Most mainland non-Caribbean folks do not understand the recent events in Puerto Rico.* Some of this lack of understanding arises from decades of decisions in the U.S. federal government to not include colonies in daily press releases and major policy proclamations. In dozens of offices throughout the federal bureaucracy, however, hundreds of U.S. clerks, analysts, directors, and political representatives make decisions regarding current colonies: Puerto Rico, Guantánamo in Cuba, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands.**
In the case of each colony (sometimes called territorial possession), the U.S. government has determined the form of governance. Although Puerto Rico had an autonomous constitution and government within the Spanish Empire, the U.S. ended that system in 1898 and imposed a series of U.S. military generals as governor. From 1900 to 1946, U.S. presidents appointed mostly civilian men from the mainland, with some Puerto Rican men serving as interim. Jesús T. Piñero was the first Puerto Rican man appointed by a president and served from 1946 to 1949. That year, the U.S. government in collaboration with Luis Muñoz Marín and the Partido Popular Democrático/Popular Democratic Party (PPD) arranged for the first gubernatorial election.
Muñoz Marín served as governor for four terms due to his lifelong political and economic activism in Puerto Rico, his regular contact with elites in the U.S. government, and the dominance of the PPD. As with all systems of governance, elites overlapped and cooperated as well as competed and debated. The elites in the Puerto Rican insular government did not arise from a blank void, but rather from decades of U.S. colonial relations that had intersected with and adapted Spanish imperial hierarchies of race, gender, class, and status. Elected insular governors have been white Puerto Rican men from affluent families, except for one white woman, Sila María Calderón.***
Residents of Puerto Rico and their loved ones in diaspora have repeatedly attempted to claim more autonomy or independence for Puerto Rico. Their political disagreements and decisions must be engaged and made by them—but mainland non-Boricuas have an obligation to understand. While Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s corrupt dealings, autocratic administration, and derogatory communications are his own, the institutional position has been constrained and manipulated by the U.S.
The U.S. federal government constructed the island government, and U.S. investors and corporations have benefited from the colonial possession. Puerto Rico has been a site of investment experimentation and tax exemptions since 1898. The U.S. exempted the island from many tax, labor, and environmental regulations, allowing sugar investors, apparel corporations, defense contractors, and pharmaceutical companies (to name a few) to do things in Puerto Rico that they were not allowed to do on the mainland—all while evading tax obligations and shifting money through the Caribbean. Some members of the insular government were entwined with the politics and finances of these colonial arrangements; some members contested them.
Current demonstrations, with their demands for access to power and challenges over who has gained that access based on intersections of race, gender, and class, emerged from 120 years of U.S. colonialism. The unfolding events are both an island and U.S. issue that should be understood by people on the mainland. Not so we can make decisions for Puerto Rico—residents need to do that. But so the vested interests of many linked mainland-Puerto Rican-Caribbean corporations, finance banks, investors, shipping lines, bureaucrats, and elite politicians cannot keep making decisions without full visibility and accountability.
* Some Puerto Rican activists now call the archipelago of Puerto Rico “our mainland,” but I will stick to academic geography terms to avoid confusions.
** The U.S. had possession of other colonies during the past 150 years as well.
*** Meanings for race categories are different across regions, ethnicities, and eras. People considered “white” in the Caribbean today might not be considered “white” in the U.S. mainland. This reveals how notions of race are very potent but also created by societies and their histories