The United States “Liberated” Puerto Rico Only to Brutally Colonize It

2015 0520pp(Image: Nation Books)Although Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917, the United States continued to exploit, oppress and eventually launch a “war” on the people of Puerto Rico in order to gain land and resources. The book War Against All Puerto Ricans is a vivid, detailed account of the brutal treatment of a people “liberated” from Spain only to be subjugated by the US. Click here to order the book now with a contribution to Truthout!

The following excerpt is from chapter two, “Four Hundred Years of Solitude,” in the War Against All Puerto Ricans:

The King of the Towels [Pedro Albizu Campos, president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party] was in jail for a serious reason. He was trying to reverse four hundred years of history.

In the sun-splashed paradise of Puerto Rico, you can lie on a beach in the morning, hike through a rain forest during the day, and spend the evening exploring the ancient walls of a colonial city. The white coastal sands glitter like sugar. The water is so pristine that, from an airplane, you’ll see several shades of turquoise between the shore and the deep blue of the ocean. Through the middle of the island, the Cordillera Mountains form a series of misty ridges draped in thick sierra palm and pine forest, whose foothills taper gracefully into the Caribbean. Over a thousand silver streams and rivulets gush down the mountains and rush headlong into the sea.

The world’s third-longest underground river, the Río Camuy, lies under a beautiful, vast cave system – ten miles of cool limestone caverns and 220 caves – packed with dripping stalactites, giant stalagmites, and flowstone walls.

El Yunque is the only subtropical rain forest in the United States. Wreathed in clouds or framed against a cobalt sky, it rises majestically with a canopy of forest trees, plunging waterfalls, and natural swimming pools. Its 28,000 acres nourish over fifty species of orchids, as well as giant tree ferns, sierra plants, bamboo thickets, heliconia, ginger, and 225 native tree species, all thriving in an explosion of color and natural beauty. It also houses lizards, iguanas, the coquí tree frog, and seventy-nine types of birds, including the rare green-feathered Puerto Rican parrot (rarely seen outside the Puerto Rican legislature and Washington, DC).

The entire island is volcanic, and its soil is very rich. It is strategically located between North and South America – the first major land mass that a Spanish galleon would encounter after a long and harrowing voyage.

For all those reasons, over four centuries, Puerto Rico became a military and political football.


The abuse of the island started early. In 1493, Columbus made his second voyage to the New World with seventeen ships, 1,200 men, horses, cattle, guns, and smallpox. When he finally reached a major island, it happened to be Puerto Rico. The Taíno Indians welcomed Columbus, but they made a big mistake: they showed him some gold nuggets in a river and told him to take all he wanted. Naturally, this started a gold rush.

Spain named the island Puerto Rico (meaning “rich port”) and invaded with embroidered bibles and African slaves. They enslaved the Taínos as well: every Taíno over the age of fourteen had to produce a hawk’s bell of gold every three months or have their hands cut off. since they’d never seen a hawk, a horse, an armored man, or fire-breathing muskets, the Taínos did as they were told. To make matters worse, a strange plague (smallpox) was killing all the Taínos but sparing the Spaniards, which meant they must be gods or at least immortal. This didn’t sit well with an old Taíno named Urayoán – and so, in 1511, he conducted a little experiment.

He told a lonely Spaniard named Diego Salcedo that a lake filled with virgins was waiting for him. Diego dashed right over but met a lakeful of Taíno warriors instead. After they drowned him, Urayoán watched and poked and smelled the body for three days. When Diego began to rot, Urayoán spread the news. Riots broke out all over the island, and Ponce de León shot 6,000 Taínos in order to maintain public order and respect for the queen.

Three centuries later there were no Taínos left, but the situation hadn’t changed much. Puerto Rico was still a political football. In 1812 the first Spanish constitution, the Cádiz Constitution, was extended to Puerto Rico, and the island became a province of Spain with the same rights as other provinces. In 1814, the Cádiz Constitution was repealed; in 1820 it was restored, and in 1823 it was abolished. In 1824, the Spanish governor was again given absolute power over Puerto Rico.

