GUANICA, Puerto Rico (AP) A U.S. Navy boat steamed into view,
fired off a three-pound gun and sent all of Guanica Spanish
soldiers, townsfolk, stray dogs scattering for the scrubby green
As simple as that: The U.S. conquest of Puerto Rico had begun.
Today, a McDonald's anchors the top of Calle 25 de Julio, named
for that historic July 25 a century ago. And at the foot of this
street of pastel houses, facing the sleepy Caribbean harbor where the
Americans arrived, a young man lounged on his porch one recent noon,
a sun-bleached Stars and Stripes tacked to the wall behind him, and
told a visitor what many in Guanica envision for Puerto Rico.
"I want my beautiful island to become one of the states of the
United States of America," declared Efrem Cancel-Millan.
As simple as that: The 51st state in the 21st century.
But how easily will Puerto Rico now conquer America?
One hundred years after the U.S. military in the name of
"manifest destiny" rounded up pieces of the Spanish empire in a
109-day war, America still rules a far-flung collection of five
island territories whose destinies are anything but manifest.
And Puerto Rico, with 3.8 million people the most populous of the
world's remaining colonies, may have the least predictable future of
"They're a quirk of history," the Interior Department's Allen P.
Stayman, the Washington official chiefly responsible for territorial
affairs, said of the islands.
"They never were a good fit. ... It's a 19th century status in
the 20th century."
The four other territories three in the Pacific, another in the
Caribbean will follow the growing debate over Puerto Rico's
political status. Each has its own unique problems and aspirations:
- Guam (population 146,000), also seized in the Spanish-American
War, doesn't seek statehood or independence, but is campaigning for
- The Northern Mariana Islands (64,000), taken from Japan in World
War II, has clashed with Washington over local control of immigration
and minimum wages, basis of a booming garment industry built on labor
- American Samoa (60,000), ceded to the United States by local
chiefs in 1900, is an economic backwater where the local government's
fiscal mismanagement has become a long-running scandal.
- The U.S. Virgin Islands (114,000), sold to America by Denmark in
1917, has an even worse fiscal record. Washington's auditors are now
investigating whether the present government mishandled millions in
America did not take on its island "empire" with an easy mind.
The treaty with Spain that ended the 1898 war, turning the United
States into a colonial power, squeaked through the U.S. Senate by two
In Puerto Rico, an independence movement grew in the early
decades, and was later suppressed by governors appointed by
Washington. In the bloodiest incident, the Ponce Massacre of 1937,
police killed 17 unarmed nationalist protesters.
A temporary compromise was reached in 1952. The island was given
limited autonomy and dubbed a "commonwealth," in which Puerto Ricans
elect a local government and pay no federal taxes, but have no vote
in Congress and pay substantial local taxes.
From a desperately poor island of coffee and sugar plantations,
Puerto Rico has evolved into an industrial society, with the help of
federal tax breaks for U.S. corporations. Acres of shantytowns gave
way to suburbs, shopping malls and resorts.
But almost as many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the U.S.
mainland in search of work as remain on the island. Two-thirds of
those still here rely on some form of welfare. And their colonial
status still grates.
One example: After Congress balked at a Reagan administration idea
in the 1980s to cut food stamp benefits in the 50 states, it imposed
the cuts on Puerto Rico alone.
Now even one of the architects of the commonwealth structure, Jose
Trias Monge, warns its time may be running out, unless Washington's
power over island life is reduced.
"Commonwealth status will in all probability soon lose its
support," the retired Puerto Rico chief justice writes in an
influential new book on the status debate.
That debate heated up in 1993 when an aggressive young governor
staged an island-wide plebiscite on the question.
Gov. Pedro Rossello said the time had come for statehood, to end
Puerto Ricans' role as "disenfranchised stepchildren" of the American
family. Pro-commonwealth politicians countered that their rival
option, "enhanced" commonwealth, could bring both more welfare aid
and greater economic flexibility to the island.
By just two percentage points, plebiscite voters preferred a
stronger commonwealth over statehood. Independence received just 4
percent in the non-binding vote.
Rossello, undaunted, is now pushing legislation in Washington to
stage a more authoritative, federally sponsored plebiscite that
could, if the island's voters and the U.S. Congress agree, lead to
statehood within 10 years.
The 1898 takeover "came with a promise of liberty and democracy
for Puerto Rico," Rossello said in an interview at La Fortaleza, the
grand 16th-century governor's mansion in San Juan. "At the end of
that 100-year period, we are finally asking that that promise of full
democracy be implemented."
He's confident "significant majorities" will develop in Puerto
Rico for statehood. But even if he's right, the picture in
Washington is less inspiring: After barely passing in the House on a
209-208 vote in March, the plebiscite bill is all but stalled in the
Congressional opponents object to even opening the door to the
possibility of a Spanish-speaking state. They complain that full
social benefits for Puerto Ricans might cost the government $3
billion more a year. They worry that statehood might incite violent
resistance by Puerto Rican "independentistas."
Many are also wary for a purely political reason. Six new Puerto
Rican members of Congress, almost certainly Democrats, would take
House seats away from other states.
