Puerto Rico – HISTORY


Puerto Rico is a large Caribbean island of approximately 3,500 square miles located in the West Indies. It is the easternmost island in the Greater Antilles chain, which also includes Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola (divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic). After centuries of Spanish rule, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in 1898 and has been largely self-governing since the mid-20th century. It has a population of around 3.4 million and a vibrant culture shaped by a mix of Spanish, American and Afro-Caribbean influences.

Original population

The indigenous Taíno people of Puerto Rico – whose hunter-gatherer ancestors settled on the island more than 1,000 years before the arrival of the Spaniards – called it Borinquén and called themselves boricua (a term that is still used today). today).

During his second expedition to India in 1493, Christopher Colombus returned several Taíno captives to Borinquén and claimed the island for Spain, calling it San Juan Bautista. In 1508, Juan Ponce de Leon founded the first European settlement, Caparra, near a bay on the north coast of the island; Caparra was renamed Puerto Rico (or “rich port”) in 1521.

Over time, people began to refer to the entire island by this name, while the port city itself became San Juan. Smallpox soon wiped out the vast majority of the Taíno, with many others enslaved by the Spanish to mine for silver and gold and to build settlements.

Spanish rule

In order to produce cash crops such as sugar cane, ginger, tobacco and coffee, the Spaniards began to import more African slaves in the 16th century. They also spent considerable resources turning San Juan into an impregnable military outpost, building a fortified palace for the governor (La Fortaleza) as well as two massive forts – San Felipe del Morro and San Cristobál – that would withstand repeated attacks. of rival powers such as England, the Netherlands and France.

Under Spanish colonial rule, Puerto Rico experienced varying levels of economic and political autonomy over the centuries. By the mid-19th century, however, a wave of independence movements in the Spanish colonies in South America had reached Puerto Rico.

In 1868, some 600 people attempted an uprising based in the mountain town of Lares. Although the Spanish military effectively suppressed the rebellion, Puerto Ricans still celebrate “El Grito de Lares” (The Cry of Lares) as a moment of great national pride.

foraker law

In July 1898, during the brief Spanish American War, U.S. Army forces occupied Puerto Rico in Guánica, on the southern side of the island. Under the Treaty of Pariswhich officially ended the war later that year, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Cuba to the United States.

The interim U.S. military government established on the island ended in 1900 after Congress passed the Foraker Act, which formally instituted civilian government in Puerto Rico. Having enjoyed considerable autonomy in the final years of Spanish colonial rule, many Puerto Ricans bristled at the control exercised by the United States.

In 1917, Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans and made Puerto Rican men eligible for the military draft; some 18,000 of the territory’s inhabitants were later drafted into the First World War.

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Bootstrap Operation

Great political, economic, and social changes swept Puerto Rico after World War II. In 1948, Congress passed a law allowing Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor. Four years later, Puerto Rico would officially become an American Commonwealth, which allowed the island to create its own constitution and granted further powers of self-government.

At that time, the US and Puerto Rican governments had jointly launched an ambitious industrialization effort called Operation Bootstrap. Even though Puerto Rico attracted an influx of large American corporations and became a center of manufacturing and tourism, the decline of its agricultural industries led many islanders to seek job opportunities in the United States.

Between 1950 and 1970, more than 500,000 people (about 25% of the island’s total population) left Puerto Rico, an exodus known as La Gran Migración (the Great Migration). Today, more than 5 million people of Puerto Rican descent live in the United States, with huge communities centered in Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and especially New York.

Is Puerto Rico part of the United States?

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, but the island ambiguous status compared to the United States has sparked a heated debate over the years between those who support its Commonwealth status, those who favor a full Puerto Rican state, and those who want the island to be its own independent nation. .

As citizens of a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans can elect a nonvoting representative to Congress and vote in presidential primaries, but cannot vote for president because Puerto Rico is not part of the electoral college.

After three separate votes in 1967, 1993, and 1998 reaffirmed Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth status, a majority of residents who voted in a 2012 referendum said they were unhappy with the status quo and indicated that their preferred choice was statehood.

Hundreds of thousands of voters, however, left the second part of the referendum blank, leaving the issue open for further debate. A fifth referendum in 2017 ended with a majority vote for statehood, but only 23% of voters (a historic low) turned out.

Economic crisis

During the first decade of the 21st century, Puerto Rico’s economic growth slowed, even as its national debt grew rapidly. In 2015, the worsening economic crisis led its governor to announce that the Commonwealth could no longer honor its debts.

Two years later, under a law passed by Congress to help Puerto Rico deal with its economic crisis, the Commonwealth declared a form of bankruptcy, claiming more than $70 billion in debt, mostly to American investors.

In September 2017, Puerto Rico’s economic woes were compounded when Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 hurricane with winds around 150 mph, made direct impact on the island. In the aftermath of Maria, the people of Puerto Rico – some 3.4 million American citizens – found themselves in a humanitarian crisis, facing debilitating shortages of water, food and fuel and a deeply uncertain future.


Doug Mac, The Not Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Outposts of the United States. WW Norton2017.
Porto Rico, History, Art and Archives: United States House of Representatives.
Library of Congress.
Puerto Rico statehood referendum draws broad support, but low turnout, CNN.


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