When the U.S. won the Spanish-American War it annexed the former Spanish colony of Puerto Rico, as part of the December 10, 1898 Treaty of Paris. This ended four centuries of Spanish rule, but essentially substituted one master for another.

Here is a brief history of that relationship.



Spain grants Puerto Rico a Carta de Autonomía (Charter of Autonomy) which, after four hundred years, would give Puerto Rico its independence.



General elections are held in March 1898 and the first “autonomous”government of Puerto Rico begins to function on July 17, 1898.

Just eight days later, on July 25, Nelson A. Miles (the Commanding General of the U.S. Army) invades Puerto Rico with 16,000 soldiers as part of the Spanish-American War. This ends Puerto Rico’s independence.

Uncle Sam reaches out to Puerto Rico



One of the worst Caribbean hurricanes in history, San Ciriaco kills over 3,400 Puerto Ricans and destroys the entire island coffee crop. U.S. hurricane relief is bizarre…


The U.S. sets up the American Colonial Bank, and the Spanish peso is replaced by the U.S. dollar as Puerto Rico’s currency. Though of equal international value, each peso isdeclared worth only 60 U.S. cents. This cripples the Puerto Rican economy, particularly for the small farmers.



With crippled farms and 40% less wealth, Puerto Rican farmers have to borrow money from U.S. banks. With no usury law restrictions, the American Colonial Bank charges interest rates so high that, within a decade (by 1910), the farmers default on their loans, and the banks now own their land.



In 1917 Woodrow Wilson signs the Jones Act, under which English is decreed the “official language” of Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans are granted U.S. citizenship.

This enables 18,000 Puerto Ricans to fight in World War I.

1st Puerto Rican Regiment



U.S. President Warren Harding appoints Emmet Montgomery Reily as Governor of Puerto Rico. In turn, Reily places his own friends in prominent positions throughout the Puerto Rican government.

Reily decrees that the U. S. flag (“Old Glory”) will be the only flag used throughout the entire island. He also declares that Spanish will no longer be used in any schools, which will now teach exclusively in English.

Reily is extremely unpopular. Puerto Ricans nickname him Moncho Reyes (a “Moncho” is an uncivilized moron).  He is forced to resign in 1923, under a growing cloud of corruption charges. 

1920 – 1930


By 1930, all of Puerto Rico’s farms belong to 41 sugar syndicates. 80% of these are U.S. owned, and the largest four syndicates  –  Central Guanica, South Puerto Rico, Fajardo Sugar and East Puerto Rico Sugar – are entirely U.S. owned and cover over half the island’s arable land.


With no money, no crops, and no land, Puerto Ricans seek work in the cities. When the Puerto Rican legislature enacts a minimum-wage law like the one in America, the U.S. Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional. 

This decision is made despite AFL-CIO President Samuel Gompers’ testimony that “the salaries paid to Puerto Ricans are now less than half what they received under the Spanish.”


U.S. finished products – from rubber bands to radios – are priced 15 to 20% higher on the island than on the mainland. Puerto Rico is powerless to enact any price-fixing legislation.



Pedro Albizu Campos, the first Puerto Rican graduate of Harvard Law School, is elected as President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Immediately, he starts to organize the island’s agricultural workers and small farmers. 

Don Pedro Albizu Campos

For a video about the life (and death) of Albizu Campos, see:  



Pedro Albizu Campos investigates some disturbing rumors at San Juan Presbyterian Hospital, and confirms that a Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads is injecting Puerto Rican patients with live cancer cells, and that he killed at least 13 of them.

A scandal erupts when the following letter, written by Dr. Rhoads himself, is discovered and released by Albizu Campos: 

“The Porto Ricans (sic) are the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever to inhabit this sphere…I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more…All physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects.”

The U.S. press hail Dr. Rhoads, and place him on the cover of Time Magazine.

Time Magazine and Dr Rhodes

1930 – 1970


Puerto Rican women are massively used for the testing of I.U.D.’s and birth control pills. In addition, between 1930 and 1970, approximately one-third of Puerto Rico’s female population of childbearing age undergo “the operation,” the highest rate in the world.

Many of these women were “operated” upon without their knowledge or consent. Most frequently, these “procedures” occurred immediately after childbirth.

The Human Betterment Association of America promotes Eugenics (a thinly-veiled version of Nazi racial cleansing) as a basis for sterilizing blacks in the U.S. mainland, and Puerto Ricans on the island.

The available research and documentation of this colonial genocide is extensive.

Here is a robust bibliography:  http://womenst.library.wisc.edu/bibliogs/puerwom.htm



Pedro Albizu Campos directs an island-wide agricultural strike. The sugarcane workers, or Macheteros, get a few wage concessions from the sugar syndicates.

