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How colonialism and racism explain the inept US response to Hurricane Maria

US senator, 1898: Puerto Ricans can’t govern themselves. President Trump, 2017: They “want everything done for them.”

People walk across a flooded street in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017.
People walk across a flooded street in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico, September 21.
Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

As Puerto Ricans face a crisis of unimaginable proportion, some in the US — including possibly President Donald Trump — puzzle over the degree to which this is an American problem. Polls taken in the aftermath of the hurricane indicate that barely 50 percent of the population grasp that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and that its people are US citizens, with full freedom of travel to the mainland.

It remains all too clear that after more than century of US rule, Puerto Rico remains, in the American public imagination, a foreign land. There are a number of reasons for this, but one is especially obvious: It is perceived as ethnically distinct from the mainland.

This helps explain the discrimination that Puerto Ricans have endured at the hands of Americans — an experience the islanders share with other Latin American and Afro-Caribbean people. Indeed, in a tweet last week, President Trump invoked the stereotype of the “lazy” and “entitled” Latino by claiming that storm-ravaged Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them.”

Puerto Rico was one of Spain’s last remaining colonies when some 3,300 troops landed near the Southern coastal town of Guánica on July 25, 1898, during the Spanish-American War. In that conflict, America’s central goal was gaining control of Cuba, which it failed to do, but it managed to take possession of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, paying Spain $20 million under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.

The indignities began right off the bat. Officials decided to use a garbled and erroneous Anglicization of the island’s name, calling it “Porto Rico” for three decades. This insult was not rectified until Congress agreed in 1932 to return to the Spanish spelling; in English, Puerto Rico means “Rich Port.”

American anti-colonialists raised their voices, but were drowned out

Many Americans, including such notables as Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and William James, voiced their opposition to the acquisition — and formed the Anti-Imperialist League — but they lost out to imperialist enthusiasts. As the arch-expansionist Sen. Albert Beveridge put it in a September 1898 speech, tellingly titled “The March of the Flag”: “The rule of liberty that all just government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, applies only to those who are capable of self-government.”

Senator Albert J. Beveridge (R-IN), said in 1898: “We govern the Indians without their consent; we govern our territories without their consent; we govern our children without their consent.”
Senator Albert J. Beveridge (R-IN), 1898: “We govern the Indians without their consent; we govern our territories without their consent; we govern our children without their consent.”
Library of Congress

Advocates of acquisition, including Beveridge, also saw a ready and growing market for the goods of US farmers and artisans.

Hurricanes have punctuated the history of the island, and a massive one struck shortly after it became a US colony. In 1899, a storm named San Ciriaco caused a similar level of destruction as Maria — and 3,433 deaths. Crops were ruined, relief was slow to arrive, and Puerto Ricans began to look for work elsewhere. Around 5,000 left to work halfway around the world on sugar plantations in Hawaii, then also a new US territory.

This rocky start was made even more rocky by a series of laws that, among other things, put a US appointed governor in charge and established English as the official language, though it was spoken by few on the island. Conversely, the US officials didn’t speak Spanish. The first governor, Charles Herbert Allen, compounded tension caused by the language barrier by purchasing land and founding a powerful sugar syndicate — which would become Domino Sugar — thereby ruining the livelihoods of smaller farmers.

During these early years, Puerto Ricans were considered to be “foreign” if they wanted to migrate to the US, but otherwise American. This began to change after a young woman named Isabel González sued in 1902 after being turned away from Ellis Island. The resulting Supreme Court decision, Gonzales v. Williams (yes, they misspelled her name, too) ruled that Puerto Ricans were not “aliens,” which allowed them to move more freely to the United States.

American citizenship arrived for Puerto Ricans in 1917, with World War I as the backdrop

Full citizenship would take more than another decade, arriving in the form of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, which granted Puerto Ricans full citizenship and gave the island its own bicameral legislature. A short time later, in May 1917, when the Selective Service Act came into effect, Puerto Ricans were eligible to join the US military. More than 200,000 registered for the draft and some 20,000 served in the First World War, establishing a tradition of military service that continues to this day.

To be sure, some were reluctant to enlist; at least 5,000 Puerto Ricans were declared “delinquent” for not signing up for the draft, and around 200 went to jail. The US extended citizenship at a time when it was attempting to secure influence in the Caribbean region, to fend off a potential German incursion. In the same year, the US bought the former Danish West Indies — today’s US Virgin Islands — for $25 million. There were also US military occupations in Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934, and the Dominican Republic, from 1916 to 1924, plus the ongoing control of the Panama Canal Zone.

After the war, in 1920, the protectionist Jones Act mandated that goods moving between US ports be delivered in American-built and owned vessels. This bit of obscure legislation, designed to aid US shipbuilders and still on the books, has been blamed for hindering aid after Maria (although it’s now been waived temporarily).

The island suffered another brutal hurricane in 1928, economic collapse during the Great Depression, and another global conflict — with some 65,000 Puerto Ricans serving in the Second World War.

