Last November, with all the hubbub surrounding the presidential election, you may have missed a historic moment for the little Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. For the first time, the majority of Puerto Ricans voted to become a U.S. State. This vote, although problematic in some ways (see Ben Fox’s article “Puerto Rico vote endorses statehood with asterisk”), could be an important step toward changing Puerto Rico’s current relationship with the United States. But what is Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States? Well, it’s complicated.

Puerto Rico is currently a commonwealth of the United States. The Office of Insular Affairs defines a commonwealth as “an organized United States insular area, which has established with the Federal Government, a more highly developed relationship, usually embodied in a written mutual agreement.” This is not to be confused with an unincorporated territory: “a United States insular area in which the United States Congress has determined that only selected parts of the United States Constitution apply,” an organized territory: “a United States insular area for which the United States Congress has enacted an organic act,” or just plain occupied territory, in which the U.S. military forcibly claims sovereignty over people who would really rather they didn’t. Since 1898, Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States has encompassed all of the aforementioned definitions, each with its own set of ever-changing rights and responsibilities.

Are we confused yet?

We’ll start at the beginning.


Spanish colonial rule in Puerto Rico was many things, but it was not complicated. Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493. The people who already lived there, the Taínos, (Columbus ‘discovered’ them, too) called the island Borikén. Their population dwindled rapidly from exposure to European diseases and the harshness of imposed slavery. Spanish settlers, left with no labor force, began importing African slaves to work on their plantations.

In 1873, the Spanish National Assembly abolished slavery in Puerto Rico, but the island’s plantation economy persisted.

Over the centuries, the French, Dutch, and British all tried to take Puerto Rico from Spain. Looking at a map, it’s not hard to see why. As the easternmost island of the Greater Antilles, Spain thought of Puerto Rico as the gateway to the Caribbean and the rest of its possessions in the Americas. But, Spain’s American imperium was surrounded by other colonial powers. Driven by the fear of losing their gateway to the Americas, the Spanish covered Puerto Rico in forts. By the end of the nineteenth century, Spain had lost all its colonies, save Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and a few other Pacific islands.

During the nineteenth century, Puerto Ricans, inspired by Simón Bolivar and other independence movements in Latin America, pushed for independence from the weakened Spanish crown. Though unsuccessful, these sentiments eventually led to change towards the end of the century. In 1897, the Spanish agreed to the Carta Autonómica, making Puerto Rico an overseas province of Spain. This allowed for Puerto Rico’s first semi-autonomous government (the Spanish-appointed governor maintained the power to annul any legislative decisions).

Governor-General Manuel Macías, a Spanish general, inaugurated the new government in February, 1898. In March, general elections were held. Puerto Rico’s first autonomous government began to function on July 17, 1898—in the midst of the Spanish-American War.


The importance of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890), by Alfred Thayer Mahan, cannot be overstated. Captain Mahan was President of the U.S. Naval War College when he wrote this significant historical volume. His theories resonated with many leaders and strategists around the world, including President Theodore Roosevelt (read a letter from Roosevelt to Mahan that discusses Hawaii, an isthmian canal, and “big problems in the West Indies”). Mahan’s theories arrived in American consciousness at an interesting time. Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” (1893) posited that westward expansion and the frontier experience gave rise to American exceptionalism. Since that expansion ended when the United States reached the shores of the Pacific, Turner proposed that the period of American greatness might have ended with it. Mahan’s ideas gave the United States a way to be great again through expansion—overseas expansion. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had set its sights on world power. The first step, following Captain Mahan’s advice, was creating a large, powerful navy – and a large, powerful navy required coaling stations and naval bases. This is where the Caribbean featured. The ultimate goal of overseas expansionists was an isthmian canal (today, the Panama canal) that would facilitate sea travel between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The idea of acquiring Puerto Rico did not spring up in 1898. In fact, William H. Seward (Secretary of State under Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant) proposed annexing the Dominican Republic and purchasing Puerto Rico and Cuba. ((“Biographies of the Secretaries of State: William Henry Seward,” Office of the Historian, )) The U.S. Senate rejected the annexation proposal and Spain rejected the U.S. offer to purchase Puerto Rico and Cuba for $160 million. The U.S. Naval War College drafted plans for war with Spain as early as 1894. A more formal plan was drafted by Lieutenant William Kimball in 1896. His plan relied heavily on naval forces and first proposed a two-front war on Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific. ((John A.S. Grenville, “American Naval Preparations for War with Spain, 1896-1898,” Journal of American Studies 2, no. 1 (April 1968): 35.))