This is the first time that anyone organizes Puerto Ricans against the United States…and wins.


The U.S. economy is in a Great Depression. It needs every economic advantage it can find.  Because of the Machetero sugarcane strike, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party is targeted as a “threat to national security” and Albizu Campos’s life is in danger.

Albizu Campos speaking

 J. Edgar Hoover orders 24-hour FBI surveillance of Campos’s movements and meetings. He receives constant death threats, is attacked in his own home, jailed for 24 years, beaten and tortured in prison.



In the town of Rio Piedras, at a student assembly of the University of Puerto Rico, police shoot and kill four members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party: José Barea, Ramón Pagán, Pedro Quiñones, and Eduardo Vega.

Killed for attending a student assembly                                       



In retaliation for the Río Piedras massacre, the insular police chief E. Francis Riggs is murdered in San Juan. Two Nationalist Party members, Hiram Rosado and Elías Beauchamp, are immediately arrested and shot dead in the San Juan police headquarters.



On Palm Sunday, March 21, a peaceful march is held in the town of Ponce, in support of Pedro Albizu Campos and other Nationalists who were recently imprisoned.

The march turns into a bloody police slaughter, killing 18 unarmed Puerto Ricans and wounding over 200 others. Women and children are killed – including a 7-year old girl, who is shot in the back.

The massacre occurs under the direct military command of General Blanton Winship, the U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico.

The Ponce Massacre

The police continue firing, even as dead bodies pile up in the street:

On April 14, U.S. Congressman Vito Marcantonio denounces Winship on the floor of U.S. Congress:

“In his five years as Governor of Puerto Rico, Mr. Blanton Winship destroyed the last vestige of civil rights in Puerto Rico. Patriots were framed in the very executive mansion and railroaded to prison. Men, women, and children were massacred in the streets of the island simply because they dared to express their opinion or attempted to meet in free assemblage.”

—Vito Marcantonio, U.S. Congressman

Congressional Record of April 14, 1937, page 4499



The U.S. begins to use the Culebra Archipelago as a gunnery and bombing practice site.



The U.S. establishes military bases in the islands of Vieques and Culebra. The Roosevelt Roads Naval Station is one of the largest naval facilities in the world covering 32,000 acres, three harbors, and two-thirds of the island of Vieques.

The Vieques bombing range

For over 60 years, the U.S. Navy uses Vieques for target practice in Navy bombing exercises. They use napalm, Agent Orange, and between 300 and 800 tons of depleted uranium-tipped ammunition. In total, the Navy drops nearly 3 million pounds of bombs on Vieques annually, until 2003.

Target practice at Vieques

Toward the end, as international pressure mounts against this bombing, the Governor of Puerto Rico appears before the U.S. Congress to say this:

“Never again shall we tolerate abuse of a magnitude and scope the likes of which no community in any of the fifty states would ever be asked to tolerate. Never again shall we tolerate such abuse: not for sixty years, and not for sixty months, or sixty hours, or sixty minutes.”

Puerto Rico Governor, Pedro Roselló, October 19, 1999

Statement before the U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee



Puerto Rico’s Gag Law (Law 53) is enacted to suppress the independence movement in Puerto Rico. The Gag Law makes it a crime to sing a patriotic tune; to speak or write of independence; or to meet with anyone, or hold any assembly, with regard to the political status of Puerto Rico.  Anyone found guilty of disobeying this law is sentenced to ten years imprisonment, a fine of $10,000 dollars (US), or both.

Rally in defiance of the Gag Law

The Gag Law also makes it a crime to display or own a Puerto Rican flag – even in one’s own home. This “flag” provision allows police and National Guardsmen to: 1) enter anyone’s home without a warrant, and 2) search and seize all property, regardless of probable cause.

Since all Puerto Ricans were declared U.S. citizens in 1917 (in order to send 18,000 of them to fight in World War I), the Gag Law is in direct violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech to all U.S. citizens.

Mass arrests for violations of the Gag Law  

Despite its constitutional flaws, the Gag Law is politically effective. 15 members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party are immediately arrested and accused of violating it, and mass arrests are threatened throughout the island.

The Gag Law is repealed in 1957.



Organized and led by Pedro Albizu Campos, Puerto Ricans revolt in five towns (Jayuya, Utuado, Mayagüez, Naranjito, Arecibo) during a four-day period (Oct. 29 – Nov. 1), and attempt to assassinate both the President of the United States and the Governor of Puerto Rico.


On October 29, in the town of Jayuya, Puerto Rican Nationalists burn a post office, attack a police station, cut the telephone lines, raise a Puerto Rican flag (in defiance of the Gag Law), and declare Puerto Rico a free Republic.

