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Interlocked Destinies—the Unknown Story of the United States and Puerto Rico

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Interlocked Destinies—the Unknown Story of the United States and Puerto Rico

For the Caribbean island and the U.S. to understand their futures, both must look to the past.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Any “Top 10” list of things that unite Puerto Ricans easily starts with music. Details of the island’s past are preserved through elegant cadenzas of danza, soulful cuatro riffs, percussive interaction between bomba dancers and drummers, and much more. All these preserve the isle’s rich folklore—which has remained intact during its more than 100 years as a United States territory.

Source: Nestor A. Toro/The Real Truth
Caribbean Jewel: A centuries-old cobblestone road goes through a historical district of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

By the turn of the 21st century, however, rap-influenced reggaeton took over Puerto Rican airwaves. “Once reggaeton burst out of the barrio [low-income neighborhoods], it became impossible to repress,” the 2007 North American Congress on Latin America article “Reggaeton Nation” stated.

It added that this music “spoke directly to the social conditions prevalent in the country: outrageous unemployment rates of up to 65% in some towns, failing schools, government corruption, and widespread drug violence.”

With raunchy lyrics and hypnotic beats, reggaeton is the new sound for a different, much grimmer nation from the Puerto Rico of just a few decades ago, which Florida’s Sun Sentinel described as “the jewel of U.S. policy in Latin America.”

But if music unites Puerto Ricans, politics divide them. The status quo as an American commonwealth has been an issue of debate for more than 60 years. A minority wants it to become an independent country. Others want things to remain the same. Currently, Puerto Ricans hold U.S. passports and citizenship as well as have access to federal welfare benefits.

Still others claim it would be best for Puerto Rico to become part of the Union. As such, islanders would have the same rights as Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland including voting in presidential elections and active congressional representation in Washington.

The latest statehood referendum, held on November 6, 2012, surprised everyone. For the first time, a majority of islanders (61 percent) seemed to want to become the 51st star on the U.S. flag. But additional investigation revealed that the ballot questions were confusing, and the American Congress is expected to deem the vote invalid.

The U.S. and Puerto Rico have had intertwined histories since 1898. Puerto Ricans have fought alongside Americans in every military engagement since World War I. After their darkest hours in the Great Depression, both experienced a golden age in the 1950s—with the United States rising to incredible prominence.

Now those days are over and instead both have suffered years of decline. They are battling similar problems: high unemployment, skyrocketing debt, seemingly unwinnable drug wars, and a divided political landscape.

Yet the island’s unique past—especially its historical characteristic as a coveted sea gate in the Caribbean—points to the only possible way both the U.S. and Puerto Rico can secure their futures.

Melting Pot

Reggaeton has an ancestor called plena. This musical style, born around the southern town of Ponce in the late 1890s, also has a news-on-the-street factor.

Plena was described by music historian Lise Waxer: “…plena often recites in four-line verses daily events, gossip, tragedies, and national and international news, helping to explain its reference as the ‘public’s newspaper’” (Situating Salsa: Global Markets and Local Meanings in Latin Popular Music).

This musical genre encapsulates the melting-pot culture of Puerto Rico. The drum rhythms come from Africa by way of Barbados. The melodies come from Spain, with some having a flamenco flavor. The word plena likely comes from the English phrase “play now.” In addition, the gourd instrument guiro associated with the genre comes from the native Taino peoples.

Far and away, however, its two greatest influences are Spain and the U.S. BBC summed up these main characteristics: “Puerto Rico looks American, from the yellow school buses to a huge Macy’s department store. Even the design of the road signs is the same—except that the directions are in Spanish.

“However, it feels Hispanic; its culture and traditions have much more in common with Latin America than with the US and with some 85% of the population admitting to speaking very little English, it sounds it.”

This is understandable as Spain held the island for about 400 years. For much of that time, the Spanish Empire had a towering presence in Latin America.

Uncapturable Jewel

From the 1600s to the 1900s, Puerto Rico was a vital sea gate in the West Indies, and ships from the Spanish Armada traditionally stopped there whenever traveling to and from Europe.

Other forces recognized the crucial importance of the island, especially San Juan, and fought tooth and nail to wrest it from Spain—to no avail.

BBC Worldwide-owned lonelyplanet.com wrote, “In the golden age of piracy, Puerto Rico was revered by booty-seeking buccaneers like no other Spanish port. Everyone from daring British dandy Francis Drake to common cutthroats such as Blackbeard tried their luck against San Juan’s formidable defenses.”

