Saturday, October 14, 2017

Puerto Rico, Waiting in Heavy Harness

Puerto Rico is back in the news, an event that happens so rarely that most Americans forget that it is out there, much less that it is part of the United States.   And forgetting about Puerto Rico is something America has been doing for well over a century.  

While most Americans know that the US acquired the island after the Spanish-American War, very few can tell you why we got the island.  In large part, it was a minor by-product of our desire to annex Cuba.  And you are probably asking, “How did Cuba get into this?”

The Spanish-American War started over American concern about the incredibly harsh treatment by the Spanish towards the Cuban people.  The fact that American businesses had invested heavily in Cuban sugar plantations that were losing money because of the protracted revolution, the desire by some expansionist Americans to acquire additional territory, or even the many businessmen who lusted after a new market were all secondary reasons...At least in theory.

Few Americans remember that Puerto Rico had already been given semi-independence by the Spanish before the war started.  Nevertheless, U.S. Naval ships bombarded San Juan Harbor and American troops invaded the island.  After weeks of maneuvering with few casualties on either side, Spain surrendered the island, which along with Guam and the Philippine Islands was eventually ceded to the U.S. as territories in the Treaty of Paris. 

NOTE.  There are at least nine Battles of San Juan.  Two of them are naval battles in which old Spanish forts were destroyed by American naval gunfire during the Spanish-American War.  These battles should not be confused with the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba or the Battle of the San Juan River in Nicaragua, the fight in Peru, or any of the battles in Puerto Rico during the XVI, XVII, or XVIII Centuries.  Latin American countries possessing territory named after Saint John are strongly advised to change those names.

The island of Puerto Rico is 108 miles long, about 40 miles wide, and at the end of the war held more than a million people.  Despite its size and population, it was never even considered for possible statehood.  While hopes of annexation of Cuba would remain for several years, it was not seriously considered for Puerto Rico.

The great Cuban poet José Martí once wrote:  "Once the United States is in Cuba, who will get it out?”  Martí wasn’t so much worried about the U.S. taking Cuba as he was that it would just never leave.  It turned out the same was true for Puerto Rico.  In spite of a strong desire of the Puerto Rican people to have independence, the U.S. has simply kept them—for the good of the Puerto Ricans.

Simply put, the US did not believe the backward peoples of these newly-acquired territories were capable of self-government, of self-rule, or of handling their own lands.  They would have to be ruled—much as Great Britain was ruling India and France was ruling Viet Nam—until the local "savages" were capable of handling their own affairs.  Don’t take my word for it, here are quotes from the policy-makers of the day:

A New York Journalist wrote: "If we are to save Cuba we must hold it.  If we leave it to the Cubans, we give it over to a reign of terror--to the machete and the torch, to insurrection and assassination."

Admiral William T. Sampson agreed: "Cubans have no idea of self-government--and it will take a long time to teach them."

As did General Shafter: "Why those people are no more fit for self government than gunpowder is for hell."

Major Alexander Brodie: "The Cubans are utterly irresponsible, partly savage, and have no idea of what good government mean."

Major George M. Barbour: "The Cubans are stupid, given to lying and doing all things in the wrong way.  Under our supervision, and with firm and honest care for the future, the people of Cuba may become a useful race and a credit to the world; but to attempt to set them afloat as a nation, during their generation, would be a great mistake."

Governor-General John Brooke: "These people cannot now, or I believe in the immediate future, be entrusted with their own government."

Cuba would eventually be granted a limited self-rule, one where less than 5% of the population was allowed to vote in the first elections.  In Havana, the United States set up an extremely paternalistic form of limited government that was permanently equipped with training wheels and American-mandated safeguards.  U.S. micromanagement practically guaranteed bad government, eventually leading to the first military revolution in 1933.

