In 1493, the very busy Christopher Columbus landed on Caribbean island now known as Puerto Rico (which the indigenous Taino called “Boriquen,”) and declared it for the Spanish. Within fifty years the Spanish all but eradicated the Taino population, so they began to bring African slaves to the island to do hard labor. The island remained a Spanish colony, bolstered by the work of Africans, for four hundred years until the United States wrested it way in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
Since 1898 the United States has controlled Puerto Rico’s government and economy, though not necessarily its culture. The 19th century ended with the U.S. President hand-picking the members of Puerto Rico’s government. In 1900 Puerto Rico earned the right to elect some of its own officials, and to have a non-voting member in the U.S. Congress, known as the “Resident Commissioner.” In 1917 the Jones Act made all Puerto Ricans American citizens (which opened them up to the World War I military draft). In 1947, the U.S. granted Puerto Rico the right to democratically elect its own governor.
Many Puerto Ricans have long disliked being under America’s rule and in 1950, Pedro Albizu Campos and other nationalists led a three day anti-U.S. revolt known as the Jayuya Uprising. U.S. President Truman didn’t take kindly to this; the U.S. declared martial law and attacked Jayuya with military force. In turn, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo didn’t take kindly to Truman’s handling of the situation. They tried, and obviously failed, to assassinate him. (In 1979 President Carter pardoned several Puerto Rican independence activists who carried out attacks against the U.S. in the ’50s, including Collazo.)
Since then the U.S. has bolstered Puerto Rico’s economy, transforming it into both a major tourist destination and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of pharmaceuticals. yet it still remains unsure of its ultimate political status. Currently Puerto Rico is one of only two “commonwealths” of the United States. (The other is the Northern Marianas, which are islands in the Pacific 3/4 of the way from Hawaii to the Philippines.) The U.S. President is the formal chief of state but Puerto Rico elects its own governor. U.S. laws control much of Puerto Rico’s interstate commerce but it has no voting representation in the U.S. House or Senate,; Puerto Ricans can’t vote in U.S. presidential elections.
Over the last three decades three votes have taken place to resolve the question of what formal relationship Puerto Rico will have with the U.S…. Should it become a state? Should it stay a commonwealth? Should it become independent? Popular opinion remains split evenly between the pro-state and pro-commonwealth camps, with independence regularly receiving less than 5% of the vote. In 2009 a special United Nations Committee on Decolonization urged the government of the U.S. to grant Puerto Rico its right to self-determination and independence. In early 2010 the U.S. House of Representatives (though not the Senate) approved a plan to give Puerto Ricans a chance to vote every eight years on their political status. If a first vote determines that Puerto Ricans want to have a different political status than they have now they’ll hold a second vote which will give them the option of declaring their intention to become a U.S. state, an independent
country, a sovereign nation closely associated with the U.S….or to stay a commonwealth and wait eight years before starting the whole process again. (Of course the U.S. Congress would have to approve the result of any vote. Confusing.)
During this period of self-determination-limbo, millions of Puerto Ricans have emigrated to the U.S. mainland, mainly settling in New York. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, today more people of Puerto Rican birth or ancestry live on the U.S. mainland than in Puerto Rico. The “Nuyorican” community is alive and kicking…and dancing. While salsa, Puerto Rico’s most striking musical export, originated on the island, it became an international force when “Nuyoricans” gave it real life in New York’s sizzling Latin dance clubs.
Wikipedia on Puerto Rico | Puerto Rico and the Spanish-American War | Puero Rico: the first “51st State?” | NPR on the 2010 death of Puerto Rican independence activist Lolita
Lebron | Some Puerto Rican independence activists still in jail | Today’s Puerto Rican Independence Party