The US’ Long History With Puerto Rico
December 10, 2017
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, approximately 79% of Puerto Rico no longer has access to electricity, and by extension many of the necessities needed for survival and recovery. Many people have been left without internet and cell service, access to clean water, and a way to store food. While the estimated death toll is currently in the 100s, this will likely increase as time goes on and people are left without access to the basic items they need to survive. The cost of repairs after this hurricane are estimated around thirty billion dollars, and will take many years to complete.
So, how will the citizens of Puerto Rico receive the funds that they need? As of October, FEMA had approved $35 million in grants to the islandㅡonly 10.8% of what was approved for Texas and 5.07% of what was approved for Florida. Despite this, President Trump stated that Puerto Rico is “throwing our budget out of whack,” and that “we’ve spent a lot of money in Puerto Rico.” As a territory of the United States, where citizens pay taxes, Puerto Rico is clearly entitled to government aid. But there has been a long history between the mainland and Puerto Rico, and one that has certainly not always been fair.
Puerto Rico was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, and was originally named San Juan Bautista. However, the name was changed to Puerto Rico after gold was found in a river. Despite the presence of gold, the economy of the island was primarily composed of cattle, sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco.
The French, the Dutch, and the English all attempted to conquer Puerto Rico and take it from Spain. Spain did not lose the island until 1898, when Puerto Rico was ceded to the US as a part of the treaty which ended the Spanish-American war. The US set up its own governmental structures there, leaving the democratically-elected parliament of the island unacknowledged, all while destroying the local economy through instituting a sugar-based business model which left the island with mass poverty. Despite all this US influence, only in 1917 would Puerto Ricans get the right to US citizenship, and only in 1952 would it become a commonwealth.
Last year, Puerto Rico held a referendum in which the majority of people voted for the island to become a state. If so, then why are we not seeing an extra star added to the flag? One explanation lies with the Insular Cases, a series of legal opinions from 1901. The Insular Cases stated that Puerto Rico was full of “alien races” who did not understand “Anglo-Saxon values” and that, because of this, the Constitution did not apply to them. These arguments and the lack of statehood may offer a reason as to why the US government is not as willing to extend federal funds to help Puerto Rico discover.
Rather than becoming a state, Puerto Rico spent a long time as a US military base. Two-thirds of the island was purchased to use as a naval base, mainly for the purposes of training and bombing practice. The base ran for sixty years until a civilian was killed in the 1990s and years of violent protest forced them to shut down in 2003. This complex and largely negative relationship with the military stretches back even furtherㅡPuerto Ricans were only granted citizenship in order to fight in World War I.
One would think that all this history with the United States would warrant some education about Puerto Rico in our schools, but clearly, we have none. Of the five people I interviewed, only one knew that Christopher Columbus had discovered Puerto Rico, which is a very simple and easy to guess fact. In fact, only two people knew that Puerto Rico was a territory; the rest just said they didn’t know. No one knew that it was once a military base, no one knew how we obtained the island, and no one had ever heard of the Insular Cases.
The US’ relationship with Puerto Rico, its own territory, is clearly very poor. Citizens there are not allowed to vote in our general elections, revolutionaries are censored, and the legacy of mass poverty lives on. Puerto Rico deserves our respect and assistance, and the least we can do to begin that is education. Students should know about Puerto Rico, just like they would any other state. It’s time that US stops hiding from our colonial history, and uses our power in order to help places like Puerto Rico.
Dreazen, Yochi. “Darkness: Life in Puerto Rico without Electricity.” Vox, Vox, 23 Oct. 2017, www.vox.com/2017/10/23/16501164/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-power-water-sewage-trump.
“Puerto Rico – History and Heritage.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 6 Nov. 2007, www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/puerto-rico-history-and-heritage-13990189/.
Little, Becky. “Puerto Rico’s Complicated History with the United States.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 22 Sept. 2017, www.history.com/news/puerto-ricos-complicated-history-with-the-united-states.
Campbell, Alexia Fernandez. “Trump Says Helping Puerto Rico Is Breaking the US Budget. Texas Has Gotten Way More Money.” Vox, Vox, 3 Oct. 2017, www.vox.com/2017/10/3/16413142/puerto-rico-trump-budget.