No sooner had Puerto Rico been granted autonomy by Spain than the United States went to war with their former colonial masters (spoiler alert! Puerto Rico, although technically not a belligerent, loses).

The Spanish-American War began in April, 1898. The impetus for war was Cuba. Americans had become incensed by sensationalized stories of Spanish cruelty, which eventually culminated in the sinking of a U.S. naval ship, the Maine, in Havana harbor. Although the cause of the explosion remains unknown, it became the justification for the coming war with Spain. On July 17, the autonomous government began to function in Puerto Rico, led by Governor General Manual Macias; on July 25, the U.S. military invaded Puerto Rico.



General Nelson A. Miles, Commanding General of the United States Army, led the U.S. forces that landed in Guanica in July 1898. General Miles assured the Puerto Rican people the U.S. military did not “come to make war upon the 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, and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our Government.” Miles introduced the tenets benevolent rule that would come to characterize American empire: “This is not a war of devastation, but one to give to all within the control of its military and naval forces the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.” ((Annual Reports of the War Department for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1900. Part 13. Report of the Military Governor of Porto Rico on Civil Affairs, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902), 20.))

On August 12th, 1898, Spain and the United States agreed to terms of peace, which officially ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. After this peace protocol, General Miles was replaced by the new military governor Major General John R. Brooke. In December, U.S. Major General Guy V. Henry took up that post when General Brooke was recalled to the United States. Henry was “relieved upon his own request” in May 1899 and replaced by Brigadier General George W. Davis. ((ibid, 17)) During this time, the United States was, according to the War Department “a belligerent, who, under the laws of war, maintained hostile occupation, his army seeking by every means in its power to further the aims of its own government and to overcome by every lawful means the resistance and power of the armies of Spain.” ((ibid, 23))

This continued until the Treaty of Paris came into effect in April, 1899. In this new period, “The Army of the United States in Porto Rico was no longer a belligerent, for there was no public enemy, and there could no longer be a hostile occupation and control.” ((ibid, 24)) This assumed that the Spanish were the only ones opposed to American rule in Puerto Rico. Governor Davis proclaimed: “If all classes of the inhabitants, native and foreign, will work together for the common good Porto Rico should soon be the gem of the Antilles—the best governed, happiest, and most prosperous island in the West Indies.” ((ibid))

However, not all Puerto Ricans were pleased with the manner in which the United States assumed and maintained power in the island.  José Julio Henna and Manuel Zeno Gandia, Puerto Rican Commissioners, wrote several letters voicing their unhappiness at being “under the military control of the freest country in the world.” ((José Julio Henna and Manuel Zeno Gandia, The Case of Puerto Rico, (Washington DC: Press of W.F. Roberts, 1899), 7)) They lamented that in negotiations between the United States and Spain, “the voice of Puerto Rico was not heard” and “the island and its people were conveyed from one sovereign to another as a farm and its cattle are conveyed from a master to another.” ((ibid, 9)) Henna and Gandia exposed the hypocrisy of the United States’ new colonial venture by quoting the Declaration of Independence: “…that these governments only derive ‘their just powers FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED.’ The Puerto Rican people, in asking from the people to whom they have been aggregated that these principles of the first enactment to be found in their statute books be applied to them, are not looking for favors. They are demanding justice.” ((ibid, 10))

