Decisions more than a century ago explain why the U.S. has failed Puerto Rico in its time of need

Puck v. 47 (April 25 1900) The Ill-Fated sister 1900 Hawaii Puerto Rico free tradecropped
“The Ill-Fated Sister:—A Case of Unjust Discrimination.” A forlorn female Puerto Rico looks on as President McKinley rides past, carrying a well-dressed female Hawaii and Uncle Sam on a buggy labeled “Free Trade.” Puck 47 (April 25, 1900).

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

Cross-posted from the Washington Post

Fears about trade prompted the decision to make Puerto Rico a colony.

The tragedy befalling Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria — beholden as it is to the dictates of Washington — stems directly from the territory’s subordinate political status. This was highlighted again last week when Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of the territory’s largest city, made a desperate appeal to President Trump “to save us from dying.” The mayor’s plea provoked only scorn from the president, who took time out from working on his golf stroke in New Jersey to lash out at her on Twitter for her “poor leadership.”

Trump’s callous response only underscores Puerto Rico’s precarious position within the U.S. body politic; nearly half of Americans today don’t even know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.  This combination of apathy and amnesia is symptomatic of more than a century of absent-minded imperialism, stretching back to when Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony.

The decision made in the late 19th century to make Puerto Rico a colony without the full political equality of statehood is now crippling the island’s ability to recover from Maria. The Trump administration’s initial enforcement of the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from entering Puerto Rican ports, and the indifference of many Americans toward the plight of Puerto Ricans were born out of this nearly forgotten turn-of-the-century imperial decision. Americans must reconcile and rectify their imperial legacy, or Puerto Rico will continue to suffer.

Puerto Rico was among a handful of colonies acquired by the United States in the wake of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Almost immediately, members of Congress began to debate what to do with America’s new possession, with little concern for what Puerto Ricans themselves wanted. The main question: Would the United States treat Puerto Rico as it would a state, or would it treat it like a foreign country?

One issue overrode all others in determining the result of that debate: free trade. For Republican protectionists back then, as with Donald Trump now, free trade was seen as a conspiracy of foreign interests to undermine U.S. industries. Paranoid, protectionist Republicans not only decided that Puerto Rico should be prohibited from trading freely with the rest of the world, they initially didn’t even want it to trade freely with the rest of the United States. [continue reading at the Washington Post]

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