Puerto Rico and The Treaty of Paris

The Treaty of Peace between the U.S. and Spain signed in Paris and ratified by Congress in 1899 ended the Spanish American War. That war was an exercise in American “progressive imperialism” encouraged by scholars at Harvard and Yale whose writings were extolled in Congress, calling for the U.S. to export our democratic new age values and give the hope of freedom to people oppressed by old world colonialism.

Spain’s rule in Cuba just off our southeastern border was an example of what men like McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft pointed to with disdain as examples of corrupt hegemonism. So the U.S. flexed its muscle as an emerging world power and went to war, first “liberating” and then occupying Cuba and annexing Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.

The U.S. dictated terms to Spain, and Spain was forced to cede the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam to the U.S. as virtual prizes of war. This was not a real estate deal like the purchase of greater Louisiana from France or Alaska from Russia. We conquered, took possession and acquired sovereignty under the terms of the treaty of surrender by Spain.

Like Louisiana in 1803, Alaska in 1867, and Hawaii in 1900, in the case of Puerto Rico and the three territories annexed from Spain the U.S. acquired territory inhabited by non-citizen aliens who did not speak English or know mainstream U.S. cultural traditions. In the first three cases (Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii), Congress granted U.S. citizenship, as provided under Article III in the treaty for purchase of Louisiana, Article III of the treaty with Russia ceding Alaska, and Section 1 of the Act of Congress annexing Hawaii. As a result, based on U.S. citizenship these territories were incorporated into the Union under the U.S. Constitution and eventually became states.

The most important historical point to be made is that Congress initially denied U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico, because the treaty ceding sovereignty over Puerto Rico and the other two territories taken from Spain provided in Article IX that the “political status and civil rights of the inhabitants shall be determined by Congress.” That resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam were not incorporated or even governed directly under the U.S. Constitution. The so-called Insular Cases held that Congress could decide whether or not to apply federal law in the states or incorporated territories with U.S. citizens to the unincorporated territories inhabited by noncitizen native peoples.

That worked out in the Philippines, because after the U.S. killed over 100,000 native people who had fought Spanish and American rule in a war for independence, the U.S. agreed that the Philippines should be independent. But in Puerto Rico the Insular Cases became a real problem that continues today, because even after Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico in 1917, the courts still ruled that the territory was not incorporated, the U.S. Constitution did not apply and the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico could be ruled in the same way as non-citizens in the Philippines. Even though conferral of U.S. citizenship on a foreign population in Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii were interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court to mean those territories were incorporated into the Union under the U.S. Constitution, in the Balzac v. Puerto Rico case of 1922 the same court ruled conferral of U.S. citizenship did not incorporate or apply the U.S. Constitution in Puerto Rico.

As a result, Puerto Rico has been both benefited and exploited just like Hawaii and Alaska were before statehood, and just as the Philippines were before independence, but only Puerto Rico has been benefited and exploited without any end in sight based on the citizenship of the people. That legacy of Article IX of the Treaty of Paris as misinterpreted in the Balzac ruling is why Puerto Rico did not follow Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii into eventual statehood.

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