Since the United States denied them independence, Henna and Gandia believed Puerto Ricans should at least enjoy all the rights of proper citizens of the United States. Military Governor Guy V. Henry, in October of 1898, stated, “the forty-five States represented by the stars emblazoned on the blue field of that flag unite in vouchsafing to you prosperity and protection as citizens of the American Union.” ((Frederick A. Ober, Puerto Rico and Its Resources, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899), 234)) But, Puerto Ricans were not citizens of the United States. History shows that Louisianans, Floridians, Mexicans, and Alaskans were all given citizenship rights when their territory became part of the United States. Puerto Ricans were no longer Spanish citizens, not yet American citizens, and could not be Puerto Rican citizens. ((Henna and Zeno Gandia, The Case of Puerto Rico, 24.)) For the Puerto Rican people, the outcome of the Spanish-American War was a far cry from the idealized justifications that led the United States to war in the first place. Henna and Gandia realized that the acquisition of Puerto Rico marked the beginning of the American imperium, one that would always be inherently contradictory.


On April 12, 1900, President William McKinley signed the Organic Act of 1900. More commonly known as the Foraker Act for its sponsor, Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker, the main author of this legislation was Secretary of War Elihu Root. The Foraker Act established civil government in Puerto Rico. The U.S. President appointed a governor and executive council. Puerto Ricans elected their own 35-member House of Representatives and enjoyed a judicial system with a Supreme Court. A Resident Commissioner was to be sent to the U.S. Congress, to advise but not to vote. The Federal laws of the United States came into effect in Porto Rico. The act formally recognized Puerto Rican citizenship.

On May 1, 1900, the civil government began to function following the inauguration of Governor Charles H. Allen. Federico Degetau went to Washington D.C. to fulfill his duties as Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner. During this time, Americans on the mainland became more interested in their nation’s new island possession.


In 1917, President Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act (more commonly known as the Jones Act) into law. The law amended the Foraker Act, and changed Puerto Rico’s status to an organized, but unincorporated, territory. One of the law’s most ardent supporters was Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera. Muñoz Rivera originally favored Puerto Rican independence, but eventually relented. He instead began to push for autonomy for Puerto Rico. In 1916, he stated his demands:

“Give us now the field of experiment which we ask of you, that we may show is it easy for us to constitute a stable republican government with all possibly guarantees for all possible interests. And afterward, when you acquire the certainty that you can find in Porto Rico a republic like that founded in Cuba and Panama, like the one that you will find at some future day in the Philippines, give us our independence and you will stand before humanity as the greatest of the great, that which neither Greece nor Rome nor England ever were, a great creator of new nationalities and a great liberator of oppressed peoples.” ((O. Nigel Bolland, The Birth of Caribbean Civilization, (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2004), 69))

Luis Muñoz Rivera asked the United States to be a new kind of empire, different from those of the old world. At this time, many Americans were still grappling with what their empire meant for them and for their nation. If Puerto Rico remained a colony with all the trappings of the Old World, the United States was no better than England, Greece, or Rome. But, as Muñoz Rivera pointed out, the United States had a chance to be extraordinary, even exceptional if it created a new empire. This fit in nicely with the rhetoric surrounding the new empire that spoke of benevolent uplift, spreading freedom and democracy, and helping the formerly oppressed by bringing all the benefits of American civilization. Muñoz Rivera argued, successfully, that autonomous government was one such benefit.

The Jones Act created a bill of rights, which extended many U.S. constitutional rights to Puerto Rico. Like much of the new empire, trial by jury was not included.  The bill also created a more autonomous government with three branches, much like that of the United States. The Governor, Attorney-General, and Commissioner of Education were appointed by the United States president. The governor appointed the remaining heads of executive departments (justice, finance, interior, agriculture, labor and health). The Puerto Ricans directly elected the members of a bicamerial legislature, although Puerto Rican women, like most women in the United States, were not allowed to vote. Perhaps most importantly, the Jones Act revoked Puerto Rican citizenship and stated that all Puerto Ricans, “are hereby declared, and shall be deemed and held to be, citizens of the United States.” ((The Statutes at Large of the United States of America from December 1915 to March 1917, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1917): 953)) One immediate result of this was the extension of conscription—the Selective Service Act (1917) drafted 20,000 Puerto Rican soldiers into World War I.

