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History of Puerto Rico facts for kids

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Puerto Rico departamentos 1886
Map of the departments of Puerto Rico during Spanish provincial times (1886).

The history of Puerto Rico began with the settlement of the Ortoiroid people between 430 BC and AD 1000. At the time of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World in 1493, the dominant indigenous culture was that of the Taínos. The Taíno people's numbers went dangerously low during the later half of the 16th century because of new infectious diseases carried by Europeans, exploitation by Spanish settlers, and warfare.

Located in the northeastern Caribbean, Puerto Rico formed a key part of the Spanish Empire from the early years of the exploration, conquest and colonization of the New World. The island was a major military post during many wars between Spain and other European powers for control of the region in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1593 Portuguese soldiers, sent from Lisbon by order of Phillip II, composed the first garrison of the San Felipe del Morro fortress in Puerto Rico. Some brought their wives, while others married Puerto Rican women, and today there are many Puerto Rican families with Portuguese last names. The smallest of the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico was a stepping-stone in the passage from Europe to Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the northern territories of South America. Throughout most of the 19th century until the conclusion of the Spanish–American War, Puerto Rico and Cuba were the last two Spanish colonies in the New World; they served as Spain's final outposts in a strategy to regain control of the American continents. Realizing that it was in danger of losing its two remaining Caribbean territories, the Spanish Crown revived the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815. The decree was printed in Spanish, English and French in order to attract Europeans, with the hope that the independence movements would lose their popularity and strength with the arrival of new settlers. Free land was offered to those who wanted to populate the islands on the condition that they swear their loyalty to the Spanish Crown and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1898, during the Spanish–American War, Puerto Rico was invaded and subsequently became a possession of the United States. The first years of the 20th century were marked by the struggle to obtain greater democratic rights from the United States.

The Foraker Act of 1900 established a civil government, ending rule by American generals and the Department of War. A United States Supreme Court ruling Ortega v. Lara, 202 U.S. 339, 342 (1906), involving the Foraker Act and referring to the island as "the acquired country", soon affirmed that the Constitution of the United States applied within its territory and that any domestic Puerto Rican laws which did not conflict with the United States Constitution remained in force.

The Jones Act of 1917, which made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens, paved the way for the drafting of Puerto Rico's Constitution and its approval by Congress and Puerto Rican voters in 1952. However, the political status of Puerto Rico, a Commonwealth controlled by the United States, remains an anomaly.

Pre-colonial Puerto Rico

Taino Village
Taíno. Village at Macdonalds Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Ponce, Puerto Rico

The settlement of Puerto Rico began with the establishment of the Ortoiroid culture from the Orinoco region in South America. Some scholars suggest that their settlement dates back 4000 years. An archeological dig at the island of Vieques in 1990 found the remains of what is believed to be an Ortoiroid man (named Puerto Ferro man) which was dated to around 2000 BC. The Ortoiroid were displaced by the Saladoid, a culture from the same region that arrived on the island between 430 and 250 BC.

Between the seventh and 11th centuries, the Arawak are thought to have settled the island. During this time the Taíno culture developed, and by approximately 1000 AD, it had become dominant. Taíno culture has been traced to the village of Saladero at the basin of the Orinoco River in Venezuela; the Taíno migrated to Puerto Rico by crossing the Lesser Antilles.

At the time of Columbus' arrival, an estimated 30 to 60 thousand Taíno Amerindians, led by the cacique (chief) Agüeybaná, inhabited the island. They called it "Borinquen"the great land of the valiant and noble Lord". The natives lived in small villages led by a cacique and subsisted on hunting, fishing and gathering of indigenous cassava root and fruit. When the Spaniards arrived in 1493, the Taíno were already in conflict with the raiding Carib, who were moving up the Antilles chain. The Taíno domination of the island was nearing its end, and the Spanish arrival marked the beginning of their extinction. Their culture, however, remains part of that of contemporary Puerto Rico. Musical instruments such as maracas and güiro, the hammock, and words such as Mayagüez, Arecibo, iguana, Caguas and huracán (hurricane) are examples of the legacy left by the Taíno.

Spanish rule (1493–1898)

Beginning of colonization

Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus, the explorer credited with the discovery of Puerto Rico
Juan Ponce de León (Santervás de Campos, Valladolid, Spain), was the first governor of Puerto Rico. His grandson Juan Ponce de Leon II was the first indigenous governor of Puerto Rico.

On September 24, 1493, Christopher Columbus set sail on his second voyage with 17 ships and 1,200 to 1,500 soldiers from Cádiz. On November 19, 1493 he landed on the island, naming it San Juan Bautista in honor of Saint John the Baptist. The first European colony, Caparra, was founded on August 8, 1508 by Juan Ponce de León, a lieutenant under Columbus, who was greeted by the Taíno Cacique Agüeybaná and who later became the first governor of the island. Ponce de Leon was actively involved in the Higuey massacre of 1503 in Puerto Rico. In 1508, Sir Ponce de Leon was chosen by the Spanish Crown to lead the conquest and exploitation of the Taíno Indians for gold mining operations. The following year, the colony was abandoned in favor of a nearby islet on the coast, named Puerto Rico (Rich Port), which had a suitable harbor. In 1511, a second settlement, San Germán was established in the southwestern part of the island. According to the "500TH Florida Discovery Council Round Table", on March 3, 1513, Juan Ponce de León, organized and commenced an expedition (with a crew of 200, including women and free blacks) departing from "Punta Aguada" Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was the historic first gateway to the discovery of Florida, which opened the door to the settlement of the southeastern United States. They introduced Christianity, cattle, horses, sheep, the Spanish language and more to the land (Florida) that later became the United States of America. This settlement occurred 107 years before the Pilgrims landed. During the 1520s, the island took the name of Puerto Rico while the port became San Juan.

The Spanish settlers established the first repartimiento system, under which natives were distributed to Spanish officials to be used as slave labor. On December 27, 1512, under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, Ferdinand II of Aragon issued the Burgos' Laws, which modified the repartimiento into a system called encomiendas, aimed at ending the exploitation. The laws prohibited the use of any form of punishment toward the indigenous people, regulated their work hours, pay, hygiene, and care, and ordered them to be catechized. In 1511, the Taínos revolted against the Spanish; cacique Urayoán, as planned by Agüeybaná II, ordered his warriors to drown the Spanish soldier Diego Salcedo to determine whether the Spaniards were immortal. After drowning Salcedo, they kept watch over his body for three days to confirm his death. The revolt was easily crushed by Ponce de León and within a few decades much of the native population had been decimated by disease and violence. As a result, Taíno culture, language, and traditions were generally destroyed, and were claimed to have "vanished" 50 years after Christopher Columbus arrived. Since the early 21st century, efforts have been made to revive and rebuild Taíno culture.

