The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was pummeled by Hurricane Maria less than a month after Hurricane Harvey unleashed catastrophic flooding on the Texas city of Houston. It is striking to contrast the federal and public response to the two disasters in Texas and Puerto Rico. Houston was the subject of near-constant media coverage, hundreds of millions of dollars in private donations, and a concerted federal response. In the immediate aftermath of Maria, however, Puerto Rico’s plight received little attention by comparison.
Well after Maria made landfall on 20 September, Puerto Ricans are still facing a lack of power, food, drinking water, and other basic necessities. The damage to Puerto Rico, an impoverished and densely inhabited island of 3.4 million residents, will likely be far more extensive and long-lasting than in Houston, a boomtown with only half of Puerto Rico’s population. And yet, as Puerto Rico slipped further into crisis late last month, President Donald Trump—who dispatched tens of thousands of federal workers in response to Harvey and made multiple visits to Texas days after that storm—was preoccupied with attacking the civil rights protests of professional football players.
How do we explain this shocking neglect of Puerto Rico? Some observers have pointed out it is more difficult to provide aid to a small island 1600 kilometres off the mainland than to a major city. Others have explained Trump’s dismissive treatment of Puerto Rico as a form of institutional racism.
Puerto Rico’s remove from the continental U.S., the racist indifference to its residents, and the failed national response to Maria are related—a result of both the island’s status as a colony and of Americans’ colonial denial.
Puerto Rico was one of three colonies, with the Philippines and Guam, the U.S. won from Spain after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Although the U.S. had gone to war with Spain to defend Cuba’s right to independence, afterwards the U.S. defended the decision to keep Spain’s colonies by claiming that their nonwhite residents were not yet capable of self-government. (Cuba’s fate was a bit more complicated. So was that of Hawai‘i, which was never a Spanish colony.)
Though many Americans protested that U.S. overseas colonialism was a break from national tradition, the development was not unprecedented. Since its founding, the U.S. grew by taking over lands occupied by other peoples—notably Mexicans and Native Americans. Expansion was central to American national identity, and in the late 19th century many popular figures argued that continued American greatness would depend on the acquisition of territory in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
The difference with overseas colonialism was that most of the new lands were already heavily populated by people of colour and did not become destinations for massive white settlement. Some Americans’ belief in the racial inferiority of the colonies’ peoples was also the reason for another novelty of 1898: unlike continental U.S. territories, which were absorbed with the expectation that they would become states, those taken from Spain were never legally eligible for statehood.
Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. has changed slightly since 1898. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, and in 1952 Congress granted the island ‘commonwealth’ status, which gave Puerto Ricans a a few more rights. Puerto Rico was now able to elect a territorial government that could pass its own local laws, but Puerto Rico remained subject to U.S. federal law without—this is key—a say in determining it. Puerto Ricans have one non-voting representative in Congress and they cannot vote for president. 1
In the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s colonial status has hampered recovery efforts. Puerto Ricans have little leverage at the national level to push for increased aid. No politician with real federal power lives in Puerto Rico. The president is not politically accountable to Puerto Rico. At the same time, the Jones Act of 1920—which requires that goods shipped between U.S. marine ports must be carried by U.S. vessels—made it even harder to get supplies to the island until Trump temporarily waived the law.
Almost half of Americans do not know that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. To them, Maria’s destruction of Puerto Rico is yet another foreign calamity.
Since the Spanish-American War, Americans have been deeply ambivalent over American colonialism. Unlike the celebration of empire common in the U.K., Americans suffer a more complete form of colonial amnesia. Many fail to learn that the U.S. continues to possess territories lacking both national sovereignty and equal status to the rest of the U.S. When the developments of 1898 are taught, the typical histories of the war portray the acquisition of Spain’s colonies as an aberration, emphasizing Philippine independence in 1946 and Puerto Rico’s transition to a commonwealth as proof of America’s commitment to democracy.
Hurricane Maria has exposed the corruption of democracy in Puerto Rico and the persistence of U.S. colonialism. It remains to see whether it will finally alert Americans to the legacies of 1898.
Dr Sarah Miller-Davenport is Lecturer in 20th Century US History at the University of Sheffield. Her next book Gateway State (forthcoming from Princeton in 2019) explores the impact Hawai‘i statehood in 1959 and its relationships to decolonization and multiculturalism.
Image: An aerial survey over northern Puerto Rico Sept. 26, 2017 after hurricane Maria impacted the island [Via Wikicommons].
- Puerto Rico’s representative may introduce legislation and can vote within the congressional committees on which they serve. ↩