Reflexions on the Political, Economic and Social History of Puerto Rico

On July 25, 1898, after over four centuries of Spanish rule, the small Caribbean island of Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States. From then one, the American Congress would confront the dilemma of which kind of status it should grant to its new territorial possession.

Attempts to «Americanize» Puerto Rico

American officials decided to “Americanise” the island and its inhabitants in order to prepare them for statehood. In this way, the United States imposed on Puerto Ricans the learning of the English language, which was widely used at public schools until 1948 year in which Spanish was introduced as official language alongside English. At the same time, the American government and monetary systems, customs legislations and laws were introduced and the island’s welfare was remodelled by building hundreds of schools and hospitals, and by improving its infrastructure.

However, by the 1940s the Americans realised that they would never mould Puerto Ricans into their own image. The resistance shown by Puerto Ricans to adapt themselves to the “American style of life” together with the belief of a great part of American public opinion that the island could not be considered for statehood as it was regarded as too poor and too Hispanic to become part of the Union, provoked the dropping of the “Americanisation” from the political agenda.

On the other hand, the United States did not contemplate independence as a viable alternative as there was a spread belief that Puerto Ricans, and most of Latin Americans, were no able to govern themselves.

puerto rico and the united states

Flags of Puerto Rico and the United States. Autor: Lee Cannon

Eventually, the answer to the puzzle came in 1952 when, after a popular referendum backing it, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was proclaimed. This new status was expected to grant the island with social and political autonomy and many of the island’s inhabitants considered it as the first step towards independence.

These notions, nevertheless, were mistaken and Puerto Ricans found themselves without a voice on any aspect of the political, social and economic life of the island without previously consulting and gaining the consent of the United States Congress.

Economic Dependency from the United States

The island’s economy became increasingly dependent on the mainland for its survival. This dependence was even greater when, from 1941, the Puerto Rican government implemented an economic recovery plan. The main feature of this program was the introduction of industrial tax exemptions, which converted Puerto Rico into a tax-free paradise attracting both United States’ investments and tourists.

In this way, during the decades of the 1940s and 1950s Puerto Rico experienced a spectacular industrial and economic growth that was classified as “the Puerto Rican miracle”.

However, the industrial development brought with it a neglect of the island’s agriculture with a consequent loss of jobs in that sector. By 1980, although social services and infrastructure had improved impressively, the island continued to be overpopulated. A great number of its inhabitants were surviving on federal aid and many of them were living in the several slums that surrounded Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan. The new industries were not able to completely absorb the constantly growing labour force and the Puerto Rican government resolved that encouraging migration to the mainland was the solution to the labour surplus.

Puerto Rican Migration to the Mainland

From 1940 to 1980, hundreds of thousands of poor Puerto Ricans settled on the mainland, especially in New York, in the hope of finding a better future for themselves and their families. Once there, besides having to adapt to a different culture and language, Puerto Ricans found themselves part of the poorest community in the United States and belonging to a racially discriminated against ethnic minority.

The Last Decades in Puerto Rico

An analysis of the political, social and financial situation of Puerto Rico during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, brings to light significant data. Although foreign investment has brought numerous benefits, until 1995 when tax exemption for American businesses was abolished, the development of local industry was neglected while the big American chains and television and radio stations exercised a constant cultural bombardment on the island’s society.

At the meantime, migration to the mainland has been somewhat alleviated but has neither resolved the problem of labour surplus nor reduced the high unemployment rate in the island. On the contrary, migration created a dispersal of the Puerto Rican society and generated cultural differences between those who remained in the island and the most adventurous that decided to search for a better future in the mainland.

Nowadays, the political, economic and social situation of Puerto Rico, with the exception of the impact caused by the current global economic crisis, has not experienced significant changes although it is true that the island enjoys certain political stability very rare in some neighbor countries.




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