Constructing a Colonial People: Puerto Rico and the United States, 1898-1932 (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 81.1 (2001) 217-218



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Book Review

Constructing a Colonial People:
Puerto Rico and the United States, 1898-1932


Constructing a Colonial People: Puerto Rico and the United States, 1898-1932. By PEDRO A. CABÁN. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999. Tables. Bibliography. Index. xiv, 282 pp. Cloth, $60.00.

On 25 July 1898, the United States extended the Spanish-American War to Puerto Rico, in its effort to oust Spain from the Caribbean. Defeated, Spain sued for peace in August and the U.S. installed a military regime. The return to colonial rule, especially under the military, was a great disappointment to the islanders, who only months before had secured autonomy from Spain. The arduous struggle for self-rule dated back to 1809, when the island was first allowed to send representatives to the Spanish parliament.

What became of Puerto Rico with the arrival of the Americans is the topic Pedro A. Cabán explores in his study of the first three decades of U.S. colonization. The outcome is a clearly-written, well-documented history of a period filled with frustrations and contradictions for all concerned. Broad in scope and rich in detail, Cabán's book is difficult to summarize in a short review. It can be said, however, that the author achieves his goals: (1) he provides "a new interpretation" of the process by which the U.S. transformed Puerto Rico from a "a neglected backwater" of the Spanish empire into one of "its key props" in the western hemisphere; (2) he offers a series of contextual analyses that clarify not only the intent of U.S. policies, but the negative effects these often had on the colony; and (3) he documents the many ways the islanders protested the changes imposed on them by the U.S.

To differentiate his work from others that focus on all or part of this period, Cabán reviews and reinterprets dozens of primary documents, many never cited before, and newspaper accounts, and places them in relation to the exigencies of the U.S. economy and foreign policy. Through this interplay of forces and underlying [End Page 217] issues, the author creates a nuanced text far superior to anything on the subject until now.

Two points that merit highlighting are his discussions of the role played by the military government and the nature of the Puerto Rican resistance to U.S. colonization. The first, implanted by President McKinley between 1898 and 1900, was, according to Cabán, a much more important agent than previously thought. The military forces, the author argues, prepared the ground for the colonial government, by dismantling the existing (autonomous) government; requiring English as the language of instruction in the schools; replacing the courts and the legal structures; and punishing those who rejected any of these measures. No one, in my view, has demonstrated with such clarity the importance of this phase of American rule. The second point addresses a question that has troubled Puerto Rican scholars for some time: Why was Puerto Rican resistance against the U.S. so weak during and after the invasion? Employing political theory and much documentary evidence, Cabán explains that strong resistance to foreign penetration is more likely to occur when (1) the productive forces of the country are under the control of a unified national political elite, (2) the country has well-developed trade relations with powerful nations, (3) a proletariat, which despite its antagonism to the national property-owning class, can resist the social dislocations and economic disintegration that results from large-scale foreign investment, (4) a coherent nationalist ideology that convinces the workers that foreign capital threatens the dissolution of their material and social conditions, and (5) property owners who are politically united and have the capacity to lead other sectors in resisting foreign domination. In 1898 Puerto Rico lacked most of these conditions.

Olga Jiménez Wagenheim, Rutgers University

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