“One of the colony’s earliest invaders, Francis Drake first arrived in Puerto Rico in 1595 in pursuit of a stricken Spanish galleon—holding two million gold ducats—that had taken shelter in San Juan harbor.”

While Drake had led the British Navy to a famous victory against the Spanish Armada less than a decade earlier, excessive cannon fire from the Spaniards forced him to retreat.

Three years later, 1,700 Britons returned on a revenge mission. A dysentery epidemic foiled the campaign.

Due to regular attacks, San Juan built up its defenses in the early 17th century and thwarted a bold assault by the Netherlands in 1625. Lonelyplanet.com stated: “Acting under the command of Captain Boudewijn Hendricksz, the Dutch fired over 4000 cannonballs into the city walls before landing 2000 men at La Puntilla. Although the invaders managed to occupy the city temporarily and even break into the Fortaleza palace, the Spanish continued to hold El Morro fort and, after less than a month, with Puerto Rican reinforcements arriving, Hendricksz beat a hasty retreat, razing the city as he went.”

France attempted to take the island in about 1665. The conquest was described by Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk in his book The History of Puerto Rico, in which he stated that the French “appeared off the coast with 3 ships, but one of the hurricanes so frequent in these latitudes came to the island’s rescue. The ships were stranded, and the surviving Frenchmen made prisoners.”

In 1678, a fleet of 22 British ships arrived offshore of San Juan and demanded that the city surrender. The attack was prevented when a hurricane destroyed every sea vessel, with only a handful of survivors.

Lonelyplanet.com reported another attempt in 1797 when “the British, at war again with the Spanish, tried their luck one last time. The armada, which consisted of over 60 ships and 10,000 men, was one of the largest invasion forces ever to take on the Spanish in the American territories, but after two weeks of often vicious fighting, the British commander Sir Ralph Abercromby withdrew in exasperation. Noble in defeat, Abercromby reported that San Juan could have resisted an attack force 10 times greater than the British had used.”

Complicating Abercromby’s offensive were 20,000 locals that banded together to repel the invaders.

In addition, Colombian strikes in 1819, 1825 and 1829 all failed.

No matter the size of the force or the tactics used, it seemed no one could take Puerto Rico from Spain.

Changing Hands

The city of Ponce is famous for another reason other than being the birthplace of plena. It was there U.S. forces first established their military headquarters in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The troops entered the city as easily as one dances to plena’s irresistible beat.

At that time, General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the offensive, issued the following proclamation: “In the prosecution of the war against the Kingdom of Spain by the people of the United States in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Puerto Rico. They come bearing the banner of freedom…They bring you the fostering arm of a free people, whose greatest power is in justice and humanity to all those living within its fold…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 bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government” (The Library of Congress).

Liberty. Justice. Humanity. The banner of freedom. Prosperity. These were all on the minds of Puerto Ricans after decades of neglect by Spain.

The American commanders, however, knew they had to now contend with some 7,000 Spanish soldiers who held the highest point on the island, the mountain town of Aibonito. It was sure to be a long, bloody battle. Repeated failures by Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Colombia echoed down the halls of history—and the campaign seemed doomed.

But the anticipated carnage never happened. Just before the Americans launched a surprise attack, sudden news of an armistice deal ended the fighting. With that, the U.S. had done what no other nation could in the more than 400 years of Spanish dominance in the region.

As part of war reparations, the Americans received Puerto Rico and Guam. The agreement also included Cuba, as long as the U.S. agreed to take on that nation’s debt. (Realize that in 1860, American President Abraham Lincoln had previously offered Spain $160 million for just the two largest of these islands.)

Yet the promises of liberty, justice and prosperity did not appear overnight. The U.S. was not yet the world superpower it would become. As one of the first noncontinental American territories, Washington did not seem to know what to do with Puerto Rico.

Regardless, Puerto Rico was truly a jewel in the Caribbean. An 1898 U.S. Department of Agriculture report stated: “The island of Puerto Rico is, as everyone knows, one of the richest and most fertile spots on earth; but its soil, after four centuries of occupation, is still underdeveloped. What cultivation has taken place would scarcely go by that name elsewhere. Modern methods, modern implements, and modern machinery will produce great results. But the political situation must change before anything can be done.”