An attempt to industrialize, even as violent nationalism stirred

The changes after the war would be dramatic. Through Operation Bootstrap, Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín attempted, with mixed success, to industrialize what remained a mostly agricultural economy. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans placed their economic bets on the mainland, making their way north, especially to New York, where their population soared from around 40,000 in 1930 to more than 600,000 by 1960.

Significant political changes were afoot in the mid-20th century, too, including the rise of an independence movement, led by the charismatic Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. After an impoverished childhood, scholarships took him to Harvard, where he studied law and he also served in the First World War in an all-black regiment. But by 1936, Campos was telling his supporters that Puerto Rico was “docile and defenseless, because … our political and economic power has been systematically stripped away by the United States for its own political and economic gain.”

Four nationalists died during the 1935 Río Piedras Massacre, when police fired on students in a car headed to a protest at University of Puerto Rico campus; the following year two nationalists — Hiram Rosado and Elías Beauchamp — killed the American chief of police, Elisha Francis Riggs. They were arrested, taken to police headquarters, and shot.

In response, US Sen. Millard Tydings (D-MD) put forward a bill offering Puerto Rico’s independence — but at a price. If Puerto Ricans voted for independence, in a referendum, they’d lose their US citizenship, the island would be given no financial assistance, and high tariffs would be imposed. Far from a good-faith path to independence, it was a reminder of who was in charge.

What emerged instead, under the leadership of Muñoz Marín, was a push toward autonomy short of independence. Like Albizu Campos, Muñoz Marín had been educated in the US (although he enjoyed a more privileged background). By 1940, his Popular Democratic Party had won enough seats to make him president of the Puerto Rican Senate. In 1947, the US began allowing Puerto Ricans to choose their own governor, and Muñoz Marín won that post in 1948. He shepherded through a constitution for Puerto Rico, which Congress approved in 1952, and the island established itself as an Estado Libre Asociado — a Free Associated State, or, alternatively, a commonwealth.

The meaning of those terms, and the freedom of action they grant, have been contested over the years; Puerto Rico naturally still falls under the Territory Clause of Article 4 of the Constitution, which gives the US power “to make all needful rules and regulations” over any territory.

Nationalists try to kill President Truman

The violent side of Puerto Rican nationalism has cast a shadow over relations between the island and US. Albizu Campos spent some 20 years in US and Puerto Rican penitentiaries, taking the blame for eruptions of nationalist violence on the island and in the US. Two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House in 1950, where President Harry Truman and his family were staying during a White House renovation. (One of the assailants was sentenced to death; Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison, and President Jimmy Carter freed him in 1979.)

In 1954, four members of the nationalist party shouted "Viva Puerto Rico Libre" and opened fire in the House of Representatives, wounding five members. Albizu Campos died in 1965, though the independence movement struggled on.

Puerto Rico has remained a commonwealth, though there have been numerous plebiscites on its status. The most recent was in June 2017; voters chose statehood, although only 23 percent of voters turned out. Of course, whether Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state is ultimately up to the US Congress.

The island’s debt crisis is the latest chapter in the struggle to free itself from US economic control — and one excuse among many for why Americans are reluctant to consider statehood. In 1976, Congress decreed that American firms could operate on the island tax-free, to encourage investment there. But 20 years later, it decided the measure was too costly and began phrasing it out — an economic blow. Puerto Rico began issuing bonds to cover budget shortfalls, leading to the current debt crisis. Puerto Rico now owes more than $123 billion to creditors and future pensioners. For that and other reasons, its infrastructure was starved long before Maria hit.

It would like to declare bankruptcy, as Detroit did, but its right to do so is unclear. In the meantime, the US government has put in place a financial-oversight board that’s not accountable to the island’s government.

President Trump Arrives In Puerto Rico In Aftermath Of Hurricane Maria Devastating The Island
President Donald Trump greets people as he arrives at Muniz Air National Guard Base, in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Since 2004, fully 400,000 Puerto Ricans have departed, taking the population from a peak of 3.8 million to 3.4 million today. Once on the mainland, Puerto Ricans can vote just as any other Americans can; as their community grows in states like Florida so too does their clout at the ballot box. (Puerto Ricans still on the island can vote in presidential primaries, though they have no say in the Electoral College.)

Although elections are the furthest thing from the minds of Puerto Ricans right now, residents remain at the mercy of winds blowing from Washington.

If Puerto Ricans’ second-class status was in doubt, Trump highlighted it when he told residents that Maria was not a “real catastrophe,” like Hurricane Katrina, and expressed concern, amid so much human suffering, that Puerto Rico’s crisis was “throwing our budget out of whack.”

Fragile to begin with, fraught with ethnic and economic tension, the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico has taken a beating after Maria. Like so much else, it will need rebuilding.

Carrie Gibson is author of Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day. Her next book, El Norte: The Forgotten Hispanic Past of the United States, will be published in 2018.

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