with mil­i­tary bases in the towns of Cayey, Aiboni­to, Ponce, Mayagüez, Aguadil­la and the adja­cent island of Vieques. Puer­to Rico remained under direct con­trol of US mil­i­tary forces until the US Con­gress rat­i­fied the Forak­er Law on April 12th, 1900, bring­ing a civil­ian gov­ern­ment to the island.