May 12, 1898: U.S. Opens Fire on Puerto Rico

Revolutionary Worker #956, May 10, 1998

One hundred years ago--on May 12, 1898--seven U.S. warships opened fire without warning on the town of San Juan on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. Two and a half months later, in July, U.S. troops landed in Puerto Rico for the first time and seized control of the island from Spain.

The United States came to Puerto Rico claiming to be liberators. But it quickly became clear that the old and weakened Spanish colonialists had been replaced by a new and more powerful oppressor. For the Puerto Rican people, the events of 1898 marked the beginning of military occupation, exploitation and poverty, cultural suppression and national subjugation under the bloody flag of U.S. imperialism.

From Stealing a Continent to
Conquests Across the Seas

The military conquest of Puerto Rico was part of a major colony-grabbing thrust by the United States across the waters of the Caribbean and the Pacific.

At the end of the 1800s, as the era of imperialism was being ushered in, the European powers moved to divide up the world, claiming colonies and "spheres of influence" for themselves. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, they divided up the whole continent of Africa--including large areas that no Europeans had even set foot in.

Unlike the European imperialists, the United States did not have an extensive colonial network before 1898. The U.S. ruling class did not lack experience in military intervention and power plays overseas. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared that all of Latin America was a U.S. sphere of influence and off-limits to the European powers. Between 1798 and 1895, the U.S. military had already intervened at least 103 times in other countries.

But before the 1890s the U.S. rulers were focused mainly on securing their continental base. They seized territory that the Native Americans had lived on for centuries--massacring the Indian people and forcing survivors onto concentration camps known as reservations. They kidnapped millions of Africans and worked them as slaves on plantations. They invaded and annexed the lands of northern Mexico, from Texas to California.

The United States had stolen a whole continent. But the capitalist logic of "expand or die" pushed the U.S. ruling class to seek a global empire. Unable to contend with the European powers in Africa, the U.S. imperialists set their sights on Latin America and the Pacific Rim. They moved to seize a number of colonies from Spain, one of the weakest and most vulnerable of the European powers.

U.S. "Liberators" Arrive

Spain's rule over its remaining colonies was quickly crumbling. In Cuba and the Philippines, armed movements fought against the Spanish colonial army. Challenges to Spanish rule were rising in Puerto Rico. The U.S. decided to act before the people of those countries kicked out Spain and declared independence.

In February 1898 the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in the harbor in Havana, Cuba. U.S. naval investigators knew that the Maine's overheated coal furnaces had detonated the ship's ammo supply. But the incident became a convenient justification for a war that the U.S. government had already decided to launch.

The U.S. forces defeated the Spanish colonial army and navy in a few months. In Puerto Rico, as in Cuba and the Philippines, the U.S. portrayed itself as a benevolent protector of the people, on a mission to bring "civilization" to these islands. The commander-in-chief of the U.S. invading forces in Puerto Rico declared in July 1898, "We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves but to your property, to promote your prosperity, and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government."

The truth behind these false and condescending words by the new occupiers came out in another proclamation the very next day. This statement instructed the military commanders to make sure that the people obeyed the authority of the U.S.--"the power of the military occupant being absolute and supreme and immediately operating upon the political conditions of the inhabitants."

In December 1898 the U.S. signed a treaty with Spain--giving the U.S. outright possession of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Cuba was not officially annexed, but it became a U.S. colony for all intents and purposes. When the independence movement in the Philippines rose up in 1899 against the new colonial rulers, the U.S. poured in half its armed forces and massacred hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the course of crushing the revolt.

A Century of Colonial Oppression
and People's Resistance

After the invasion with guns came the invasion with the Almighty Dollar. The U.S. monopoly capitalists saw their newly acquired colonial possessions as an opportunity to exploit labor, plunder resources and make profits. They set out to reshape whole cultures, economies and societies to serve their imperialist interests.

The colonial military regime in Puerto Rico made the use of Spanish, the language of the people, illegal in schools and other institutions. The national flag of the Puerto Rican people was banned; anyone caught displaying it was jailed.

U.S. interests bought up large parts of the island, ruining the small farmers and leaving many with no choice but to work on the giant sugar plantations and tobacco and coffee farms which produced for the export market. In the 1940s and '50s, U.S. firms took advantage of low wages in Puerto Rico to set up factories to assemble manufactured goods for export. But large numbers of people were unable to find any work--and over the years, many Puerto Ricans have been forced to leave their homeland and live in the barrios and housing projects of the U.S. Today Puerto Rico is a major site for the manufacture of medicine--providing 50 percent of U.S. pharmaceutical imports. The average wage in manufacturing jobs in Puerto Rico is 60 percent of the average in the U.S., so pharmaceutical corporations reap huge profits.

The U.S. also turned Puerto Rico into an important military outpost. The U.S. military used bases in Puerto Rico to practice and launch the invasions of the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983 and Haiti in 1994. Today, the U.S. has 13 military bases in Puerto Rico to threaten the Caribbean and Latin America. The U.S. has taken over a whole island, Vieques, and turned it into a testing range for its missiles and bombs.

U.S. Out of Puerto Rico!

For a hundred years, the U.S. imperialists have kept the people of Puerto Rico in chains. They have robbed the Puerto Ricans of their land, wrecked the agriculture of the island, suppressed the culture of the people, and driven many to the cities of the U.S. This oppressive situation has given rise to constant resistance and powerful movements for independence and national liberation.

In the upsurge of the 1960s and '70s, new organizations rose to fight for Puerto Rican independence, based on the island itself as well as in the Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. The U.S. government used all kinds of political police methods to hunt down revolutionary activists and target these movements. Many independentista fighters remain unjustly imprisoned, persecuted and subjected to brutal torture within the U.S. prison system today.

On the 100th anniversary of the U.S. takeover, the just struggle of the Puerto Rican people for independence continues against the colonial status that is still imposed on them.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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