The Roman Catholic Church of chappel, realizing the opportunity to expand its influence, also participated in colonizing the island. On August 8, 1511, Pope Julius II established three dioceses in the New World, one in Puerto Rico and two on the island of Hispaniola under the archbishop of Seville. The Canon of Salamanca, Alonso Manso, was appointed bishop of the Puerto Rican diocese. On September 26, 1512, before his arrival on the island, the first school of advanced studies was established by the bishop. Taking possession in 1513, he became the first bishop to arrive in the Americas. Puerto Rico would also become the first ecclesiastical headquarters in the New World during the reign of Pope Leo X and the general headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in the New World.

As part of the colonization process, African slaves were brought to the island in 1513. Following the decline of the Taíno population, more slaves were brought to Puerto Rico; however, the number of slaves on the island paled in comparison to those in neighboring islands. Also, early in the colonization of Puerto Rico, attempts were made to wrest control of Puerto Rico from Spain. The Caribs, a raiding tribe of the Caribbean, attacked Spanish settlements along the banks of the Daguao and Macao rivers in 1514 and again in 1521 but each time they were easily repelled by the superior Spanish firepower. However, these would not be the last attempts at control of Puerto Rico. The European powers quickly realized the potential of the newly discovered lands and attempted to gain control of them.

The first school in Puerto Rico and the first school in the United States after Puerto Rico became a US territory, was the Escuela de Gramatica (Grammar School). The school was established by Bishop Alonso Manso in 1513, in the area where the Cathedral of San Juan was to be constructed. The school was free of charge and the courses taught were Latin language, literature, history, science, art, philosophy and theology.

European threats

San Felipe del Morro view across bay
View across the Bay of San Juan of Fort San Felipe del Morro

Sparked by the possibility of immense wealth, many European powers made attempts to wrest control of the Americas from Spain in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Success in invasion varied, and ultimately all Spanish opponents failed to maintain permanent control of the island. In 1528, the French, recognizing the strategic value of Puerto Rico, sacked and burned the southwestern town of San Germán. They also destroyed many of the island's first settlements, including Guánica, Sotomayor, Daguao and Loíza before the local militia forced them to retreat. The only settlement that remained was the capital, San Juan. French corsairs would again sack San Germán in 1538 and 1554.

Spain, determined to defend its possession, began the fortification of the inlet of San Juan in the early 16th century. In 1532, construction of the first fortifications began with La Fortaleza (the Fortress) near the entrance to San Juan Bay. Seven years later the construction of massive defenses around San Juan began, including Fort San Felipe del Morro astride the entrance to San Juan Bay. Later, Fort San Cristóbal and Fort San Jerónimo—built with a financial subsidy from the Mexican mines—garrisoned troops and defended against land attacks. In 1587, engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli redesigned Fort San Felipe del Morro; these changes endure. Politically, Puerto Rico was reorganized in 1580 into a captaincy general to provide for more autonomy and quick administrative responses to military threats.

On November 22, 1595, English privateer Sir Francis Drake—with 27 vessels and 2,500 troops—sailed into San Juan Bay intending to loot the city. However, they were unable to defeat the forces entrenched in the forts. Knowing Drake had failed to overcome the city's defenses by sea, on June 15, 1598, the Royal Navy, led by George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, landed troops from 21 ships to the east in Santurce. Clifford and his men met Spanish resistance while attempting to cross the San Antonio bridge (from an area known today as Condado) into the islet of San Juan. Nonetheless, the English conquered the island and held it for several months. They were forced to abandon the island owing to an outbreak of dysentery among the troops. The following year Spain sent soldiers, cannons, and a new governor, Alonso de Mercado, to rebuild the city of San Juan.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw more attacks on the island. On September 25, 1625, the Dutch, under the leadership of Boudewijn Hendrick (Balduino Enrico), attacked San Juan, besieging Fort San Felipe del Morro and La Fortaleza. Residents fled the city but the Spanish, led by Governor Juan de Haro, were able to repel the Dutch troops from Fort San Felipe del Morro. The fortification of San Juan continued; in 1634, Philip IV of Spain fortified Fort San Cristóbal, along with six fortresses linked by a line of sandstone walls surrounding the city. In 1702, the English assaulted the town of Arecibo, located on the north coast, west of San Juan, with no success. In 1797, the French and Spanish declared war on the United Kingdom. The British attempted again to conquer the island, attacking San Juan with an invasion force of 7,000 troops and an armada consisting of 64 warships under the command of General Ralph Abercromby. Captain General Don Ramón de Castro and his army successfully resisted the attack.

Amidst the constant attacks, the first threads of Puerto Rican society emerged. A 1765 census conducted by Lt. General Alejandro O'Reilly showed a total population of 44,883, of which 5,037 (11.2%) were slaves, a low percentage compared to the other Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. In 1786 the first comprehensive history of Puerto Rico—Historia Geográfica, Civil y Política de Puerto Rico by Fray Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra—was published in Madrid, documenting the history of Puerto Rico from the time of Columbus' landing in 1493 until 1783. The book also presents a first hand account of Puerto Rican identity, including music, clothing, personality and nationality.

In 1779, Puerto Ricans fought in the American Revolutionary War under the command of Bernardo de Gálvez, who was named Field Marshal of the Spanish colonial army in North America. Puerto Ricans participated in the capture of Pensacola, the capital of the British colony of West Florida and the cities of Baton Rouge, St. Louis and Mobile. The Puerto Rican troops, commanded by Brigadier General Ramón de Castro, helped defeat the British and Indian army of 2,500 soldiers and British warships in Pensacola.