Change did not occur quickly, and many of the same mistakes that happened on the mainland were mirrored in Puerto Rico—especially with monoculture farming.

Overproduction of sugar heavily taxed the soil. And natural disasters severely eroded the land. Between 1899 and 1929, four major hurricanes and two tsunamis wreaked havoc on the population and economy. For example, 1899’s Hurricane San Ciriaco killed 3,000 people.

These troubles all left the island teetering, and it was shoved over the edge by the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression.

From this point forward, Puerto Rico’s economic prosperity, or lack thereof, was tied to the United States.

Golden Age

The story of these two nations took a sharp turn around the middle of the century. World War II stimulated manufacturing, which sparked a renaissance in the island’s economy, as also happened to a greater extent on the U.S. mainland.

In 1949, Puerto Ricans elected their first governor, Luis Munoz Marin. A constitution followed in 1952. Highlighting its relationship with the U.S., the document opens, “We, the people of Puerto Rico, in order to organize ourselves politically on a fully democratic basis, to promote the general welfare, and to secure for ourselves and our posterity the complete enjoyment of human rights, placing our trust in Almighty God, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the commonwealth which, in the exercise of our natural rights, we now create within our union with the United States of America” (emphasis added).

Since then, the island has officially been a “Free Associate State” and no longer just a protectorate of the United States.

Significant development began to take off in the island from then on. Its fast industrial advancement was a microcosm of the American golden age of the 1950s. This coincided with a boom in popularity of Puerto Rican music.

Economy-boosting legislation began with “Operacion Manos a la Obra” (Operation Bootstrap), which made it easy for American companies to operate in the island with low wages, taxes and import fees.

In time, the economy ballooned. The 3,435-square-mile island was transformed from an agrarian society to a bustling industrial center. Soon it became home to giant pharmaceutical drug manufacturers, world-class rum, five-star hotels, baseball all-stars, boxing champions, and popular music.

Investors took notice. Even today “Puerto Rico is a prominent, popular seller of muni bonds,” Reuters reported. “U.S. investors like the debt’s fat yields, which come with unusual full exemption from federal, state and local income taxes. The island sold $4.82 billion of bonds in 2012’s first four months, or 40 percent more than California.”

It has been argued that there are downsides to being a commonwealth rather than a full state. A portion of Puerto Ricans feel to some degree like second-class citizens. Also, securing federal funding from Washington is more difficult because there is no direct representation in Congress.

NASA
Infrastructural contrast: Night lights show Puerto Rico’s marked development in comparison to other Caribbean islands.

Yet it is undeniable that Puerto Rico stands among the most developed nations in the Caribbean. The World Bank listed it as a “high-income economy” in the organization’s 2010 World Development Report. The region has a U.S.-style educational system. And tourists can drink water straight from the tap rather than having to boil it before consumption or rely solely on bottled water as is the case with most Latin American nations.

Another telling example comes from nighttime satellite photos of the Caribbean Sea. While almost every other island remains largely dim, Puerto Rico shines as a beacon of prosperity.

So what has set the “uncapturable jewel” apart from all other Caribbean nations?

Intertwined Destinies

To fully understand the implications of this island in world history, one must acknowledge the role of Spain before the United States, and British Empire, emerged on the world scene.

Historian Huxtable Elliott described how Spanish conquistadors portrayed themselves as “the heirs and successors of the Romans, conquering an even more extended empire, governing it with justice, and laying down laws which were obeyed to the farthest ends of the earth…The sixteenth-century Castilians saw themselves as a chosen, and therefore a superior, people, entrusted with a divine mission which looked towards universal empire as its goal. This mission was seen as a higher one than that of the Romans because it was set into the context of Catholic Christianity” (Spain and Its World, 1500-1700).

Since the first century AD, many nations and empires have used the banner of Christianity to support their causes.

While these facts of history are well-known, most are unaware that the Bible accurately detailed the rise and fall of many of these world powers long before any secular source could. The Book even foretold a time when the descendants of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham would emerge as “a nation and a company of nations” (Gen. 35:11) to inherit territories including those that once belonged to Spain.

The Bible explained that these nations would multiply greatly and obtain the strategic sea ports of their common enemies: “That in blessing I [God] will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate [including sea gates] of his enemies; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you [Abraham] have obeyed My voice” (Gen. 22:17-18).

Only two world powers have fit this description throughout history. The United States (a nation) and the British Empire (a company of nations). Both the Britons and Americans defeated Spain to become world empires and possess its precious “gates”—little more than 300 years apart.

