A photo provided by Puerto Rico's State Historic Preservation Office of the Ballaja Barracks in San Juan after the US bombardment of 1898. EFE/ Courtesy of Puerto Rico's State Historic Preservation Office/File EDITORIAL USE ONLY/ONLY AVAILABLE TO ILLUSTRATE THE NEWS ITEM IT ACCOMPANIES (MANDATORY CREDIT)

Puerto Rico: An uncertain future 125 years after US invasion

By Marina Villen

Jorge Rodríguez Beruff, a publisher of several works of history and former dean of the College of General Studies of the University of Puerto Rico's Rio Piedras campus, poses for a photo during an interview with Efe on 21 July 2023 in San Juan. EFE/Marina Villen

San Juan, Jul 25 (EFE).- The United States invaded Puerto Rico 125 years ago during the Spanish-American War, bringing an end to Spanish sovereignty over the island and bringing it into the US orbit.

Around 16,000 US troops launched their offensive through the southern town of Guanica on July 25, 1898, an attack that came after the US had blockaded San Juan for months.

“The invasion of Puerto Rico occurred after Spain was defeated militarily in the war because it had lost the battle of Santiago (Cuba) and of Manila (Philippines),” Jorge Rodriguez Beruff, a author of several works of history and former dean of the College of General Studies of the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus, told Efe.

He explained that after the fall of Santiago de Cuba in early July 1898, Gen. Nelson Miles was ordered to command an expedition to Puerto Rico.

Although the war had already been won, the US had long planned to conquer the island for commercial and economic reasons and because of its strategic value.

“The decision (to invade) wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, but rather there was a geo-strategic interest in having and retaining Puerto Rico as a place of strategic value during peace negotiations with Spain,” the historian said, noting its geographic location in the northeastern Caribbean Sea.

Those negotiations culminated in the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on Dec. 10, 1898, and marked the end of Spain’s overseas empire and the acquisition by the US of Puerto Rico and Spain’s Pacific possessions.


The decision to start the invasion at Guanica Bay, on Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast, was taken because it allowed the US to take control of the entire island, Rodriguez Beruff said.

Additionally, a US spy had earlier observed that few Spanish troops were located in the south and that opposition to Spanish rule was greater in that region than in San Juan.

US troops moved in four columns toward the north in their bid to seize full control of the island, encountering scant resistance from Spanish troops and Puerto Rican militias, although some skirmishes occurred in Guanica, Yauco, Guayama, Coamo and Asomate.

“As soon as the (Spanish were) defeated in Cuba, you already knew what the outcome would be (in Puerto Rico). Many of those militias disbanded and didn’t fight. There were clashes but no big battles, because Spain for all practical purposes had already been defeated militarily,” the historian added.


The arrival of the Americans came shortly after Spain had authorized the formation in Puerto Rico of an autonomous government.

That move was a bid to placate the Creole class of large landowners, whose had been demanding greater autonomy as opposed to complete independence.

Puerto Rico’s leadership nevertheless decided to collaborate with the Americans, even though their expectations for greater liberties were frustrated by a restrictive regime imposed by the US.

“The first period was marked by military power, although academics and (Protestant) missionaries also participated to determine” how Puerto Rico would be brought into the US sphere of influence, Rodriguez Beruff said.

A political science professor who earned his PhD at York University in England, he recalled that after that first military government the enactment of the Foraker Act of 1900 established civilian government on the island of Puerto Rico.

Nevertheless, that administration was “a very restrictive form of government that allowed little space for Puerto Rican representation” for two decades.

“The military and other sectors didn’t want the populations of the new colonies to be integrated as US states because they had different cultures and races. They looked at the Caribbean through a racist lens,” he said.


According to the author of the book “Politica militar y dominacion, Puerto Rico en el contexto latinoamericano” (Military Policy and Domination: Puerto Rico in the Latin American Context) (1988), the government established on the island “was not one (intended to bring about a) transition to statehood but a colonial one.”

The US granted US citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, although they cannot vote in presidential elections unless they move to the US mainland.

And in 1952 the US Congress made the island a US commonwealth, a status that still exists today.

Puerto Rico has a certain degree of autonomy and a local government and legislature, but the US federal government maintains control over the island’s defense, borders, currency and diplomatic relations.

According to Rodriguez Beruff, Puerto Rico has recently come under increasing federal interference, exemplified by the imposition of a Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico to restructure the island’s massive public debt burden.

The then-Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives in December 2022 passed a bill outlining the terms for a binding referendum in which Puerto Rican voters could choose among three options: independence, sovereignty or US statehood.

That bill went nowhere in the Senate due to Republican opposition, but it was reintroduced in the House (now GOP-controlled) earlier this year under a new Congress. EFE