Early 19th century

Real Cédula de Gracia
Royal Decree of Graces, 1815, which allowed foreigners to enter Puerto Rico

The 19th century brought many changes to Puerto Rico, both political and social. In 1809, the Spanish government, in opposition to Napoleon, was convened in Cádiz in southern Spain. While still swearing allegiance to the king, the Supreme Central Junta invited voting representatives from the colonies. Ramón Power y Giralt was nominated as the local delegate to the Cádiz Cortes. The Ley Power ("the Power Act") soon followed, which designated five ports for free commerce—Fajardo, Mayagüez, Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo and Ponce—and established economic reforms with the goal of developing a more efficient economy. In 1812, the Cádiz Constitution was adopted, dividing Spain and its territories into provinces, each with a local corporation or council to promote its prosperity and defend its interests; this granted Puerto Ricans conditional citizenship.

On August 10, 1815, the Royal Decree of Grace was issued, allowing foreigners to enter Puerto Rico (including French refugees from Hispaniola), and opening the port to trade with nations other than Spain. This was the beginning of agriculture-based economic growth, with sugar, tobacco and coffee being the main products. The Decree also gave free land to anyone who swore their loyalty to the Spanish Crown and their allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. Thousands of families from all regions of Spain (particularly Asturias, Catalonia, Majorca and Galicia), Germany, Corsica, Ireland, France, Portugal, the Canary Islands and other locations, escaping from harsh economic times in Europe and lured by the offer of free land, soon immigrated to Puerto Rico. However, these small gains in autonomy and rights were short lived. After the fall of Napoleon, absolute power returned to Spain, which revoked the Cádiz Constitution and reinstated Puerto Rico to its former condition as a colony, subject to the unrestricted power of the Spanish monarch.

The integration of immigrants into Puerto Rican culture and other events changed Puerto Rican society. On June 25, 1835, Queen María Cristina abolished the slave trade to Spanish colonies. In 1851, Governor Juan de la Pezuela Cevallos founded the Royal Academy of Belles Letters. The academy licensed primary school teachers, formulated school methods, and held literary contests that promoted the intellectual and literary progress of the island.

In 1858, Samuel Morse introduced wired communication to Latin America when he established a telegraph system in Puerto Rico. Morse's oldest daughter Susan Walker Morse (1821–1885), would often visit her uncle Charles Pickering Walker who owned the Hacienda Concordia in the town of Guayama. Morse, who often spent his winters at the Hacienda with his daughter and son-in-law, who lived and owned the Hacienda Henriqueta, set a two-mile telegraph line connecting his son-in-law's hacienda to their house in Arroyo. The line was inaugurated on March 1, 1859 in a ceremony flanked by the Spanish and American flags. The first lines transmitted by Morse that day in Puerto Rico were:

Puerto Rico, beautiful jewel! When you are linked with the other jewels of the Antilles in the necklace of the world's telegraph, yours will not shine less brilliantly in the crown of your Queen!

Minor slave revolts had occurred in the island during this period, However the revolt planned and organized by Marcos Xiorro in 1821, was the most important of them all. Even though the conspiracy was unsuccessful, he achieved legendary status among the slaves and is part of Puerto Rico's folklore.

Struggle for sovereignty

The last half of the 19th century was marked by the Puerto Rican struggle for sovereignty. A census conducted in 1860 revealed a population of 583,308. Of these, 300,406 (51.5%) were white and 282,775 (48.5%) were persons of color, the latter including people of primarily African heritage, mulattos and mestizos. The majority of the population in Puerto Rico was illiterate (83.7%) and lived in poverty, and the agricultural industry—at the time, the main source of income—was hampered by lack of road infrastructure, adequate tools and equipment, and natural disasters, including hurricanes and droughts. The economy also suffered from increasing tariffs and taxes imposed by the Spanish Crown. Furthermore, Spain had begun to exile or jail any person who called for liberal reforms.

The Revolutionary flag of Lares
"The first Puerto Rican Flag" used in the unsuccessful Grito de Lares (Lares Uprising)

On September 23, 1868, hundreds of men and women in the town of Lares—stricken by poverty and politically estranged from Spain—revolted against Spanish rule, seeking Puerto Rican independence. The Grito de Lares ("Lares Cry" or "Lares Uprising") was planned by a group led by Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances, at the time exiled to the Dominican Republic, and Segundo Ruiz Belvis. Dr. Betances had founded the Comité Revolucionario de Puerto Rico (Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico) in January 1868. The most important figures in the uprising were Manuel Rojas, Mathias Brugman, Mariana Bracetti, Francisco Ramírez Medina and Lola Rodríguez de Tió. The uprising, although significant, was quickly controlled by Spanish authorities.

Following the Grito de Lares revolt, political and social reforms occurred toward the end of the 19th century. On June 4, 1870, due to the efforts of Román Baldorioty de Castro, Luis Padial and Julio Vizcarrondo, the Moret Law was approved, giving freedom to slaves born after September 17, 1868 or over 60 years old; on March 22, 1873, the Spanish National Assembly officially abolished, with a few special clauses, slavery in Puerto Rico. In 1870, the first political organizations on the island were formed as two factions emerged. The Traditionalists, known as the Partido Liberal Conservador (Liberal Conservative Party) were led by José R. Fernández, Pablo Ubarri and Francisco Paula Acuña and advocated assimilation into the political party system of Spain. The Autonomists, known as the Partido Liberal Reformista (Liberal Reformist Party) were led by Román Baldorioty de Castro, José Julián Acosta, Nicolás Aguayo and Pedro Gerónimo Goico and advocated decentralization away from Spanish control. Both parties would later change their names to Partido Incondicional Español (Unconditional Spanish Party) and Partido Federal Reformista (Reformist Federal Party), respectively. In March 1887, the Partido Federal Reformista was reformed and named the Partido Autonomista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Autonomist Party); it tried to create a political and legal identity for Puerto Rico while emulating Spain in all political matters. It was led by Román Baldorioty de Castro, José Celso Barbosa, Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón and Luis Muñoz Rivera.

Intentona de Yauco
Flag flown by Fidel Vélez and his men during the "Intentona de Yauco" revolt

Leaders of "El Grito de Lares", who were in exile in New York City, joined the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Committee, founded on December 8, 1895, and continued their quest for Puerto Rican independence. In 1897, Antonio Mattei Lluberas and the local leaders of the independence movement of the town of Yauco, organized another uprising, which became known as the "Intentona de Yauco". This was the first time that the current Puerto Rican flag was unfurled in Puerto Rican soil. The local conservative political factions, which believed that such an attempt would be a threat to their struggle for autonomy, opposed such an action. Rumors of the planned event spread to the local Spanish authorities who acted swiftly and put an end to what would be the last major uprising in the island to Spanish colonial rule.