On September 23, 1868, nearly 1,000 men rose up in the town of Lares to demand independence from Spain. By midnight they’d taken over the municipal seat of government, deposed the Spanish officials, arrested the Spanish merchants, and hauled them all off to jail. They hoisted a white flag with the inscription “Libertad ó Muerte; Vive Puerto Rico Libre; Año 1868” (Liberty or Death; Free Puerto Rico Lives; Year 1868). They took the town hall and forced the parish priest to celebrate a Te Deum for the establishment of the republic. Then they declared Puerto Rico independent, installed a provisional government, and offered freedom to any slave joining their cause.

The next afternoon, the Spanish militia from nearby Pepino routed the rebels, and troops pursued them from Aguadilla to Arecibo. El Grito de Lares had ended. In response to it, however, a liberal constitution was adopted in 1869, which restored Spanish citizenship to Puerto Ricans, as well as the right to representation in the Cortes Generales (the Spanish parliament).

Thirty years later, in 1897, the Spanish prime minister signed the Carta de Autonomía (Charter of Autonomy), which granted Puerto Rico the right to its own legislature, constitution, tariffs, monetary system, treasury, judiciary, and international borders. After four hundred years of colonial rule, the charter created the free Republic of Puerto Rico. Elections for the new legislature were held in March 1898, and the new government was scheduled for installation in May.

On May 12, cannon blasts awakened everyone in San Juan as twelve US battleships, destroyers, and torpedo boats bombarded the city for three hours, turning the sky black with cannon smoke. Homes were hit. Streets were torn. El Morro lighthouse and La Iglesia de San José, a sixteenth-century church, were shelled repeatedly. The governor ran to Fort San Felipe del Morro to defend the island with three Ordonez cannons, but San Juan became a ghost town as 30,000 residents fled the city, the world shattering all around them. The Spanish-American War, declared by the United States on April 25, had arrived in Puerto Rico. When US soldiers invaded the inner towns, the New York Times trumpeted, “Our Flag Raised in Puerto Rico.” As the war continued and US troops marched through the island, the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie were still buzzing about liberation, but the peasants – sick of politics, politicians, and promises, no matter what country they came from – couldn’t care less. When the American soldiers passed by, local dogs barked at them and farmers kept plowing their fields. They accepted the change in sovereignty with the same fatalism with which they accepted hookworms, hurricanes, and tuberculosis.

Americans were more upbeat about the matter. “Give my best love to Nannie, and do not make peace until we get Porto Rico,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt to Senator Henry Cabot lodge in 1898. “Porto Rico is not forgotten,” replied the senator. “We mean to have it.” The New York Journal of Commerce declared, “We must have Porto Rico,” because when a “territory of that nature falls into our hands it must never be parted with.”

The New York Times noted “the commercial value of Porto Rico” and “the wisdom of taking . . . and keeping it for all time.” According to the Times, it was “a charming winter resort,” a fine naval station with “a commanding position between two continents,” and “an island well worth having.” In language akin to that of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” the Times concluded, “We need it as a station in the great American archipelago. . . . We are not pledged to give Porto Rico independence. . . . [I]t would be much better for her to come at once under the beneficent sway of these United States than to engage in doubtful experiments at self-government, and there is no reason to believe that her people would prefer it.” Even the poet Carl Sandburg, who saw active service in Puerto Rico with the 6th Illinois infantry during the war, wrote, “For four hundred years this island had been run by a Spanish government in Madrid. Now it was to be American and it was plain that the island common people liked the idea.”