At their apex, Britain and America had control over many of the world’s most coveted sea gates including the Suez and Panama canals, straits of Gibraltar and Hormuz, Singapore, Cape Horn, Malta, Cape of Good Hope, Hong Kong, Hawaii and the Philippines.

Where does Puerto Rico fit in all of this?

A closer look at the phrase “your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” in Genesis 22:17 reveals that in the original Hebrew language, the term gate means “an opening, that is…city, door, gate, port.”

And America got just that with Puerto Rico, which means “rich port” in Spanish.

In addition, the U.S. and England often obtained these territories through seemingly inexplicable means. Recall the ease with which America took the “uncapturable jewel.” As a parallel, a cash-strapped Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Purchase to America for about $15 million in 1803. Counting for inflation, if this sale were made today, this amounts to about 60 cents per acre!

In addition, think of how winds blew in Britain’s favor at the English Canal in 1588 to defeat a vastly superior Spanish Armada. To this day a famous medal from that 16th-century battle reads: “God blew with His winds, and they were scattered.”

History is replete with examples of the Creator’s blessings for this great nation and company of nations.

Secret to National Prosperity

While America and Britain may attribute their success to having developed the most powerful militaries and economies in history, it was truly due to God’s promise. Scripture makes plain that these blessings were a direct result of Abraham’s actions alone.

This was confirmed when the promises were passed on to the patriarch’s son Isaac: “…I [God] will perform the oath which I swore unto Abraham your father…Because that Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (Gen. 26:3, 5).

More details were recorded when Isaac later passed this birthright onto his son Jacob: “Therefore God give you of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine…cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be he that blesses you” (Gen. 27:28-29).

Puerto Rico has come to experience many of these blessings as a U.S. commonwealth. Some of this is due to the incredible loyalty of the island’s inhabitants. For example, Puerto Ricans have gladly served—often with high honors—in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and every military engagement since.

God has certainly fulfilled His promise to bless America (for Abraham’s obedience) and Puerto Rico (for their continuing support).

Yet this fulfilled promise means that the Creator is no longer required to continue blessing these two nations. Both are now experiencing the obvious withdrawal of God’s hand.

Constant negative news reports make this clear in the United States, as they do in Puerto Rico. NPR summarized this by stating: “Puerto Rico’s population is declining. Faced with a deteriorating economy, increased poverty and a swelling crime rate, many Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island for the U.S. mainland.”

For the time being, the American continent offers a form of relief, but this will not continue long.

To return this pair of nations to prominence requires the same thing it did in the time of Abraham: obedience. The recent prosperity of the U.S. and Puerto Rico proves that obeying God leads to abundance!

One reason God wants nations to obey Him is revealed in Deuteronomy 4. Hundreds of years after Abraham, Moses explained this to the nation of Israel: “Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me…Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding…” (vs. 5-6).

Moses continued by saying other nations would see the abundance produced by God’s Way and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who has God so near unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon Him for?” (vs. 6-7).

In other words, God wants it to be obvious to all peoples that His way of life is the greatest treasure any nation can procure. Only His Law produces abundant blessings and brings true prosperity.

Realize an important point. The United States, and Britain with it, first received national blessings unconditionally. While there were periods of generosity and kindness, these brother nations have not been obeying the God of the Bible and have not exhibited godly obedience.

Today, without national repentance, God’s blessings will continue to slip away. Losing control of vital sea gates is one proof of this. Waning economic prominence and military might is another.

For more proof that Abraham’s blessings were conferred on the U.S. and United Kingdom, and what is coming for these peoples, read the thorough and conclusive book America and Britain in Prophecy.

Blessings for All

While the Bible does carry some bad news, its pages are not primarily filled with doom and gloom. In reality, the greatest theme of this Book is how the entire world will be blessed when it learns to obey God—and soon!

Notice: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’ s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations”—including the peoples of Puerto Rico!—“shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths…” (Isa. 2:2-3).

At that time, music will be as important as it is in Puerto Rico today, and nations will proclaim God’s blessings through song: “That Your way may be known upon earth, Your saving health among all nations. Let the people praise You…O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for You shall judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth…” (Psa. 67:2-4).

When any nation applies God’s way of life, their example can shine as brightly as Puerto Rico does from the Caribbean in the night. Such a model nation would make any onlooker declare, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people”!


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