The struggle for autonomy came close to achieving its goal on November 25, 1897, when the Carta Autonómica (Charter of Autonomy), which conceded political and administrative autonomy to the island, was approved in Spain. In the past 400-plus years, after centuries of colonial rule, Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, the Prime Minister of Spain granted the island an autonomous government on November 25, 1897 in the empire's legislative body in Cádiz, Spain, and trade was opened up with the United States and European colonies. The charter maintained a governor appointed by Spain, who held the power to veto any legislative decision he disagreed with, and a partially elected parliamentary structure. That same year, the Partido Autonomista Ortodoxo (Orthodox Autonomist Party), led by José Celso Barbosa and Manuel Fernández Juncos, was founded. On February 9, 1898, the new government officially began. Local legislature set its own budget and taxes. They accepted or rejected commercial treaties concluded by Spain. In February 1898, Governor General Manuel Macías inaugurated the new government of Puerto Rico under the Autonomous Charter which gave town councils complete autonomy in local matters. Subsequently, the governor had no authority to intervene in civil and political matters unless authorized to do so by the Cabinet. General elections were held in March and on July 17, 1898 Puerto Rico's autonomous government began to function, but not for long.

Invasion of 1898

Spanish defenders of Guayama
Puerto Rican and Spanish troops in Guayama

In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a member of the Navy War Board and leading U.S. strategic thinker, wrote a book titled The Influence of Sea Power upon History in which he argued for the creation of a large and powerful navy modeled after the British Royal Navy. Part of his strategy called for the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean Sea; these would serve as coaling and naval stations, as well as strategic points of defense after construction of a canal in the Isthmus. Since 1894, the Naval War College had been formulating plans for war with Spain and by 1896, the Office of Naval Intelligence had prepared a plan which included military operations in Puerto Rican waters.

On March 10, 1898, Dr. Julio J. Henna and Robert H. Todd, leaders of the Puerto Rican section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, began to correspond with United States President William McKinley and the United States Senate in hopes that they would consider including Puerto Rico in the intervention planned for Cuba. Henna and Todd also provided the US government with information about the Spanish military presence on the island. On April 24, Spanish Minister of Defense Segismundo Bermejo sent instructions to Spanish Admiral Cervera to proceed with his fleet from Cape Verde to the Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico. In May, Lt. Henry H. Whitney of the United States Fourth Artillery was sent to Puerto Rico on a reconnaissance mission. He provided maps and information on the Spanish military forces to the US government that would be useful for an invasion.

The Spanish–American War broke out in late April. The American strategy was to seize Spanish colonies in the Atlantic—Puerto Rico and Cuba—and their possessions in the Pacific—the Philippines and Guam. On May 10, Spanish forces at Fort San Cristóbal under the command of Capt. Ángel Rivero Méndez in San Juan exchanged fire with the USS Yale under the command of Capt. William C. Wise. Two days later, on May 12, a squadron of 12 US ships commanded by Rear Admiral William T. Sampson bombarded installations at San Juan. On June 25, the USS Yosemite blocked San Juan harbor. On July 18, General Nelson A. Miles, commander of US forces, received orders to sail for Puerto Rico and to land his troops. On July 21, a convoy with nine transports and 3,300 soldiers, escorted by USS Massachusetts, sailed for Puerto Rico from Guantánamo. General Nelson Miles landed unopposed at Guánica, located in the southern coast of the island, on July 25, 1898, with the first contingent of American troops. Opposition was met in the southern and central regions of the island but by the end of August the island was under United States control.

On August 12, peace protocols were signed in Washington and Spanish Commissions met in San Juan on September 9 to discuss the details of the withdrawal of Spanish troops and the cession of the island to the United States. On October 1, an initial meeting was held in Paris to draft the Peace Treaty and on December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed (ratified by the US Senate February 6, 1899). Spain renounced all claim to Cuba, ceded Guam and Puerto Rico and its dependent islets to the United States, and transferred sovereignty over the Philippines to the United States and in turn was paid $20,000,000 ($510 million in 2022 dollars) by the U.S. General John R. Brooke became the first United States military governor of the island.

United States rule (1898–present)

Military government

Raising the U.S. flag over San Juan, October 18, 1898
Raising the US Flag over San Juan, October 18, 1898.

After the ratification of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, Puerto Rico came under the military control of the United States of America. This brought about significant changes: the name of the island was changed to Porto Rico (it would be changed back to Puerto Rico in 1932) and the currency was changed from the Puerto Rican peso to the United States dollar. Freedom of assembly, speech, press, and religion were decreed and an eight-hour day for government employees was established. A public school system was begun and the U.S. Postal service was extended to the island. The highway system was enlarged, and bridges over the more important rivers were constructed. The government lottery was abolished, cockfighting was forbidden, and a centralized public health service established. Health conditions were poor at the time, with high rates of infant mortality and numerous endemic diseases.

US 45 Star Flag
The 45-star flag, used by the United States during the invasion of Puerto Rico, was also the official flag of Puerto Rico from 1899 to 1908

The beginning of the military government also marked the creation of new political groups. The Partido Republicano (Republican Party) and the American Federal Party were created, led by José Celso Barbosa and Luis Muñoz Rivera, respectively. Both groups supported annexation by the United States as a solution to the colonial situation. The island's Creole sugar planters, who had suffered from declining prices, hoped that U.S. rule would help them gain access to the North American market.

Disaster struck in August 1899, when two hurricanes ravaged the island: the 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane on August 8, and an unnamed hurricane on August 22. Approximately 3,400 people died in the floods and thousands were left without shelter, food, or work. The effects on the economy were devastating: millions of dollars were lost due to the destruction of the majority of the sugar and coffee plantations.