Puerto Rico and Guam were not so lucky.  They were simply territories with appointed governors for over fifty years.  In the beginning, their people were denied American citizenship--a restriction that ended in 1917, just in time for 20,000 Puerto Rican males to be conscripted into the Army for WWI.  While the US government denied there was any connection between the two events, citizenship was granted after the US Army claimed that Anglo soldiers lacked immunity to tropical diseases and would thus be unable to defend the Panama Canal, where most of the Puerto Rican soldiers were sent.

Several lawsuits concerning these matters prompted the Supreme Court's incredibly bigoted ruling in 1901, in the Insular Cases.  In the Court's opinion, the peoples of these newly-acquired islands--being of both racial and ethnic minorities--would not “understand Anglo-Saxon principles” and as “alien races differing from us in culture and modes of thought” would be incapable of self-government.  It would be half a century before the Puerto Ricans would be allowed to vote for their own governor and almost as long before a Puerto Rican was appointed governor by the President.

NOTE.  The bigoted Supreme Court justice, Henry Billings Brown, who wrote that crap is the same racist jackass who coined the phrase “separate but equal” in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case.  In a 'supreme' case of irony, the home he built in Washington D.C. now houses the embassy for the Republic of Congo.

The Insular Cases specifically noted that these reservations on citizenship should be short-lived as Congress should be working to provide solutions.  After more than a century, Congress is still working on it.  During this time, we have fought two world wars, given women the vote, flown to the moon, and put something claiming to be cheese in a can, but we still haven’t quite solved this problem.  According to the US Census, there is not one single person in America still alive from when we started working on that problem.  Lest you think all of this is old news, the Obama Administration successfully used the Insular Cases in court arguments in 2015 to deny Puerto Ricans voting rights.

People born or living in Guam, the Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico are "citizens".  They can move to any of the fifty states, but until they do, they cannot vote for a president, a senator, or a real congressman.  They have a "representative" in Congress, but he does not get to vote--he only has the right to speak in the House.  At the time of the Spanish-American War, the people of Puerto Rico had legitimate representatives in the Spanish Legislature, so they have actually lost rights since the war.

That bears repeating:  Puerto Rico has a larger population than twenty-one of the existing fifty states, but cannot vote in national elections.  Puerto Rico has a larger population than every other territory that joined the United States, but has virtually no chance of becoming a state.

You might be interested to know that, as an American citizen, you can vote in presidential elections while you are in Mexico, England, or any other foreign country, with the assistance of the local American embassy.  Sailors vote while serving at sea on American naval vessels.  Astronauts have voted from the International Space Station.  As a citizen, you lose that right while visiting Puerto Rico or Guam, where no American citizen—regardless of origin—may vote in presidential elections. 

The Treaty of Paris—which ended the Spanish American War and formally gave Puerto Rico to the United States—was ratified February 6, 1899.  That same month Rudyard Kipling published The White Man’s Burden:

Take up the White Man's burden-
Send for the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captive's need;
to wait in heavy harness
On fluttered fold and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Kipling specifically wrote this in response to America's new imperial responsibilities to the peoples living on their newly conquered islands.  I have a question for you—Was Kipling serious or is this grand satire?

Are you sure?


  1. Seems to me that the predictions about Cuba's ability to self govern were pretty much correct.

  2. What Donald Trump should do is go on to rebuild Puerto Rico, get the power grid going, the roads fixed, jobs going and the standard of living raised. He could encourage lots of relief donations to the island to help do this and then grant Puerto Rico voting rights and win their hearts over to the Republican Party. He should keep tweeting about how badly Democrats have mismanaged and kept down Puerto Ricans - a proud, independent people who as Catholics are anti-abortion and pro-family values. Offer them statehood, Then bring the grateful Puerto Rican voters and their new electoral college votes to the next election as Republicans.

    Democrats would be horrified. They'd be out in the Carribean trying to build a wall between Puerto Rico and the mainland. Hank Johnson would issue a warning that there are too many Puerto Ricans and the island is in danger of tipping over.