The Ascent and Decline of an American Colony
This essay compares two transformative periods in Puerto Rican history: 1898–1900 and 2016–2019. These periods bookend the history of US colonial rule, which is marked by Puerto Rico’s conversion into a lucrative commercial and strategically significant asset of the evolving American empire, and its subsequent descent into a debt-ridden, poverty-stricken, ecologically damaged territorial possession of questionable value to the United States. The periods are also marked by the imposition of two different colonial state forms. From 1898 to 1900 the United States imposed a military regime that ruled Puerto Rico by decree. In 2016 the United States imposed a financial control board that stripped the colonial state of the limited autonomy it enjoyed since 1952 (PROMESA). During both periods Puerto Rico was devastated by major hurricanes, San Ciriaco (1898) and María (2017). The hurricanes created an array of challenges for the colonial state and ultimately contributed to a rethinking of colonial policy. The essay shows that while the shifting requirements of the US state and capital trigger changes in colonial policy, natural disasters expose the fault lines of this policy.
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