Foraker Act of 1900

First Supreme Court PR
The first Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, established in 1900

The military government in Puerto Rico was short lived; it was disbanded on April 2, 1900, when the U.S. Congress enacted the Foraker Act (also known as the Organic Act of 1900), sponsored by Senator Joseph B. Foraker. This act established a civil government and free commerce between the island and the United States. The structure of the insular government included a governor appointed by the president, an executive council (the equivalent of a senate), and a legislature with 35 members, though the executive veto required a two-thirds vote to override. The first appointed civil governor, Charles Herbert Allen, was inaugurated on May 1, 1900. On June 5, President William McKinley appointed an Executive Council which included five Puerto Rican members and six U.S. members. The act also established the creation of a judicial system headed by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and allowed Puerto Rico to send a Resident Commissioner as a representative to Congress. The Department of Education was subsequently formed, headed by Martin Grove Brumbaugh (later governor of Pennsylvania). Teaching was conducted entirely in English with Spanish treated as a special subject. However, both Spanish and English were official languages in the island. On November 6, the first elections under the Foraker Act were held and on December 3, the first Legislative Assembly took office. On March 14, 1901, Federico Degetau took office as the first Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico in Washington. The Foraker Act, (with the influence of a fearful progressive) placed a limit of 500 acres (2.0 km2) as the amount of land that any one person was allowed to own. This part of the Act was not enforced.

Economic and social modernization

The American program included building up a modern economic infrastructure that included roads, ports, electric power systems, and telephones and telegraphs, as well as hospitals and programs to develop agriculture.

Sugar mill owners in 1898 – 1945 had made their sugar mills turn into a monocultural plantation in the 20th century economy. The sugar mills, tobacco, and cigar and cigarette factories gained the United States' attention due to the fast production and large amount. Women and children were the ones working in these industries. Puerto Rican trades had gone to the United States 95% of the time. In 1914, the coffee production that once was steady had failed.

The sugar industry rose along with the economy. The mill owners who were Puerto Ricans and the people who lived on the island who were French and Spanish took the United States' corporate capital. The United States had four operations were part of the United sugar refineries that was owned by Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In 1870, Congress made the tariff wall in order to domestic producers of sugar. This had an effect of putting sugar producers into bankruptcy. The United States acquired jurisdiction over Puerto Rico where there was free trade between the two. Capital flowed into Puerto Rico with the effect of modernizing its sugar processing mills due to the United States' influence.

The United States had formed a Tobacco Trust that had basis rules for cigarettes, but Puerto Ricans had issues when it came to brand and local marketing. The Tobacco Trust controlled cigarettes and cigar production as well as controlled the tobacco leaf. There was a fall of the industry due to the exports.

During the time when sugar was not going well the coffee in the late 1800s. What changed the coffee production started when the export production replaced the farming. People lost their land and properties, the amount of land disposal shrank and the people hoped that Europe would take part in the trade of coffee, but they did not. Coffee makers were not happy with them being controlled by the United States. In 1933 most of the people worked as families instead of individuals most likely due to 90 percent of the output due to them being poor.

In 1899, the United States took over rich lands that influenced Puerto Rico's economy that soon made Puerto Rico a state that was more capitalized in operation. There was no limit in their treads to the United States, the sugar industry had expanded and irrigation payments. The taxes Hollander Act was taxing 2 percent on rural property in 1901. This made the people very angry and the people protested. The people were able to bring the tax down to 1 percent but this still forced landowners to sell their land.

The American administrators put great emphasis on developing a modern school system. English-language instruction provoked fears of cultural genocide. This effort generated resistance from teachers, parents, politicians, intellectuals and others. Resistance to the imposition of English was part of a larger effort to resist invasion and colonization. The schools became an important arena for cultural identity, as promoted by the middle-class local teachers who rejected the idea of creating Hispanic Yankees speaking only English, and instead sought to have an autonomous Puerto Rican culture that incorporated the best of modern pedagogy and learning, with a respect for the island's Hispanic language and cultural traditions. U.S. officials underestimated the place of Spanish in Puerto Rican culture. By 1898 Spanish was firmly rooted in the population. Spanish was also one of the leading international languages, through which Puerto Ricans were in contact with the world. It was the language in which culture was communicated. The level of opposition to the imposition of English was such that it led to the failure of U.S. language policies in Puerto Rico.

One shock came in 1935, however, when a New York study found Puerto Rican schoolchildren in New York City to be seriously deficient in basic skills. After 39 years of the imposition of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Spanish became the preferred language of instruction in 1942, and in the public schools the vernacular of Puerto Ricans became the language of teaching and learning in 1940–50.

Puerto Rico's agricultural economy was transformed into a sugar monoculture economy, supplemented by gardens for local consumption. American sugar companies had an advantage over the local sugar plantation owners. The local plantation owner could finance his operations only at local banks which offered high interest rates, compared to the low rates that American companies received from the commercial banks in Wall Street. This factor, plus the tariffs imposed, forced many of the local sugar plantation owners to go bankrupt or to sell their holdings to the more powerful sugar companies. Sugar was considered one of the few strategic commodities in which the United States was not fully self-sufficient.


An economically evolving Puerto Rico called for a new advancement in political status. Powerful, innovative Puerto Rican leaders including Luis Muñoz Rivera, José de Diego, Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón, Manuel Zeno Gandía, Luis Lloréns Torres, Eugenio Benítez Castaño, and Pedro Franceschi contributed to the rise of multiple successful political parties. However, the birth of multiple political groups led to a diversion of the island's interests: uniting as a statehood with the US, becoming a US territory commonwealth, or declaring independence altogether.

The Puerto Rican status quo was again altered in 1909 when the Foraker Act, which replaced military rule with a civilian government in Puerto Rico, was modified by the Olmsted Amendment. This amendment placed the supervision of Puerto Rican affairs in the jurisdiction of an executive department designated by the president of the United States.[50] In 1914, the first Puerto Rican officers, Martín Travieso (Secretary) and Manuel V. Domenech (Commissioner of Interiors), were assigned to the Executive Cabinet. This allowed for native Puerto Ricans to hold a majority in the Council, which consisted of five members selected by the president, for the first time in history. A 1915 delegation from Puerto Rico, accompanied by the Governor Arthur Yager, traveled to Washington, D.C. to ask Congress to grant the island more autonomy. Luis Muñoz Rivera became one of the founders of the Union Party in Puerto Rico who was against the Foraker Act. This delegation and speeches made by Resident Commissioner Muñoz Rivera in Congress, coupled with political and economic interests, led to the drafting of the Jones–Shafroth Act of 1917 (Jones Act).