Signing the Treaty of Paris
Signing the Treaty of Paris

The Great Depression severely affected Puerto Rico due to its dependence on the United States economy. Relief did not arrive in Puerto Rico until the appointment of Governor Rexford G. Tugwell in 1941. Governor Tugwell was an economics professor at Columbia University, and part of President Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” of Columbia academics. He was dedicated to bringing economic growth to the struggling island. ((José Trías Monge, Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997), 101)) Tugwell first suggested the idea of a popularly elected Puerto Rican governor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. ((ibid, 102))

This was less than Puerto Ricans had hoped for. Luis Muñoz Marín, then leader of the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, wanted to end the debate over Puerto Rico’s status. He believed that a small concession such as popularly electing the governor would stall the more important conversation about amending the Jones Act and deciding Puerto Rico’s status. Muñoz Marín was inspired by the rhetoric surrounding World War II.

The third principle of the Atlantic Charter (prepared by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill) read: “They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live, and they wish to see sovereign rights of self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” On February 10, 1943, the Puerto Rican legislative assembly, under President of the Senate, Luis Muñoz Marín, unanimously adopted a concurrent resolution, “to lay before the President and the Congress of the United States of America the right of the people of Puerto Rico that the colonial system of government be ended and to decide democratically the permanent political status of Puerto Rico as expeditely as possible, immediately if feasible.” ((Tony Martin, The Economic Future of the Caribbean, (Dover: The Majority Press, 2004), 47-48))

In 1943, President Roosevelt formed a commission to evaluate the Jones Act; it included Governor Tugwell and Luis Muñoz Marín. ((Trías Monge, Puerto Rico, 103)) The Commission heard Muñoz Marín’s grievances, but did not recommend the vast changes Muñoz Marín had hoped for. The commission recommended that the Puerto Rican people must be consulted and agree to any further changes to the Foraker Act. They also endorsed Tugwell’s original recommendation—that the Governor of Puerto Rico be elected by the Puerto Rican people. ((ibid, 104)) The first formal change to the Jones Act came with the 1947 Elective Governor Act. In 1948 Luis Muñoz Marín became Puerto Rico’s first popularly elected Governor.

Muñoz Marín was still determined to redefine Puerto Rico’s status and relationship to the United States. He found a partner in U.S. Senator Millard E. Tydings (1927-1951). By 1945, Tydings was ready to file his third bill for Puerto Rican independence. On October 16, 1945, President Harry S. Truman sent a special message to Congress concerning the status of Puerto Rico calling for legislation that would become the Tydings-Piñero bill (named for Jesús T. Piñero, then governor of Puerto Rico).

The bill called for a referendum on Puerto Rico’s status. Puerto Ricans were to choose from three options: (1) independence, (2) statehood, or (3) an Associated State or dominion. ((ibid, 105)) The Tydings-Piñero bill died in committee, but it was an important moment in the history of U.S.-Puerto Rican relations. The provisions for an Associated State set the foundation for the eventual commonwealth status of present-day Puerto Rico. Furthermore, the referendum is essentially the same as those that would appear later, and again in 2012.

The Philippines (along with India and many other western colonies) gained independence after World War II. Puerto Rico did not. However, on July 3, 1950 President Truman signed Public Law 81-600, which allowed Puerto Ricans to write their own constitution. The Constitution of Puerto Rico (1952) officially established the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Following amendment and ratification by the United States Congress, Governor Luis Muñoz Marín enacted the constitution on July 25, 1952.


Today, Puerto Rico remains a commonwealth of the United States—a territory under the territorial clause in the United States Constitution. But, Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States remains hotly debated. Puerto Ricans voted on their status in 1967, 1991, 1993, and 1998. In 1967, 60% of Puerto Ricans voted to maintain their commonwealth status, while 39% voted for statehood and 1% for independence. In 1991, Puerto Ricans voted not to review their commonwealth status. The 1993 vote yielded the following support for each option: 48.6% for commonwealth, 46.3% for statehood, and 4.4% for independence. In 1998, 46.49% of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood while 2.54% wanted independence, 0.29% voted for a “free association” with the United States, and just 0.06% voted to maintain the commonwealth. The problem with the 1998 vote was the 50% of the population that voted “none of the above.”

