Puerto Rico, The Oldest U.S. Colony

Against the Current, No. 132, January/February 2008

César F. Rosado Marzán

Puerto Rico in the American Century:
A History Since 1898
César Ayala and Rafael Bernabe Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007, 448 pages, $29.95 hardcover.

WHEN I WAS a high school senior, my history teacher promised the class that the Americans “would land” in Puerto Rico by the New Year. What he meant to tell us was that, different from most Puerto Rican history courses, our class would spend considerable time studying more recent historical events, and therefore the most controversial period of Puerto Rican history — the American Century. He kept his promise and many of us, including me, left the class with a deep sense of uneasiness against Puerto Rico’s colonial condition under the United States.

In Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History Since 1898, by César Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, the North American troops land in Puerto Rico in Chapter 1, hence giving the book a distinct political tone, one which cares deeply about the events most responsible for Puerto Rico’s current colonial situation and for ways to transform that reality in an anti-colonial direction.  The book has a similar agenda to that of my high school teacher.

Moreover, the authors situate Puerto Rico within a larger historical perspective, namely that of capitalism and imperialism under the initially fledgling American empire of the late 19th century, and then during its time of hegemony in the 20th. Ayala and Bernabe also include important aspects of the history of the Puerto Rican diaspora, that segment of the Puerto Rican population which accounts for about half of today’s eight million Puerto Ricans.

Politics, economics and culture are also in constant dialogue within the narrative told by the authors, providing a complex and at many points refreshing perspective of Puerto Rican history.

The book is aimed at a mixed general and scholarly readership, with an engaging and popularly written text bolstered by extensive endnotes for each chapter and an extensive bibliographical essay (383-397) covering the vast field of works on Puerto Rican history, politics and culture and its legacy of powerful social movements.

An Array of Characters

The book’s vast cast of characters includes political, labor and military leaders in the United States and Puerto Rico: President Theodore Roosevelt, autonomista leader Luis Muñoz Rivera, feminist and labor leader Luisa Capetillo, labor leader Santiago Iglesias, American labor leader Samuel Gompers, early anexionista turned independentista Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón, anexionista José Celso Barbosa, the Partido Popular Democrático’s (PPD) founder Luis Muñoz Marín, Nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos, independentista leader Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, American Labor Party Congressman Vito Marcantonio, Communist labor leader Juan Sáez Corales, Marxist journalist César Andreu Iglesias, socialist labor leader Pedro Grant, anexionista governor Carlos Romero Barceló, Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP) leader Rubén Berrios, and ex-governor Pedro Rosselló among many others.

It also includes literary and other cultural figures, including Nilita Vientos Gastón and Rubén del Rosario, two figures that the authors feel have not been given due importance by historians albeit their contributions to a “critique of U.S. colonial rule” that offers a, “dynamic, porous vision of Puerto Rican identity” and a “non-nationalist critique of U.S. colonialism” (11) that the authors find appealing and to which they attempt to contribute with this book.

Long Waves and Puerto Rico

Applying long wave economic theory in a manner similar to that explored by the late Marxist Ernest Mandel, the book argues that Puerto Rico’s 20th and 21st century history can be broken down into two main epochs — before and after World War II. Each period is characterized by years of economic expansion “in which productive and state structures, dominant political parties, and labor organizations were put in place,” then a subsequent economic contraction where “established structures and institutions were put under ‘stress.’” (3)

In the case of Puerto Rico, following 1900 the island underwent an economic expansion spearheaded by the growth of sugar cane production and processing, coffee, tobacco, banking and needlework, detailed in Chapter Two, “Reshaping Puerto Rico’s Economy, 1898-1934.” This was followed by a depressive phase from the 1930s onward where the sugar industry spiraled into crisis compelling Puerto Rico’s reconstruction through New Deal-type programs (Chapter Five, “Economic Depression and Political Crisis: The Turbulent Thirties”).

After WWII, Puerto Rico underwent a new expansive phase characterized by growth in export-based, light manufacturing industry and a short-lived petrochemical project, followed by a depressive wave where these industries collapsed and were replaced by heavy industry and hefty doses of federal transfer funds which temporarily stabilized the island’s economy.

According to the authors, a new depressive period has been undergoing since about 1990, characterized by privatization, phasing out of federal tax breaks for heavy industry, plant closings and layoffs, the prominence of crime and the drug trade, and a state in fiscal crisis.

These long-term economic boom and bust periods (about 60 years apart) had their political correlates. In the first expansive period the Partido Union, which brought together most segments of the Creole bourgeoisie, dominated insular politics, but not without being challenged by the Partido Socialista and the Federación Libre de Trabajadores (FLT), the first working-class organizations of prominence in Puerto Rico.