Jones Act of 1917

The Jones Act was made to replace the Foraker Act, which allowed for the free entry of Puerto Rican goods into the U.S. market. The Jones Act was approved by the U.S. Congress on December 5, 1916, and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on March 2, 1917. Although it extended citizenship to Puerto Ricans, it wasn't always welcomed. The Partido Union had opposed extension of U.S. citizenship in 1912 if it didn't make Puerto Rico a state. If they didn't become a state, U.S. citizenship would be interpreted as an attempt to block independence of the Puerto Ricans. For them, the promise of citizenship didn't affirm the promise of statehood, it excluded any considerations of independence.

The law made Puerto Rico a United States territory which is "organized but unincorporated," much like a colony. Puerto Ricans were also collectively given a restricted U.S. citizenship. This implied that Puerto Ricans in the island did not have full American citizenship rights, such as the right to vote for the President of the United States. The Act allowed conscription to be extended to the island, sending 20,000 Puerto Rican soldiers to the United States Army during the First World War. The Act also divided governmental powers into three branches: executive (appointed by the President of the United States), legislative, and judicial. The legislative branch was composed of the senate, consisting of 19 members, and a house of representatives, consisting of 39 members. The members of the legislature were freely elected by the Puerto Rican people. A bill of rights, which established elections to be held every four years, was also created.

Though the Act created a more structured government for Puerto Rico, the United States Congress still held the right to veto or amend bills and laws passed by the provincial legislative body. In addition to veto power, the United States could prevent the enforcing of actions taken by the legislature. The Act stated that the President of the United States was to appoint members of the Puerto Rico’s legislative branch, as well as the directors of the six major government departments- agriculture and labor, health, interior, and treasury(with the advisement of Congress) and the Attorney General and the commissioner of education. The Act also made English the official language of the Puerto Rican courts, government, and the public education systems.

Terremoto Mayaguez 1918
Destruction left from the hurricane in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico 1918

On October 11, 1918, an earthquake occurred, with an approximate magnitude of 7.3 on the Richter scale, accompanied by a tsunami reaching 6.1 metres (20 ft) in height. The epicenter was located northwest of Aguadilla in the Mona Passage (between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic). This earthquake caused great damage and loss of life at Mayagüez, and lesser damage along the west coast. Tremors continued for several weeks. Approximately 116 casualties were reported resulting from the earthquake and 40 from the tsunami.

Some politicians were in favor of Puerto Rico becoming an incorporated state of the U.S., while others wanted Puerto Rico to gain independence from the United States. Amid this debate, a nationalist group emerged that encouraged radical activism for Puerto Rico to become independent from the United States. As a consequence of the Jones Act and the establishment of elections, a new political party, the Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican Nationalist Party), was founded on September 17, 1922. This party used advocated massive demonstrations and protests against any political activity that was not going to result in Puerto Rico gaining independence. In 1924, Pedro Albizu Campos joined the party and later became the vice president in 1927. In 1930, Campos was elected president. Being the president, he instilled many of his political ideologies into the party which was composed heavily of anticolonial politics and feelings of contempt against the United States. In the 1930s, the Nationalist Party, led by president Pedro Albizu Campos failed to attract sufficient electoral support and withdrew from political participation. Increased conflict arose between their adherents and the authorities. On October 20, 1935 Campos testified against the dean of the University of Puerto Rico, claiming that he wanted to Americanize the institution. Four days later a student assembly gathered and declared Campos a persona non grata, forbidding him to speak there. Campos was later arrested and convicted of conspiring to overthrow the American government. He was arrested for breaking the Smith Act of 1940 which declared that it was against the law for anyone to teach or be part of a group that encouraged the overthrow of the American government.

On October 23, 1935, a student assembly was planned to be held at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras campus. Its officials asked Governor Blanton Winship to provide armed police officers for the campus, to forestall possible violence. Colonel Elisha Francis Riggs, the U.S. appointed Police Chief, commanded the forces. A couple of police officers spotted what they believed to be a suspicious-looking automobile and asked the driver Ramón S. Pagán for his license. Pagán was the Secretary of the Nationalist Party at this time. He was accompanied in the car by his friends and other Nationalist Party members Pedro Quiñones and Eduardo Rodríguez. The police officers asked Pagán to slowly drive to the police station on Calle Arzuaga, but a block from the station, the police surrounded the vehicle and fired their guns into the car. Pagán, Quiñones, and Rodríguez were not armed with weapons. José Santiago Barea, another Nationalist, was approaching the car when police began shooting. It resulted in the death of the four nationalists and one bystander.

In retaliation for the "Río Piedras massacre" at the University of Rio Piedras, on February 23, 1936, Nationalists Hiram Rosado and Elias Beauchamp killed Colonel E. Francis Riggs in San Juan. They were taken into custody where they were killed by policemen and officers while being held at the San Juan headquarters. Rosado and Beauchamp were declared heroes by the Nationalist Party president, Pedro Albizu. Shortly after, the San Juan Federal Court had Albizu arrested for his incitement of discontent. After initially being found innocent in a jury with seven Puerto Ricans and two North Americans, the judge ordered a new jury which had ten North Americans and two Puerto Ricans, who found him guilty. On July 31, 1936, Albizu and several other Nationalists such as Juan Antonio Corretjer and Clemente Soto Vélez were convicted of being associated with Riggs' murder. They were sentenced to six to 10 years in a federal prison in the United States.

Ponce Massacre
Picture by journalist Carlos Torres Morales of the Ponce massacre, March 21, 1937

On March 21, 1937, a peaceful march was organized by the Nationalist Party, under Pedro Alibizu Campos, to commemorate the ending of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 by the governing Spanish National Assembly. The police, under the orders of General Blanton Winship, the US-appointed colonial Governor of Puerto Rico, opened fire at the peaceful Puerto Rican Nationalist Party parade, which is now known as the "Ponce massacre": 20 unarmed people (including two policemen) were killed, with wounded persons ranging between 100–200. This occurred because the head of the police force in Juana Díaz, Guillermo Soldevila, raised a whip and struck the chest of Tomás Lopez de Victoria, the captain of the cadet corps, and told him to stop the march. As a result, a police officer, Armando Martinez, ran from the corner in front of the Nationalist council and fired once into the air. This prompted many others to fire their arms.

