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Understanding Puerto Rico: Classroom Discussion Questions – History

In our continuing series of classroom discussion questions, we examine the history of Puerto Rico, particularly focusing on its political status.

Q: When was Puerto Rico first inhabited?
A: Puerto Rico was inhabited by the Taino people perhaps as early as 900 BC.

Q: When was Puerto Rico first visited by Europeans?
A: Columbus landed on the islands of Puerto Rico in 1493. Ponce de Leon followed in 1508, having been granted a charter by the Queen of Spain. During the 1500s, the islands came to be known as “Puerto Rico,” or “Rich Port.”

Q: Did Puerto Rico ever gain independence from Spain?
A: No.  A small independence uprising against Spain failed. Spain gave the territory substantial autonomy at the end of 1897 but Puerto Rico continued to be a Spanish colony until it became a territory of the United States the following year.

Q: When did the United States first possess Puerto Rico?
A: The United States took Puerto Rico from Spain in July 1898 during the Spanish-American War. In the treaty that ended the war later that year, Spain ceded Puerto Rico along with the Philippines and Guam to the United States. (Spain also gave up control of Cuba in favor of the United States through the treaty with the intention that Cuba would become independent.)

Q: Is Puerto Rico a colony of the United States?
A: Puerto Rico has never been labeled a colony by the Government of the U.S., which does not use the term for its territories. Many people, however, do refer to Puerto Rico as a colony.  The United Nations ‘Decolonization’ Committee has called upon the United States annually to develop Puerto Rico into a self-governing status, which requires voting representation that makes Puerto Rico’s national laws as well as local self-government. The latest committee resolution was passed in February 2018.  The U.N. General Assembly, however, has not approved the resolutions. Under pressure from the U.S. and with a large number of abstaining votes, the U.N. took Puerto Rico off its list of non-self-governing territories for which nations have to report annually but this did not change Puerto Rico’s territory status.  In the early 20th century, a series of legal decisions were made that outlined the relationship of Puerto Rico and the United States. In legal terms, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. This legal relationship has never been changed.

Q: Has independence been considered for Puerto Rico?
A: There has been some support for independence in Puerto Rico but the percentage of people supporting independence has dwindled to the lower single digits. Bills for  independence were introduced in Congress several times during the first half of the 20th century. None passed. Support for nationhood in an association with the United States that either nation could end has grown but does not approach support for U.S. statehood.

Q: Has Puerto Rico ever asked for independence from the United States?
A: Puerto Rico has neither requested independence nor accepted it when it was proposed. There have been six plebiscites in Puerto Rico on the question of status, in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012, 2017, and 2020. Independence has never received more than 5% of the vote.

Q: Has Puerto Rico ever asked for statehood?
A: Statehood has received increasingly large votes in each plebiscite: 38.9% in 1967, 46.3% in 1993, 46.5% in 1998, 61.2% in 2012, and 97% in 2017. In 2018, Puerto Rico officially requested statehood. In 2020, a clear majority said “Yes” to statehood.

While many more events have taken place in and around Puerto Rico, these questions should provide a good discussion of the political status of the island throughout its history. Teachers may want to challenge students to find the answers to the questions through research, or use the questions to identify confusion about Puerto Rico’s political position.


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