In the downward phase that followed, the Partido Union and Socialista collapsed, the FLT also suffered a serious unraveling, and new parties and labor unions formed in the late 1930s, including the PPD, the Partido Nacionalista and the CIO-inspired and Communist-led Central General del Trabajo (CGT).

In the new expansive era that began around 1940, the Partido Popular became the dominant political party and the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA), Puerto Rico’s current political “status,” was created; the CGT buckled as a result of repression and cooptation, while the newly merged AFL-CIO unions became dominant.

In the following depressive phase, the PPD lost its hegemony and was challenged by the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), which supports Puerto Rico’s admission as a U.S. state.

The AFL-CIO also lost its dominance while more radical and independent labor unions began to take more prominence.

The Economic-Political-Cultural Narrative

While the manner into which the authors break Puerto Rican history into two main periods is not remarkably new, as studies of Puerto Rico’s political economy have made similar epochal dichotomies, their account of the events — especially the dialectic that the authors generate between Puerto Rican economy, politics and cultural/ literary debates — provides a fresh account of Puerto Rican 20th and 21st century history, sometimes even against the grain of established historiography.

For example, in the authors’ account of why Puerto Rico experienced a failed, short-lived stint with import substitution industrialization (“ISI”), they argue against prevailing narratives.  Convention has it that Luis Muñoz Marín, founder of the PPD and architect of the ELA, pursued an ISI project in the early 1940s but abandoned it in 1945-47 due the project’s inherent insolvency and/or U.S. imperialist pressure.

The authors describe recent socio-historical research by sociologist José Padín which uncovered that, contrary to conventional accounts, there was little political will by the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie to develop Puerto Rico independently through ISI.* The bourgeoisie never gave ISI a real chance and compelled the PPD to halt it.  As a result, Padín argued that ISI failed due to opposition from the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie, not from imperialism.

Ayala and Bernabe, however, argue for a “nuanced combination” of such accounts, whereby Muñoz Marín initially favored developing Puerto Rico independently but was soon thereafter forced to redefine his objectives by imperialist pressure. Moreover, the alternative route he took, export-oriented industrialization, was the option that the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie had “pushed him along” for various years. As the authors state, “Imperial constraints and domestic pressures pushed him in the same politico-economic direction.” (152)

The book also mentions how some historical developments, especially the provision of greater autonomic powers to Puerto Rico, were the result of unintended consequences of the militancy of the ELA’s anti-colonial opponents, despite Muñoz Marín’s attacks against the independentista’s “impractical ideals” and his statements against the “less than brilliant results of the anticolonial movements.” (159)

The authors show that Muñoz Marín “leaned on the pressure of more radical sectors” to obtain his more “practical” results. To make their point, the authors cite a letter of Muñoz Marín to a federal officer at the time, stating that “With the Independence Party being registered, with the extreme Nationalist Party expecting the return of Albizu Campos… it will become increasingly difficult to maintain an attitude of good sense in Puerto Rico…. Only prompt action on the elective governor bill can free us of very bad potentialities.” (158-159)

The Puerto Rican Diaspora

The authors’ attention to Puerto Rican history in New York, the largest Puerto Rican community in the United States, reminds us of the historical fact that the Puerto Rican barrio existed in Harlem much before the great Puerto Rican migration of the 1950s — and that since its incipience the barrio was populated by Puerto Rican activists who militated in nationalist, labor and socialist organizations and gave consistent backing to the radical American Labor Party Congressman, Vito Marcantonio.

Marcantonio, in turn, became an influential supporter of Puerto Rican political independence and denounced U.S. repression in Puerto Rico, including that against Pedro Albizu Campos, the Nationalist Party and Puerto Rican political prisoners. Hence Puerto Rican anti-colonial movements have deep roots not only in Puerto Rico but also in the United States, and have been planted by more than just Puerto Ricans. Left-wing American activists have also played a role in the anti-colonial struggle.

Superseding “Market Solutions”

The book concludes by arguing that Puerto Rican society is at an end of an era and, as in other eras, existing structures and institutions are in flux and giving way to new ones. The present era is one of crisis, where what used to be a rather flimsy private sector which barely provided jobs to a small fraction of the working class, as it was based on heavy industry with no substantial links to the rest of the domestic economy, is unraveling, conceding territory to an even thinner commercial and service sector where jobs are even scarcer and of much worse quality than before.

Against this backdrop, the dominant parties, the PPD and PNP seek a way out of the crisis through market-based reforms (more of the same), namely privatization, while also, as in the United States, the bourgeoisie buttresses the role of the police and other means of social repression to put discontents in line.