On July 25, 1938, a little over a year after the Ponce massacre, Governor Winship ordered a military parade take place in the city of Ponce in celebration of the American invasion of Puerto Rico. Such celebrations customarily took place in San Juan, the capital of the colonial government. At the parade, an attempt was made to assassinate Winship, allegedly by members of the Nationalist Party. It was the first time in Puerto Rico's long history that an attempt had been made against a governor. Although Winship escaped unscathed, a total of 36 people were wounded, including a colonel in the National Guard and the Nationalist gunman.

Establishment of the Commonwealth

Flag of Puerto Rico (Light blue)
From 1948 to 1952 it was a felony to display the Puerto Rican flag in public; the only flag permitted to be flown on the island was the flag of the United States.

In the years after World War II, social, political and economical changes began to take place that have continued to shape the island's character today. The late 1940s brought the beginning of a major migration to the continental United States, mainly to New York City. The main reasons for this were an undesirable economic situation brought by the Great Depression, as well as strong recruiting by the U.S. armed forces for personnel and U.S. companies for workers.

In 1946 President Truman appointed Resident Commissioner Jesús T. Piñero to serve as island governor; he was the first Puerto Rican appointed to that position. On June 10, 1948, Piñero signed the infamous "Ley de la Mordaza" (Gag Law). Law 53, as it was officially known, was passed by the Puerto Rican legislature presided by Luis Muñoz Marín on May 21, 1948. The Law made it illegal to display the Puerto Rican flag, sing a nationalist song, talk about independence or to campaign for the independence of the island. It resembled the anti-communist Smith Law passed in the United States.

The U.S. Congress passed an act allowing Puerto Ricans to elect their governor, and the first elections under this act were held on November 2, 1948. Luis Muñoz Marín, president of the Puerto Rican Senate, successfully campaigned and became the first democratically elected Governor of the island on January 2, 1949.

El Imparcial Utuado
El Imparcial headline: "Aviation (US) bombs Utuado" during Nationalist revolts

On July 4, 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed Public Act 600, which allowed Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution establishing their own internal government structures; it also renamed the body politic as the "Commonwealth of Puerto Rico." in English and "Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico" in Spanish. (The Commonwealth designation was similar to the bodies politic of the states of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky.) Once in office, Muñoz Marin did not pursue Puerto Rican Independence, which angered some of his constituency.

On October 30, 1950, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists, led by Pedro Albizu Campos, staged several local attacks, known as the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party revolts of the 1950s, the most successful of which is known as the Jayuya Uprising. The revolts included an attack on the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza. Puerto Rican military forces were called in to put down the Jayuya Uprising. Two days later, two Nationalists from New York tried to storm in to Blair House, then the president's temporary residence, to assassinate United States President Harry S. Truman. These acts led Muñoz to crack down on Puerto Rican nationalists and advocates of Puerto Rican independence. The actions by both Muñoz and the United States' Government would later be determined as infringing on constitutional rights.

In February 1952, the Constitution of Puerto Rico was approved by voters in a referendum, and a federal law approved it, subject to striking Sec. 20 of Article II and adding text to Sec. 3 of Article VII of the final draft, amendments that were finally ratified in November of that year. The island organized as the Estado Libre Asociado (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico). That same year marked the first time that the Flag of Puerto Rico could be publicly displayed, after having been criminalized in 1948 by the Popular Democratic Party-controlled government. In March 1954, four Nationalists fired guns from the visitors gallery in the US House of Representatives at the Capitol, to protest the lack of Puerto Rican independence, wounding several persons.

Luis A. Ferré founded Estadistas Unidos (United Statehooders), an organization to campaign for statehood in the 1967 plebiscite, after the Statehood Republican Party chose to boycott the vote. On July 23, 1967, the first plebiscite on the political status of Puerto Rico was held. Voters overwhelmingly affirmed continuation of Commonwealth status (Commonwealth–60.4% Statehood–39%; Independence–0.6%). Other plebiscites have been held to determine the political status of Puerto Rico, in 1993 and in 1998. Both times, although by smaller margins, the status quo has been upheld. In 2012, a majority voted to reject the current status and voted to become a state. The referendum was controversial as opponents had tried to persuade people to abstain from voting altogether and argued the vote was invalid.

As the U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to admit new states, the referendum could be taken only as a sign of popular opinion. Legally the island remains a territory of the United States, under congressional supervision. After the 1967 plebiscite, the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party or New Party for Progress) was organized under Ferré's leadership. The party campaigned for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the Union. Luis A. Ferré was elected governor on November 5, 1968, with 43.6% of the vote, the first time a pro-statehood governor had received a plurality. The New Progressive Party, the Popular Democratic Party, and the Independence Party constitute the current political status-based registered political parties in the island.

Puerto Rico continues to struggle to define its political status. Even though Puerto Rico was granted the right to draft its own Constitution, approved in 1952, it remains an unincorporated organized territory of the United States. Its ambiguous status continues to spark political debates which dominate Puerto Rican society.

Moving toward statehood

On July 23, 1967, the first plebiscite on the political status of Puerto Rico was held. Voters overwhelmingly affirmed continuation of Commonwealth status (with 60.4% voting to remain a commonwealth, 39% voting to work towards statehood. Other referendums have been subsequently held to determine the political status of Puerto Rico, in 1993 and in 1998. In all three of these, the status quo has been upheld; there was no strong feeling in favor of independence or statehood.

The Puerto Rican status referendum, 2012 occurred on November 6, 2012. The result a 54% majority of the ballots cast against the continuation of the island's territorial political status, and in favor of a new status. Of votes for new status, a 61.1% majority chose statehood. This was by far the most successful referendum for statehood advocates. In all earlier referenda, votes for statehood were matched almost equally by votes for remaining an American territory, with the remainder for independence. Support for U.S. statehood has risen in each successive popular referendum. Because there were almost 500,000 blank ballots in the 2012 referendum, creating confusion as to the voters' true desire, Congress decided to ignore the vote.

The previous plebiscites provided voters with three options: statehood, free association, and independence. The Puerto Rican status referendum, 2017 will offer only two: Statehood and Independence/Free Association. If the majority vote for the latter, a second vote will be held to determine the preference: full independence as a nation or associated free state status with independence but with a "free and voluntary political association" between Puerto Rico and the United States. The specifics of the association agreement

Governor Ricardo Rosselló is strongly in favor of statehood to help develop the economy and help to "solve our 500-year-old colonial dilemma ... Colonialism is not an option .... It’s a civil rights issue ... 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy," he told the news media. Benefits of statehood include an additional $10 billion per year in federal funds, the right to vote in presidential elections, higher Social Security and Medicare benefits, and a right for its government agencies and municipalities to file for bankruptcy. The latter is currently prohibited.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, action by the United States Congress would be necessary to implement changes to the status of Puerto Rico under the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution.

