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Collection Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Perspectives

Radicalism and Repression

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Puerto Rico and Cuba remained the last two Spanish colonies in the Americas. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both islands had served as military posts in numerous wars between Spain and the other European powers for control of the region, and both served during the early 1800s as the final outposts in Spain's military strategies to regain control of its once vast empire in the Western Hemisphere. By 1825, however, because all other former Spanish possessions on the American continents had gained their independence, Spain began to increase its political and economic control over Puerto Rico and Cuba in order to suppress any threats to Spanish authority.

"On the Road to Lares." [Detail] A recent campaign in Puerto Rico by the Independent Regular Brigade under the command of Brig. General Schwan. General Collections, Library of Congress..

During the 1830s, Spain decreed that its overseas possessions be governed by Leyes Especiales, or special decrees, which local authorities, with few exceptions, used to rule at will. At the same time, Spain's own political instability reinforced local authorities' perception of the threat of rebellion in Puerto Rico. The result was a massive military build-up on the island, with high levels of repression, press censorship, and suspension of civil rights throughout most of the last century of Spanish rule. In addition, Spain imposed high tariffs and taxes on imports and exports to finance and sustain its decaying Armada. Among the most repressive governors of Puerto Rico during this time were Juan Prim y Prats (1847-1848), who was impeached by the Spanish Cortes(parliament) in 1848 for abuse of power; and Romualdo Palacio González (1887), whose tenure as governor supported the practice known as compontes whereby many anti-Spanish leaders and their followers were tortured and imprisoned by the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil).

Another form of intimidation for dissidents, used mostly during the second half of the nineteenth century, was exile. Among the many Puerto Ricans who spent years in exile were Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances and Eugenio María de Hostos. Because they espoused ideas deemed radical at the time--including independence from Spain, abolition of slavery, and Hostos's call for an Antillian Federation--both these Puerto Rican leaders were forced to spend most of their adult lives in exile.

In general, Spanish authorities increased their repressive policies in Puerto Rico during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this they were influenced by growing concern among conservative groups (mostly Spanish-born residents on the island known aspeninsulares), rebellions against other colonial powers in the region, and--especially--the Cuban War of Independence.