The U.S. begs to differ.

They declare martial law and attack the town with U.S. bomber planes, land-based artillery, mortar fire, grenades, U.S. infantry troops, and the National Guard. The planes machine-gun nearly every rooftop in the town. The Nationalists manage to hold the town for three days, then mass arrests follow.

U.S. troops arrive in Jayuya (Oct. 30, 1950)

Even though an extensive part of Jayuya is destroyed, news of this military action is prevented from spreading outside of Puerto Rico. It is reported as an “incident between Puerto Ricans” by the American media.


On October 30, in the town of Utuado, a group of 32 Nationalists attack the local police.

The fight goes badly. Twelve surviving men retreat to the house of Damián Torres – which is promptly strafed by 50-caliber machine guns, from four American P-47 Thunderbolt planes. Three men die from this aerial gunfire.

The National Guard arrives later that day, and orders the nine surviving Nationalists to surrender. When they do so, the nine men are taken to the Utuado police station and shot. Five of them (Heriberto Castro, Julio Feliciano, Agustín Quiñones Mercado, Antonio Ramos and Antonio González) die immediately, the other four are seriously wounded.

In the same manner as Jayuya, the massacre is reported as an “incident between Puerto Ricans” by the American media.


On October 30, in San Juan, five Nationalists attack La Fortaleza (the Governor’s Mansion) in an attempt to assassinate Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. The battle lasts 15 minutes, leaving four Nationalists dead and three police officers wounded.


On October 30, in the town of Santurce, forty armed police officers and National Guardsmen attack one man (Vidal Santiago Díaz) at his barbershop.

The attack is fierce and sustained – because the man is a Nationalist, and because he is Pedro Albizu Campos’s personal barber. Though Díaz is all alone, police use machine guns, rifles, carbines, revolvers, and even grenades.

The Gunfight at Salón Boricua becomes legendary. It lasts three hours, is transmitted live by radio, and heard all over the island. To the dismay of Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, the “little barber” becomes an overnight hero in Puerto Rico.

They got the barber


On November 1, Nationalists Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola attempt to assassinate U.S. President Harry S. Truman. They attack the Blair House, where Truman is staying in Washington, D.C. The gunfight is short, less than one minute. Torresola and police officer Leslie Coffelt are killed, Oscar Collazo is sentenced to life imprisonment.



Four Nationalists enter the Ladies’ Gallery (a balcony for visitors) of the U.S. Capital, unfurl a Puerto Rican flag, shout “Que viva Puerto Rico libre!” and shoot at the 240 Representatives of the 83rd Congress. Five congresspersons are wounded, though none fatally.

Lolita Lebron under arrest

The Nationalists – Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Miranda, Andres Cordero, and Irving Rodríguez – are arrested and sentenced to 70 years imprisonment. Upon her arrest, Lebrón declares “I did not come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico.”

This was a major story in 1954:

Decades later, Lolita Lebrón remains a political and fashion icon.



Immediately after the Cuban Revolution, which culminates in the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, the U.S tourism industry makes a massive shift to Puerto Rico. Hotels and casinos spring up, Pan Am flights multiply.

Even novelists Saul Bellow (teaching at the University of Puerto Rico), William Kennedy (editing the San Juan Star), and Hunter Thompson (writing for El Sportivo and the Herald Tribune) fly down and live cheap, during the late 50’s and early 60’s.

While stationed in Puerto Rico (1961-1963) John Kennedy Toole teaches English to Puerto Rican soldiers, drinks copiously, and writes the first draft of A Confederacy of Dunces.



Albizu Campos, the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist movement, dies in San Juan. He suffered his entire lifetime for his beliefs. He spent 23 years in prison. Most other years, he was under 24-hour surveillance by the FBI.

He was tear-gassed.

He was beaten in prison.

He was tortured and subjected to radiation in prison, until his limbs swelled grotesquely. (yes, you read this correctly)

The press inquires about radiation

He was finally released, after suffering a stroke in prison…on the brink of death.

He was semi-paralytic and mute, and died a few months later.

Che Guevara appeared before the United Nations, and said this about him:

“Albizu Campos is a symbol of America unredeemed, but indomitable. Years and years of prisons, mental torture, solitude, complete isolation from his family and his people, the insolence of the conqueror and     its lackeys on the land that gave him birth…nothing broke his will. The Cuban delegation renders homage, admiration and gratitude to a patriot who has given dignity to our America.”

 They carried Albizu Campos’s coffin through the streets of his hometown in Ponce.

His coffin was then transported to San Juan, where over 75,000 Puerto Ricans accompanied him to the Old San Juan Cemetery.

