Puerto Rico: A Brief Profile
Capital: San Juan
Population: 3.4 million
Currency: US Dollar
Languages: Spanish and English
Geography: Puerto Rico is an archipelago or island chain located between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, west of the Virgin Islands and east of the Dominican Republic.
Hurricane Maria made direct landfall on September 20, 2017. It traversed Puerto Rico, hammering the island chain directly in the most populated areas. It pummeled and drenched Puerto Rico with near record-breaking rainfall and flooding. In its wake, Hurricane Maria devastated the archipelago’s communication, power, transport, medical, education, and water infrastructure and systems. The consequences are catastrophic. The aftermath is undeniably horrific and still unfolding.
However, Maria was not the first hurricane to impact Puerto Rico this season. Hurricanes Irma and Jose both left damage in their wake throughout the Caribbean.
Moreover, long before the hurricanes this year, Puerto Rico was in the midst of severe austerity and a debt crisis reaching an astronomical amount of 74$ billion dollars with poverty levels reaching a staggering 45%. Many comparED the economic calamity to that of Greece. The disasters affecting Puerto Rico are both climate and financial, intertwining with both its history and politics. In addition, thousands of people have left the island to resettle in the continental US.
As Puerto Rico has been in the news, albeit to a lesser degree many are still wondering what Puerto Rico’s relationship is vis-a-vis the United States.
*The question of Puerto Rico’s statehood or independence is not one that will be settle or argued in this post. Nor does CAI have a stance. The complexities far outweigh the scope of this article to distill in a thousand words or less. However, it is essential to contextualize Puerto Rico to understand this moment a bit more holistically.
What is Puerto Rico?
Is Puerto Rico a country? A territory? A commonwealth? Part of the US? Are the people who live on the island chain US Americans or Puerto Ricans? Alternatively, both? How do the people of Puerto Rico see themselves and how does that fit in the broader diaspora of Puerto Ricans in the mainland of the US? These are a just a few questions that we may well ask ourselves regarding Puerto Rico. This line of thinking highlights some of the complexity of Puerto Rico.
Brief History of Puerto Rico
Inhabitants first settled the archipelago of modern-day Puerto Rico between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. Various indigenous people began migrating to the Caribbean and the Antilles from the Orinoco Valley in what is now South America. By the time the Spanish Conquistadors landed on the island in 1493, the Taino People were the dominant indigenous group for more than 1,000 years. The Taino referred to the island as Borikén and many islanders to this day refer to it as Borinquen and to themselves as Boricuas.
The aftermath of initial contact was not kind to the Taino. Many perished due to warfare and forced labor, but a significant cause of death was exposure to Old World diseases such as Small Pox which killed up to 90% percent of the indigenous population in the region, in fact, throughout the Americas. By the late 1540s, fewer than 500 Taino remained. To compensate for the loss of native labor, enslaved Africans were brought to the island. This contact between Spanish, Indigenous, and African peoples created a Mestizo and Creole culture which still exists. A culture that Puerto Ricans embody proudly and reflects in their music, food, dance, and island character.
However, Puerto Rico was the not the center of focus for the Spanish Crown. Prosperous colonies throughout Central and South America arrested Spain’s attention. Nonetheless, beginning in the 1700s, Puerto Rico rekindled Spain’s interest with a boom of coffee, tobacco, and sugar plantations. An increase in infrastructure development connected coastal cities to other remote areas on the island. Moreover, the trade of enslaved Africans increased to keep up with the agricultural demands.
Nevertheless, times and geopolitics were changing, and the Spaniards no longer had such a tight hold in the region. British, Dutch, and French influence increased and competed in the area. Also, the newly independent countries of the United States of America, Haiti, and Venezuela inspired other colonies to start their fight to break free from European Colonial rule. Puerto Rico was no exception. In the early 1800s, the burgeoning independent movement began to form but was harshly quelled by the Spanish Crown.
In hopes of diluting the call for independence, Spain offered free land to any European settler in exchange for allegiance to the crown, almost half a million, mostly, Spaniards but German, French, Scottish, Irish and Italians immigrated to the island.
By the end of 1897, Spain and Puerto Rico agreed on a semi-autonomous parliamentary system. It was short-lived.
The United States government had long viewed Puerto Rico along with Cuba as strategic naval positions and sugar production as an asset.
In July of 1898, the US invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War with a land invasion of Guernica. The war lasted ten short weeks and resulted in the collapse of the already weak Spanish Empire.
The 1898 Treaty of Paris gave the US ownership of Guam, The Philippines, Puerto Rico and temporary control of Cuba.
The ensuing years have not been quaint. Internecine struggles and conflicts with the US have at times turned bloody as the debate over Puerto Rico’s status still rages.
As of now, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, an unincorporated dependent territory, which means the archipelago is principally governed by the US government but is not part of the mainland. It is a territory, not a state.
Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917 with the Jones Act. Yet, they cannot vote in the presidential elections. Those who move to the continental US can vote, however. Furthermore, the island has no representation in the US Senate and has a non-voting member in the House of Representatives.
Since the 1960s Puerto Rico has held five referendums to determine their status, the latest in 2017. There is no unified voice within Puerto Rico. Undoubtedly, the debate is not an easy one to have. It is multisided and arises strong emotions from Puerto Ricans both on and off the island. Recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria possibly will need anywhere from 45-95 $ billion. Rebuilding will not be easy. Since the calamitous hurricane, more than 139,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island. This mass exodus inevitably will affect recovery efforts. However long and whatever the outcome may be it is important to note that the people of Puerto Rico are Americans. And perhaps it is time to broaden our definition and inclusiveness to fully embrace them as such.
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