On July 4, 1898, in the Central Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, the Reverend J. F. Carson read from the Holy Bible, “And Joshua took the whole land, and the land rested from war.” He sermonized that “the high, the supreme business of this Republic is to end the Spanish rule in America, and if to do that it is necessary to plant the stars and stripes on Cuba, Porto Rico, the Philippines or Spain itself, America will do it.” That same night, in the Presbyterian Church of Fifth Avenue, the Reverend Robert MacKenzie prophesied, “God is calling a new power to the front. The race of which this nation is the crown . . . is now divinely thrust out to take its place as a world power.” Senator Albert J. Beveridge also saw a divine plan. “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing,” he declared. “He has made us adept in government so that we may administer government amongst savages and senile peoples.”

On July 21, 1898, the US government issued a press release stating, “Porto Rico will be kept. . . . Once taken it will never be released. It will pass forever into the hands of the Unites States. . . . Its possession will go towards making up the heavy expense of the war to the United States. Our flag, once run up there, will float over the island permanently.” On the floor of the US Senate, Republican Senator Joseph B. Foraker declaimed, “Porto Rico differs radically from any other people for whom we have legislated previously. . . . They have no experience which would qualify them for the great work of government with all the bureaus and departments needed by the people of Porto Rico.”

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Within a few years, Puerto Rico would be stuffed with “bureaus and departments,” becoming a base for Roosevelt’s “big stick” policy in the Caribbean. In fact, nearly a decade before the Spanish-American War, US President Benjamin Harrison and secretary of state James G. Blaine had already been considering the island’s value as a navy coaling station, provision center, and stepping stone to the Latin American market.

Eugenio María de Hostos, the great Puerto Rican educator, summed it up as follows: “How sad and overwhelming and shameful it is to see [Puerto Rico] go from owner to owner without ever having been her own master, and to see her pass from sovereignty to sovereignty without ever ruling herself.”

The United States told Puerto Ricans a very different story, however. On July 29, 1898, four days after the landing of American troops, Major General Nelson Appleton Miles issued a proclamation from his military headquarters in Ponce. It was the first official public statement from the US government explaining its plans for Puerto Rico:

The chief object of the American military forces will be to overthrow the armed authority of Spain and to give to the people of your beautiful island the largest measure of liberties consistent with military occupation.

We have not come to make war against a people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves but to your property, to promote your prosperity, to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government . . . and to give the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.

This “enlightened civilization” held some firm views about their neighbors. On February 22, 1899, the New York Times ran an article headlined “Americanizing Puerto Rico,” describing Puerto Ricans as “uneducated, simple-minded and harmless people who are only interested in wine, women, music and dancing.” As late as 1940, Scribner’s Commentator stated, “All Puerto Ricans are totally lacking in moral values, which is why none of them seem to mind wallowing in the most abject moral degradation.” In 1948, popular writers were still ranting that “Puerto Ricans are not born to be New Yorkers. They are mostly crude farmers, subject to congenital tropical diseases, physically unfit for the northern climate, unskilled, uneducated, non-English-speaking and almost impossible to assimilate and condition for healthful and useful existence in an active city of stone and steel.”

The most colorful (and color-conscious) opinions were voiced by the southern wing of the Democratic Party. Here are some choice words on the floor of the US senate from Senator William B. Bate (D-TN), who had served as a major general in the Confederate Army:

What is to become of the Philippines and Porto Rico? Are they to become states with representation here from those countries, from that heterogeneous mass of mongrels that make up their citizenship? That is objectionable to the people of this country, as it ought to be, and they will call a halt to it before it is done.

Jefferson was the greatest expansionist. But neither his example nor his precedent affords any justification for expansion over territory in distant seas, over peoples incapable of self-government, over religions hostile to Christianity, and over savages addicted to head-hunting and cannibalism, as some of these islanders are.

The national perception was clear: Puerto Ricans were ignorant, un-civilized, morally bankrupt, and utterly incapable of self-rule. The US would protect them, tame their savagery, manage their property, and deliver them from four hundred years of solitude.

Full footnotes can be found in the book War Against All Puerto Ricans.