The history of Puerto Rico can be divided into three periods. The first one covers the earliest civilizations that ruled the Island of Boriquén; the second two are framed in the context of the relationship with Spain and the United States. The Hispanic period includes the formative centuries, the 16th and 18th centuries, and the 19th century, which marked the beginning of the modernization process and the emergence of a national consciousness. The third period is the period of United States rule, which began in 1898, and has continued until now. This period is characterized, among other things, by a bittersweet relationship between the colonial power and a people struggling for political equality and socioeconomic development, while defending their own culture.
Puerto Rico has a rich and complex history, in which there has been change and continuity and affirmation and contradiction. There are five salient features that can be used to draw a profile of this evolutionary process: 1) the strategic value of the island, 2) economic subordination, 3) migratory movements, 4) the prevalent autonomist philosophy, and 5) the existence of a cultural nation that acts as a counterweight to the absence of political sovereignty.
A strategic stronghold
Puerto Rico’s geographic location in the West Indian archipelago destined the island to a frontier role since the time of the earliest Amerindian settlers. Conquered and colonized by Spain since 1508, at first the island was used as a base for further exploration, sharing with the other Greater Antilles the role of springboard and a place for acclimatization before adventures were undertaken on the continent. The island also served as a barrier against any offensive launched by the first settlers from the Lesser Antilles and as a center for defensive operations in the confrontations against them. The hostilities in the Caribbean increased with the appearance of the European nations who were Spain’s rivals.
This threatening atmosphere defined Puerto Rico’s position in the Spanish empire and the manner in which it was governed. Because of the Island’s strategic importance, after several unsuccessful attempts at different civilian political structures, the military government under a Captain General prevailed. The highest political position, the civilian governorship and the highest military position, that of the Captain General, were held by the same person, with very few exceptions, from 1583 until 1898, when the autonomous regime was established. Political power was subordinate to the military.
Puerto Rico was a military base of the first order for 400 years, and as such, it was part of the military defenses of the gateway to the empire. There were various military and paramilitary forces on the Island, and during the wars of independence waged by the Spanish colonies during the 19th century, Puerto Rico was used to further the interests of the colonial power. The ultimate expression of its military condition can be appreciated in the capital, San Juan, one of the most important walled and fortified bastions in Spanish America.
Version: 08011701 Rev. 1