Surveying the opposition, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., long
involved in territorial matters, questions whether even a resounding
Puerto Rican vote for statehood would mean much.
"I'm not convinced the Congress of the United States would honor
that commitment," he said in Washington.
Rejection is just fine with Ruben Berrios, head of the Puerto
Rican Independence Party.
"When the statehooders get their first kick, which they will get
soon, they will realize the only way out is independence, the dignity
of independence," he said.
Political scientist Lynn-Darrell Bender sees some basis in that.
"Even the statehooders deep down are 'independentistas'," said
Bender, of San Juan's Interamerican University. "They love their
And their country is Puerto Rico.
Television's "Seinfeld" inadvertently demonstrated that recently
when the character Kramer stomped on a burning Puerto Rican flag and
ignited outrage offstage from New York to San Juan.
That single-star flag, fluttering everywhere on the island, is not
the only symbol of national pride. Puerto Rico has an anthem, "La
Boriquena," that every child learns. It fields its own Olympic team.
It cheers for Miss Puerto Rico as she vies with Miss USA for the Miss
But Puerto Ricans cling jealously to another birthright as well,
their U.S. citizenship. It's a symbol of security particularly,
everyone acknowledges, the security of welfare and other U.S.
That's one reason people like Anibal Acevedo Vila, head of the
pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, believe Puerto Ricans will
not opt for independence.
Instead, "the time has come for a fully autonomous and democratic
commonwealth," Acevedo Vila said. "It would finally balance our
identity as a people with the U.S. citizenship we cherish, and would
give Puerto Rico the economic tools we need in the next century for
our own development."
The "tools" he wants include the sovereign-like power to make
economic agreements with other nations, to draw new investment and
Jobs will be needed. Congress voted in 1996 to phase out the tax
break supporting the Puerto Rico operations of U.S.-based
pharmaceutical and other manufacturers, whose factories employ about
10 percent of Puerto Rican workers.
Leading San Juan economist Elias R. Gutierrez estimates 14,000
potential and existing jobs have already been lost, in an economy
with 13 percent unemployment.
The debate will go on, not least in this quiet south coast town on
July 25, when Mayor Edwin Galarza Quinones expects an invasion of
50,000 people statehooders, commonwealthers, independentistas for
the ceremony marking the centennial.
Galarza, a member of Rossello's New Progressive Party, stands
squarely for statehood, which he believes would produce a flood of
federal aid. "If we became a state, I could do 100 projects for
Guanica bridges, parks, roads," he said.
His elderly friend and town historian Pedro Juan Vargas, whose
father witnessed the 1898 invasion as a boy, is just as squarely for
"My father always said the United States had no moral right to
deprive Puerto Rico of self-government," Vargas said.
But others around Guanica, like the great middle ground of Puerto
Ricans everywhere, think more about their own futures than the
island's. And their futures are often tied to the United States.
Chatting with teen-age friends down by the harbor, Carrie Cruz
Troche told an American visitor her plans.
"To study more English. It's very important. And then to go to
the States. I want to be a teacher there," said the 17-year-old
student, standing where Americans landed in her country a century ago
and plotting her own personal invasion of theirs.
How U.S. Territories View America
The Associated Press
(Copyright © 1998. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
What governors say about status of their U.S. territories:
"Uncle Sam has been infinitely more supportive of our aspirations
as a people than Mother Spain ever was. Be that as it may, however,
with the centennial of the Spanish-American War now upon us, the
people of Puerto Rico do remain disenfranchised stepchildren within
the great American family."
Gov. Pedro Rossello of Puerto Rico.
"Any way you call it, we're a colony and it's embarrassing.
Nothing is in our hands. It's all in the United States' hands."
Gov. Carl Gutierrez of Guam.
"Because of the hurricanes, the feeling of the majority of the
Virgin Islanders is that it's a good thing that we are Americans,
because we got so much support from all areas in America."
Gov. Roy L. Schneider of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which suffered
major damage in hurricanes in 1989 and 1995.
Timeline of U.S. Territories
The Associated Press
(Copyright © 1998. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
A timeline of U.S. territories:
- 1898U.S. takes Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico from Spain in
- 1898Hawaii annexed by U.S.
- 1900Local chiefs cede two Samoan islands to U.S.
- 1917Denmark sells three Virgin Islands to U.S. for $25 million.
- 1935Philippines becomes self-governing U.S. commonwealth.
- 1937Police gunfire kills 17 in anti-U.S. march in Ponce, Puerto
- 1945World War II victory leaves U.S. with ex-Japanese colonies
- 1946Philippines gains independence.
- 1950Puerto Rican nationalists fail in bid to assassinate
- 1952Puerto Rico becomes self-governing U.S. commonwealth.
- 1954Puerto Rican nationalists open fire in U.S. House, wounding
- 1959Hawaii and Alaska become U.S. states.
- 1975Puerto Rican terrorist bomb kills four at New York's
- 1986Ex-Japanese islands held by U.S. under U.N. trusteeship
gain sovereignty, except for Northern Marianas, which choose to
become U.S. commonwealth.
- 1993In non-binding vote, Puerto Ricans narrowly favor
commonwealth status over statehood.