With no clear picture of the Puerto Rican people’s wishes, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13183, creating a Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. The purpose of this task force was to make recommendations for “the Commonwealth’s future status; to discuss such proposals with representatives of the people of Puerto Rico and the Congress; to work with leaders of the Commonwealth and the Congress to clarify the options to enable Puerto Ricans to determine their preference among options for the islands’ future status that are not incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws and policies of the United States; and to implement such an option if chosen by a majority, including helping Puerto Ricans obtain a governing arrangement under which they would vote for national government officials, if they choose such a status.”

The first Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status was published in December, 2005 (the recommendations of the Task Force can be found on page 10). The Task Force determined that Puerto Ricans had three choices for their future: remain a territorial commonwealth, become a state, or become an independent, sovereign state. The Task Force recommended two plebiscites, or referendums. The first would determine whether the Puerto Rican people wanted to remain a U.S. territory. The second, depending on the first, would either provide for Puerto Rico’s statehood or independence, or make arrangements to regularly consult Puerto Ricans as to their territorial status. The 2007 Task Force Report reiterates these same points.

The 2011 Task Force Report recommended that Puerto Ricans express their “will about status options” by the end of 2012. President Obama supported the new plebiscite. In the 2012 election, Puerto Ricans once again voted on their status. For the first time, Puerto Ricans were asked about their wishes in two parts, as recommended by the Task Force. 54% voted against continuing as a territorial commonwealth. Puerto Ricans were given three choices: statehood, independence, or “sovereign free association”—which would give Puerto Ricans more autonomy. 6% voted for independence, 33% for the sovereign free association, and 61% for statehood. For some, this vote yielded the first decisive result. Many still see problems with the vote, however. First of all, a plebiscite is not a means to statehood. The path to statehood requires a joint resolution from the United States Congress, signed by the President.

So where does that leave Puerto Rico? Still in limbo—for now. There are still many Puerto Ricans and Americans on either side of the debate. Many Puerto Ricans favor statehood because independence would certainly mean failure as a state—Puerto Rico’s economy is too fragile and its politicians too corrupt to function without the help of the United States. However, some fear that statehood would result in a loss of Puerto Rican identity and culture. Still others are tired of existing as American citizens denied their citizenship rights—it is a curious case that Puerto Ricans cannot vote for the President, have no voting representatives in Congress, and yet are U.S. citizens that can be conscripted. Some Republicans in the United States fear that admitting Puerto Rico as a state would equate the addition of new democratic senators and representatives, despite Puerto Rico’s traditional Catholic values. Many are worried about admitting a state with a majority Spanish-speaking population. Still others believe adding a 51st state, especially one that the U.S. government already supports economically, would not be a burden to the United States.

Puerto Rico may soon end its 115-year run as a colony of the United States. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. Congress will act on this most recent plebiscite. Barack Obama has pledged to fulfill the wishes of the Puerto Rican people, but must wait for a joint resolution from Congress.

For current debates about Puerto Rican statehood see:

For Teachers:

  • Classroom Activity: Debate the Status of Puerto Rico
    • Have students take a position on Puerto Rico’s imminent future: should the island become the 51st state, remain a commonwealth, gain independence, or have some other association with the United States?
    • Stage debates at crucial points in Puerto Rico’s history (1898, 1900, 1917, 1952, or in the future)
    • Students may argue as themselves, or assume the identity of an important historical figure in U.S.-Puerto Rican relations. If drawing on others’ ideas, make sure students still craft their own arguments using their own words.
  • Discuss famous Puerto Ricans and their contributions to American culture and society, e.g. Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio del Toro, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Elizabeth Vargas, and Geraldo Rivera
  • Check out the Curriculum Unit “The Heritage and Culture of Puerto Ricans” at the New Haven Teachers Institute

For more information: