US Certainty

During the second half of the 19th century, the United States increasingly saw Puerto Rico as more than a sugar and rum shop. The spirit of Manifest Destiny, which led the westward expansion of the country, reached a fevered pitch. US generals also worried about British takeover of a number of small islands in the Lesser Antilles. Washington, they argued, needed a foothold in the Caribbean. Tabloid newspapers openly supported the Cuban independence cause and printed graphic stories of atrocities committed by Spain. After Cuban poet and patriot José Marti sparked a revolution on his island in 1895, the stage was set for the US to intervene. Perhaps anticipating the inevitable, Spain granted autonomy to Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1897, hoping to stave off the push for full independence. It was too late. US naval forces blocked Spanish access to Cuba, and after the US battleship Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in the Havana Harbor in February 1898, Congress approved a resolution calling for the immediate departure of all Spanish forces from Cuba. Spain declared war. It was a short and lopsided contest that forever changed the history of both Puerto Rico and the United States. The Spanish soon surrendered Cuba and on July 25,1898, exactly three months after the war began, US forces invaded the south shore of Puerto Rico, quickly ensuring control over the island and preempting a celebration of independence upon Spanish withdrawal there. Whereas the Cubans deserved independence, many Americans felt, Puerto Rico had not waged civil war against the Spanish and was therefore fair game. A July 11, 1898, article on the editorial page of The New York Times put it bluntly: "We are not pledged to give Puerto Rico independence, and she will have done nothing to entitle her to it at our hands."


Notice that the Puerto Rican flag is the exact same design as the Cuban flag, only with inverted colors (the flag of Puerto Rico has a blue triangle and red and white stripes, while the Cuban flag has a red triangle and blue and white stripes). Perhaps prophetically, pro-independence Cubans had inverted the colors from the scheme of the United States flag, and the less unanimously independence-minded Puerto Rican exiles re-inverted them. Originally, the shade of blue in the Puerto Rican flag matched that of the Cuban stripes. After the Marxist revolution in Cuba, however, the United States forced Puerto Rico to adopt the deeper shade used in the Stars and Stripes.

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