Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age


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In Search of a National Identity:
Nineteeth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico

Politics and Reform in the Later Nineteenth Century

Between 1869 and 1873, a liberal government in Spain extended ample liberties to the Caribbean, including the rights of Cubans and Puerto Ricans to send representatives to the Spanish Cortes (parliament). Puerto Rico was given the status of Diputación Provincial (making the island a province of Spain) and the way was paved for the establishment of the first national political parties.

In 1870 the Spanish government approved the Ley Moret, a decree that gave freedom to all slaves who were sixty or older and all slaves belonging to the state. It also banned corporal punishment in both Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, some ten thousand slaves were freed out of a total slave population of approximately forty thousand. According to a speech given by Rafael María de Labra, Cuban representative in the Spanish parliament, this law was never enforced in Cuba, where the proportion of slaves was much larger than in Puerto Rico (an estimated 370,000 slaves out of a total population of approximately 950,000) and sugarcane production was more dependent on slave labor.

While Puerto Rico's pro-independence movement remained disbanded and most of its leadership was still in exile in 1869, conservative and liberal factions took power in the local political arena, initiating a more open debate on the island's political status and the social demands of the times. The conservative faction, represented chiefly by peninsulares, continued to support the status quo, favoring slavery and all the privileges granted to the predominantly Spanish ruling class. The liberal faction, on the other hand, called for the total integration of Puerto Rico as a province of Spain, which would have extended to the island and all its citizens all the privileges of the then-liberal Spanish regime. Liberals also continued to support the abolition of slavery and political reforms at the local (municipal) level.

In November 1870, the liberals founded the Partido Liberal Reformista (Liberal Reform Party), led by Román Baldorioty de Castro, José Julián Acosta, José Celis Aguilera, and Pedro Gerónimo Goico, among others. Its leadership, however, was divided into two factions. One supported total assimilation with Spain, while the other, the autonomistas, called for self-government under the Spanish flag in a political arrangement similar to that between Britain and Canada. The newspaper El Progreso served as a vehicle for public expression and debate of the liberals' views.

Soon thereafter, the conservatives founded the Partido Liberal and purchased the newspaper Boletín Mercantil to become the party's official organ for disseminating its conservative views. Under the leadership of José Pérez Moris, José Ramón Fernández, and Pablo Ubarri, the party changed its name first to Partido Español Incondicional (Spanish Unconditional Party) and then in 1880 to Partido Republicano Español (Spanish Republican Party).

Although Puerto Rican representatives to the Spanish parliament succeeded in obtaining political reforms during this period, in practice local Spanish authorities kept a tight grip on the island under the threat of rumors from abroad about secessionist plots and potential insurrections. Censorship of the press, government repression, and political persecution were particularly effective in silencing the liberal camp. Spanish authorities on the island believed that newspapers contributed to the spread of new ideas that could seriously threaten the established order.

In 1873, the Spanish constitutional monarchy was replaced by a republican government. Although short-lived, the new Spanish Republic approved the abolition of slavery on the island in March 22, 1873. While the new law was considered a step forward by Puerto Rican liberals, it did not provide for immediate and total freedom of the island's black population. Efforts for further liberal reforms on the island were aborted in 1874, when the Spanish Republic fell as the result of a military coup, leading to the return of the Spanish monarchy. Spanish authorities once again appointed as governor José Laureano Sanz, who immediately overturned all established democratic practices. Thus, Puerto Rico returned to its colonial status, ruled by special laws dictated by a repressive ruler.


Exterior of a church.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon "San Franscico Church, San Juan; the oldest church in the city." [Detail] The history of Puerto Rico, from the Spanish discovery to the American occupation. General Collections, Library of Congress.

A statue in a town square.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon "Statue of Ponce de Leon, San Juan." [Detail] The history of Puerto Rico, from the Spanish discovery to the American occupation. General Collections, Library of Congress.

A gated entrance in a tall stone wall.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon "Only remaining gate of the city wall, San Juan." [Detail] The history of Puerto Rico, from the Spanish discovery to the American occupation. General Collections, Library of Congress.

An arched wall with a view of palm trees framed in one archway.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon "Ruins of Capárra, the first capital." [Detail] The history of Puerto Rico, from the Spanish discovery to the American occupation. General Collections, Library of Congress.