In contrast to this “solution” to the present crisis, the authors suggest a non-market alternative. Moreover, the authors conclude that the problems faced by Puerto Rico are not exclusive of the island because the United States has not only effected the present conditions in Puerto Rico, but also has very similar problems at home — decaying opportunities for the working class, police repression, mass incarceration, repression of immigrant workers, a bankrupt health care and retirement system, and rampant crime among many other problems.

The authors argue therefore that “the impact of late capitalist crisis and social deterioration cannot but pose the same problem within the United States.” The fate of Puerto Ricans and North American working peoples is irreducibly linked.

If we accept the authors’ argument that Puerto Rico is in a state of crisis and flux, we also must develop a sense that we can, and perhaps should, create structures and institutions —“a future”— for the next period of Puerto Rican history, and maybe change things for their best. The authors provide us with an account of history where we not only envision an open future for Puerto Rico, but also recognize that there is no better time than now to start crafting a positive vision for that future, nor better places than Puerto Rico —  and the United States — to begin.

from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)


  1. To those that argue that Puerto Rico is not the oldest colony in the world, they should also remember that Puerto Rico was also a colony of Spain from 1492 to 1898. Add those 4 centuries to 114
    years under the U.S. then, “oldest colony” becomes a reality.

  2. Should criminals be in charge of correcting the wrong they inflicted?

    Puerto Ricans vote in elections every 4 years at an 80% level of participation. Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States (US) government for the past 116 years. If the US government has the final say in what happens in Puerto Rico, what is the purpose of these elections? The purpose is to fool the world that Puerto Rico is a democracy.

    The United Nations (UN) declared colonialism a crime against humanity in 1960. The UN has asked the US government 33 times to decolonize Puerto Rico immediately. The US government has refused. It says that Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States is none of the UN’s business. The US says that it is a domestic affair.

    To appear that the US government wants to decolonize Puerto Rico, it promotes the use of plebiscites to determine what Puerto Ricans want. Doesn’t that sounds innocent and democratic? So what’s the problem?

    To begin with, the international community already rendered its verdict and determined that colonialism is illegal. So to have a political status option in a plebiscite that favors maintaining Puerto Rico a colony of the United States is not permitted. To have a political status option of Puerto Rico becoming a state of the United States is also not permitted under international law. The problem goes back to the beginning of this article. In order to have free elections, the country must be free. So before these elections and plebiscite could be valid, Puerto Rico would have to first be an independent nation.

    What people must realize is that Puerto Rico is a colony of the US because the US government wants it that way. That is why it has used terrorism to keep it that way. That is why it refuses to release the Puerto Rican political prisoner of 33 years Oscar López Rivera. That is also why it is ridiculous to believe that decolonization is a US internal matter in which the UN has no jurisdiction over. If we allow the US government to decolonize Puerto Rico, she will remain a colony of the United States forever!

    José M López Sierra

  3. The Second Oscar – Mandela March in New York City 2015

    We will be having our 2nd Oscar – Mandela Protest March on Monday, June 22, 2015. We will start marching peacefully at 9 AM from Hunter College on East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, to East 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue. We will then go East (turning left) to end up at the Ralph Bunche Park on First Avenue (across from the United Nations).

    We will be at the park until 5 PM. We will be giving out flyers and talking to people about who Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera is. We will also be educating the public about Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the government of the United States (US).

    Most people don’t know that every year, usually on the Monday after Fathers’ Day, the United Nations holds its hearing about the decolonization of Puerto Rico. The petitioners will usually join our protest after this meeting.

    The UN determined in 1960 that colonialism is a crime against humanity. Since then, the UN has issued 33 resolutions asking for the US government to immediately decolonize Puerto Rico. The US government has ignored these resolutions. What kind of democracy is that?

    The US government tries to keep these hearings a secret. What we are trying to do is to get them out of the closet. The UN is in its 3rd decade trying to make the world colony-free. Please help us!

    Most people also don’t know that the United States government takes out 14 times more money than what it invests in Puerto Rico. But, that is what colonies are for!

    This savage exploitation impedes Puerto Rico’s ability to provide opportunities for Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico. That is why there are now more Puerto Ricans living away from Puerto Rico than in their homeland.

    Oscar López Rivera has been incarcerated for 34 years for his struggle to decolonize Puerto Rico. Since colonialism is an international crime, international law gives Oscar the right to use whatever means necessary to decolonize his homeland. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years for doing the same thing as Oscar. This is why we say, Oscar López Rivera is our Nelson Mandela!

    United Partners for Puerto Rico Decolonization invites the public to be part of the tsunami of people that will be necessary to make the US government comply with the UN resolutions. These annual protests in Puerto Rico and at the UN are absolutely necessary, because, those who maintain colonies, don’t believe in justice for all!

    José M López Sierra

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