Economic history

Sugar cane workers resting at the noon hour, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico (LOC)
Sugar cane workers resting at the noon hour, Rio Piedras. Photograph by Jack Delano, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. Ca. 1941.

Coffee was a major industry before the 1940s. Arabica beans were introduced to the island in 1736. Production soared in the central mountainous area after 1855 because of cheap land, a low-paid and plentiful workforce, good credit facilities, and a growing market in the U.S., Spain and Europe. Decline set in after 1897, and the end came with a major hurricane in 1928 and the 1930s depression. While coffee declined, sugar and tobacco grew in importance, thanks to the large mainland market.

The island's social and economic structure modernized after 1898, with new infrastructure such as roads, ports, railroads and telegraph lines, and new public health measures. The high infant mortality death rate of the late 19th century declined steadily, thanks in large measure to basic public health programs.

Land tenure did not become concentrated in fewer hands, but incomes increased as American agribusiness and capital investments arrived. The land tenure system in the firm control of local farmers (small, medium, and large). After 1940 dairying became an industry second only to sugar, and had a higher dollar output than the better-known traditional crops – coffee and tobacco.

In the 1920s, the economy of Puerto Rico boomed. A dramatic increase in the price of sugar, Puerto Rico's principal export, brought cash to the farmers. As a result, the island's infrastructure was steadily upgraded. New schools, roads and bridges were constructed. The increase in private wealth was reflected in the erection of many residences, while the development of commerce and agriculture stimulated the extension of banking and transport facilities.

This period of prosperity came to an end in 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression. At the time, agriculture was the main contributor to the economy. Industry and commerce slowed during the 1930s as well. The problems were aggravated when on September 27, 1932, Hurricane San Ciprián struck the island. Exact figures of the destruction are not known but estimates say that 200–300 people were killed, more than a thousand were injured, and property damage escalated to $30–50 million ($470 million to $780 million as of 2018).

The agricultural production, the principal economic driver for the island, came to a standstill. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, a Puerto Rican Reconstruction Administration was authorized. Funds were made available for construction of new housing, infrastructure, including transportation improvements and other capital investment to improve island conditions. In 1938, a new federal minimum wage law was passed, establishing it at 25 cents an hour. As a consequence, two-thirds of the island's textile factories closed because they could not be profitable while paying workers at that level.

Since 1945

After World War II, large numbers of young people migrated to the mainland's industrial cities for work and remitted dollars back to their families. In 1950 Washington introduced Operation Bootstrap, which greatly stimulated economic growth from 1950 until the 1970s. Due to billions of dollars of corporate investments, the growth rate was 6% for the 1950s, 5% for the 1960s, and 4% for the 1970s. Puerto Rico became one of the most affluent economies in Latin America. However, it had to import 80% of its food.

Operation Bootstrap was sponsored by governor Muñoz Marín. It was coupled with agrarian reform (land redistribution) that limited the area that could be held by large sugarcane interests. Operation Bootstrap enticed US mainland investors to transfer or create manufacturing plants by granting them local and federal tax concessions, but maintaining the access to mainland markets free of import duties. Another incentive was the lower wage scales in the densely populated island. The program accelerated the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. The 1950s saw the development of labor-intensive light industries, such as textiles; later manufacturing gave way to heavy industry, such as petrochemicals and oil refining, in the 1960s and 1970s. Muñoz Marín's development programs brought some prosperity for an emergent middle class. The industrialization was in part fueled by generous local incentives and freedom from federal taxation, while providing access to continental US markets without import duties. As a result, a rural agricultural society was transformed into an industrial working class. Manufacturing activity, however, has been burdened by electricity rates two to three times the average in the United States.

In 2005, protests over the noise of bombing practice forced the closure of Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. This resulted in a loss of 6,000 jobs and an annual decrease in income of $300 million.

In 2006, Puerto Rico saw its credit rating downgraded to one notch above non-investment grade by the main credit rating agencies, with the possibility of more downgrades happening in the near future. This has led to fiscal measures to reduce government spending, increase revenues and balance the budget, and the implementation in 2006 and expansion in 2013 of a 7% sales tax.

Present-day Puerto Rico has become a major tourist destination and a leading pharmaceutical and manufacturing center, as well as a major financial center for the Caribbean.

In early 2017, the Puerto Rican government-debt crisis posed serious problems for the government which was saddled with outstanding bond debt that had climbed to $70 billion or $12,000 per capita at a time with a 45 percent poverty rate and 12.4% unemployment that is more than twice the mainland U.S. average. The debt had been increasing during a decade long recession.

The Commonwealth had been defaulting on many debts, including bonds, since 2015. "Without action before April, Puerto Rico’s ability to execute contracts for Fiscal Year 2018 with its managed care organizations will be threatened, thereby putting at risk beginning July 1, 2017 the health care of up to 900,000 poor U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico", according to a letter sent to Congress by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. They also said that "Congress must enact measures recommended by both Republicans and Democrats that fix Puerto Rico’s inequitable health care financing structure and promote sustained economic growth."

Puerto Rico monthly electricity sales by sector, January 2016 through May 2018 (43165035474)
Hurricanes Irma and Maria sharply reduced the availability of electricity throughout the island

Initially, the oversight board created under PROMESA called for Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rosselló to deliver a fiscal turnaround plan by January 28. Just before that deadline, the control board gave the Commonwealth government until February 28 to present a fiscal plan (including negotiations with creditors for restructuring debt) to solve the problems. A moratorium on lawsuits by debtors was extended to May 31. The Fiscal Control Board eventually approved a fiscal austerity plan which cut government services in order to repay creditors.

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria destroyed most of the island's power grid, leaving millions without power for several months. The disaster and slow recovery caused an exodus of over 100,000 people to the mainland United States, and depressing the island's economy for years and worsening the fiscal crisis.

In May 2018, after Puerto Rico's water system was massively damaged by Hurricane Maria, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit international environmental advocacy group, reported that Puerto Rico's potable water system was the worst as measured by the Safe Drinking Water Act, with 70% of the population living with water that violated U.S. law.

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