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History, Commonwealth Status

The new constitution gave Puerto Ricans much greater control over their own affairs. It maintained an elected governor as chief executive, and an elected, two-house legislature. The governor would appoint officials in the executive and judicial branches (except the judges of the U.S. District Court). The governor and the legislature had authority over the commonwealth’s education, health, and social welfare systems, while the U.S. government maintained control of the island’s defense, trade agreements, postal system, and foreign relations. Furthermore, branches of the U.S. military kept a presence on the island at U.S. military installations.

However, commonwealth status did not satisfy all Puerto Ricans; some still insisted on independence. In March 1954 four nationalists fired shots into the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five members.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico achieved rapid economic and social improvements throughout the next decade. The island’s unemployment rate declined (although it was still high by U.S. standards) while private investment to the island increased. In addition, Puerto Rico’s gross national product (GNP, the total value of goods and services flowing through the economy) increased by an average of 5 percent a year between 1950 and 1960. This was a very impressive rate of economic growth, and the electorate apparently approved of the progress. In the elections of 1956 and 1960 the party responsible for commonwealth status—the PPD—won a majority of the votes.

On July 25, 1962, the tenth anniversary of the commonwealth, Governor Munoz Marin proposed a referendum to determine the future status of Puerto Rico. However, Munoz Marin had come to the conclusion that for the PPD to be a vital political force in the future, it needed new leadership. Munoz did not seek reelection as governor in 1964. The party’s new candidate, Roberto Sanchez Vilella, became Puerto Rico’s second elected governor. The referendum was held in 1967, with more than two-thirds of the people approving commonwealth status.

In the 1970s Puerto Rico’s economic growth stopped under the impact of worldwide inflation and a recession in the U.S. economy. The GNP declined, and unemployment, high in the best of times, rose sharply. Largely because of these economic problems, the PPD candidate was defeated, and the candidate of the New Progressive Party (PNP), Carlos Romero Barcelo, was elected governor in 1976. Romero, a firm advocate of statehood for Puerto Rico, chose to play down the statehood issue. After the 1980 elections, he retained his office by only a narrow margin while the PPD scored impressive victories in legislative and mayoral contests.

Rafael Hernandez Colon, the PPD candidate, overwhelmingly defeated Romero Barcelo in 1984 and won reelection in 1988. Four years later the governorship and control of the legislature passed to the pro-statehood PNP led by Pedro Rossello. Rossello had promised during his campaign to reduce taxes for the middle class and small businesses and to hold a referendum regarding Puerto Rico’s ties to the United States.

The referendum, authorized by the U.S. Congress, was held in November 1993. Of the choices of commonwealth, statehood, or independence, Puerto Ricans voted—by a very narrow margin—to maintain their commonwealth relationship with the United States. The final tally was 49 percent for commonwealth, 46 for statehood, and 4 for independence. (About 1 percent of the votes were null.)

The Puerto Rican economy suffered several setbacks in the mid-1990s. Hurricane Hortense swept through the island in the fall of 1996, killing at least 20 people and causing extensive damage to homes, businesses, and crops. In 1996 the U.S. Congress, facing budgetary problems at home, voted to end tax breaks for American companies that established businesses or invested profits in Puerto Rico, and to phase out over a ten-year period incentives for companies already established in Puerto Rico.

Rossello remained a popular governor and was reelected for a second term in 1996. In December 1998 voters took part in another referendum to decide the island’s future status. Although Governor Rossello and the PNP urged voters to support statehood for Puerto Rico, about 53 percent of voters rejected statehood.

In April 1999 a U.S. Marine jet pilot accidentally killed a Puerto Rican civilian during a practice bombing run at the naval bombing range on the island of Vieques. This incident aroused widespread opposition to the U.S. military presence on Vieques, and more than 85,000 people marched in San Juan to protest the resumption of any military exercises on the island.

In November 2000 Sila M. Calderon of the PPD was elected governor of Puerto Rico. Calderon, the first female governor of the commonwealth, pledged to work to halt the U.S. Navy’s exercises on Vieques and to remove the Navy presence from that area. In June 2001 U.S. president George W. Bush announced that the Navy would end military exercises on Vieques by May 2003. However, protesters continued to demand that the Navy halt its exercises immediately.

 

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