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No Mas

A Dreadful Anniversary: Puerto Rico Has Been a U.S. Colony for 125 Years Now

Why the independence movement, not statehood, is the future of the island’s liberation

A protester in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A protester in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2019

July 25 is a notorious date in Puerto Rican history. Three landmark events on this day, decades apart, have shaped and now shine a harsh light on the island’s political relationship with the United States, which on Tuesday “celebrates” an ignominious 125th anniversary. They also offer lessons on how to drastically reform that relationship today—toward independence rather than statehood—so that America’s colonial rule over Puerto Rico doesn’t stretch on for another century or more.

On July 25, 1898, U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico as part of the Spanish-American War. They won a swift victory and, by the end of the year, the U.S. had taken the island as a prize of war, ending 400 years of Spanish rule of the island. At the time, many Puerto Ricans really did, as the saying goes, greet Americans as liberators. Most expected that, in short order, the U.S. would either incorporate Puerto Rico or grant it independence. Instead, Puerto Ricans traded one colonial master for another, and the great-great-grandchildren of those who hoped for statehood or sovereignty are still waiting to this day.

It’s bad enough that the U.S., which began its national history by freeing itself from an empire, has now spent more than half that history (the latter half, to boot) with colonial possessions of its own. Worse still is that, despite decades of evidence about the immoral and undemocratic nature of the island’s status, many Americans still refuse to acknowledge that Puerto Rico is a colony at all.

The U.S. ruled Puerto Rico directly, through an appointed governor, for half a century. In the late 1940s, when the emerging post–World War II global order started to frown upon such rank imperialism, the U.S. allowed Puerto Ricans to elect our own governor and start drafting a Constitution. It was ratified in 1952 and officially proclaimed as the law of the land on July 25 of that year.

That Constitution created the Estado Libre Asociado of Puerto Rico, which has long been nonsensically translated into English as “Commonwealth.” It signaled, the theory went, the start of a different political relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, in which the latter enjoyed a large measure of self-rule. But it was clear from the start that the Puerto Rican Constitution merely put lipstick on a colonial pig. After all, the U.S. had to pass a law to allow Puerto Rico to even have a constitution. Then Congress and the president had to approve it, which they did only after demanding whole sections be stricken from the document.

Moreover, the fundamental political dynamics remained unchanged. The U.S. Congress, in which Puerto Ricans have no voting representative, would continue to pass legislation that applied to Puerto Rico—and, notably, to decide which rights and benefits it did not care to grant to its colonial subjects. A U.S. president whom Puerto Ricans cannot vote for would sign those bills into law and send those very same Puerto Ricans without voting rights to war.

Recent years have brought that political reality into even sharper focus. In 2016’s Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Puerto Rico has no real political sovereignty and that whatever authority its government appears to have actually emanates from the plenary powers of Congress. The following year, in response to Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, Congress established a fiscal control board of unelected, U.S.-appointed bureaucrats with almost limitless authority to set Puerto Rico’s budget and even overturn Puerto Rican laws.

If Americans—and, for that matter, some Puerto Ricans—still wondered whether the island’s status was colonial, America’s own legal and political institutions definitively settled the question.

Pro-independence Puerto Ricans have always understood the crude reality of U.S. rule over our nation. For their insight and their struggle, they have often been met with persecution, incarceration, and death. Which brings us to the third landmark event on the same day.

On July 25, 1978, Puerto Rican police entrapped two young pro-independence activists and shot them dead. Subsequent investigations, including by the Justice Department, uncovered a plot at the highest levels of the pro-statehood government to kill the young men and cover up the shooting.

The Cerro Maravilla murders joined a too-long list of attacks on the Puerto Rican independence movement that includes the 1937 Ponce Massacre of 17 peaceful protesters; the imprisonment—and, likely, torture—of pro-independence leader (and Harvard Law graduate) Pedro Albizu Campos; and the decades-long FBI surveillance of pro-independence activists and supporters that produced more than 1.5 million pages of counterintelligence files, some of it as recent as the 1990s.

This history, all but unknown to most Americans, is a grave moral stain on the U.S. government, which has been directly or indirectly responsible for this oppression. It also provides an answer to those who downplay colonial rule by asking, If the United States has been so bad to Puerto Rico, why haven’t more Puerto Ricans favored independence?

To be sure, the historical suppression of the independence movement is only a partial answer to a complicated question that also turns on other political, historical, and economic factors. But its impact should not be understated.

How many generations of young Puerto Rican men might have been drawn to the independence movement if they did not know it could get them put on a watch list or cost them a job? How many Puerto Rican mothers, decade after decade, begged their sons and daughters not to join a struggle that could get them killed?

Perhaps the strongest evidence of that repression’s impact is what has happened now that it’s largely gone. While some discrimination against pro-independence Puerto Ricans remains, the massacres and overt persecution are thankfully a thing of the past. And a new generation of Puerto Ricans who have only read about them in history books has started to drastically change the political conversation on Puerto Rico’s status.

For decades, support for independence in plebiscites and local elections languished in the low single digits. That’s no longer the case: In 2020, the Puerto Rican Independence Party’s gubernatorial candidate got 14 percent of the vote. Another party’s openly pro-independence candidate also got 14 percent. (For context, the current pro-statehood governor won a six-way race with just 33 percent of the vote.) Those two parties are now forging a coalition ahead of the 2024 election that could result, for the first time ever, in a pro-independence leader ruling Puerto Rico.

While independence was excluded as an option in the 2020 status plebiscite (and pro-independence voters boycotted the 2017 vote), 2021 polling put support for independence or free association—the sovereign status of islands like Micronesia and Palau—north of 20 percent. That may not seem like a lot, and it’s still far from a majority. But it’s an exponential growth in support for sovereignty that contrasts with the largely static support for statehood, which earned 46 percent of the vote in the 1993 plebiscite and 53 percent in 2020.

The surging support for independence also coincides with Congress’s latest refusal to seriously consider Puerto Rican statehood. Despite that option winning, by some accounts, the past three status votes in Puerto Rico, Congress has simply ignored those results. Most recently, it has instead pursued doomed, watered-down legislation calling for yet another vote with all options on the table.

That bill, the Puerto Rico Status Act, passed the House in a lame-duck session last December. But it never had a shot in the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declared he opposed it; Senator Joe Manchin has said Americans, not Puerto Ricans, should vote on the issue; Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called Puerto Rican statehood “full-bore socialism”; and Senator Lindsey Graham used statehood as a bogeyman while stumping for Trump.

Americans who may support statehood for Puerto Rico would do well to reflect on whether it could ever achieve a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate when Republicans are hostile to it and Democrats are divided on it—or whether their support amounts to waiting for Godot while Puerto Ricans remain colonial subjects. They should perhaps consider joining the tide of growing support for a sovereign status, if only because it’s the only other alternative.

But at the very least, on this infamous date, they should reflect on a question asked by Representative Steny Hoyer when he first unveiled the Puerto Rico Status Act last year: “Does the United States want to be a colonial power? I hope the answer to that is ‘no.’ Emphatic no. That is not a political issue. That is a principle issue. That’s an issue of what our country is about.”

I wish the answer were no too, but the past 125 years have proven otherwise. Changing that will require far more attention from the American people, and perhaps a change of perspective on this issue altogether, so that one day Puerto Ricans no longer have to mark these shameful July 25 anniversaries.