Today, Pedro Albizu Campos is honored throughout Latin America, with a moral standing and historical significance comparable to Simón Bolivar.        



The U.S. Army takes possession of almost all of Culebra Island.



Section 936 section of the United States Internal Revenue Tax Code allows U.S. companies to operate in the island without paying corporate taxes.

For the next 30 years, until 2006, American pharmaceutical companies take advantage of this tax loophole, to generate unprecedented profits.



Pro-independence activists Carlos Arriví and Arnaldo Rosado are executed in a police ambush, in a mountain known as Cerro Maravilla. The subsequent cover-up involves the FBI and high-ranking members of the Puerto Rican government.

1980 – 2000


U.S. pharmaceutical corporations build enormous drug production facilities in Puerto Rico.  The island becomes a pill factory.

As of 2008, Puerto Rico is the world’s largest shipper of pharmaceuticals, accounting for nearly 25% of total shipments. 16 of the 20 biggest-selling drugs in the U.S., are produced in Puerto Rico.

In the town of Barceloneta, one Pfizer factory produces all the Viagra consumed in North America (the U.S., Canada and Mexico).

In 2002, the combined profits for the ten drug companies in the Fortune 500 ($35.9 billion) were more than the profits for all the other 490 businesses combined ($33.7 billion). 



Bowing to international pressure, which intensifies after civilians are killed by stray bombs, the U.S. Navy ceases its 60-year bombing exercises on the island of Vieques.



IRS Section 936 is phased out and replaced by Section 30A, which essentially retains the 936 wage credit component. Pharmaceutical companies continue their enormous manufacture of drugs, and drug profits.


Today Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is over 25 percent and per capita income is less than half that of Mississippi (the lowest of the fifty states). U.S. federal agencies control Puerto Rico’s foreign relations, customs, immigration, postal system, radio, TV, transportation, Social Security, military, maritime laws, banks, commerce, currency and defense.

The extent of military control over the island is particularly striking. One can’t drive five miles in any direction without running into an Army base, nuclear site or tracking station. The Pentagon controls 12 percent of Puerto Rico’s land and operates five atomic missile bases.

More than a century after its invasion by the U.S., Puerto Rico is one of the few classic colonies still in existence. Its “commonwealth” status is a thin veneer for a one-sided, abusive relationship.

The island is currently a pill factory – the world’s largest shipper of pharmaceuticals, accounting for nearly 25% of total shipments. 16 of the 20 largest-selling drugs in the U.S., are produced in Puerto Rico.

The profits made by these drug companies, roughly $35 billion annually, are greater than the combined budgets of every government in Puerto Rico – including all three branches of the central government; every public corporation, utility, and highway authority; and every municipality.

In 2009, Puerto Ricans had a median household income of $18,314. By comparison Mississippi, the poorest state in the U.S., had median household income of $36,646.

Clearly, the abusive relationship continues.

After 60 years of bombing in Vieques, a century of economic exploitation, a Gag Law, a land grab, the Ponce Massacre, the Rio Piedras Massacre, the execution of its leaders, and the sterilization of its women, Puerto Rico is not just a “commonwealth.”

It is the battered spouse of the Caribbean.



Prior to serving in the New York State Assembly, Denis directed TV commercials and several short films, and wrote eight feature length screenplays.

Denis received a Walter P. Kaitz Cable TV Fellowship, the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship for his film Hound Dog, and a New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) Fellowship for his screenplay Lenny’s Prayer.

He also wrote and directed the feature Vote For Me! which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Vote For Me!  also won the Best Picture Award at the 2009 Staten Island Film Festival, and a Best Feature Film Award at the 2009 Orlando Hispanic Film Festival.

Vote For Me "The Movie"

Starring Malik Yoba (New York Undercover, Soul Food, Kingpin; Cool Runnings); Chi Chi Salazar (Scarface, Carlito’s Way); Ricardo Barber (The Feast of the Goat); Vote For Me!  is a comedy about a 75-year old Puerto Rican building super who runs for U.S. Congress.

The film was based on Denis’s own experiences in East Harlem.

Many East Harlem residents, musicians, and even local politicians appeared in the film, which “blurred the line between reality and fiction to capture the spectacle of New York politics.” (New York Times)

Vote For Me! screened in over a dozen film festivals in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Puerto Rico, and was well-received by the press.

Vote For Me "The Movie"The New York Times declared it “reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but with a lighter touch.”

The Boston Globe found it “ebullient... politically charged…mixes quirkiness and cultural poignancy.”

The Daily News called it “a media sensation.”

WNYC Radio announced it as “Hilarious! Very funny, very real…a sobering lesson in American politics.”

Fox TV News appreciated the racial nuances, declaring “Al Sharpton disguised as a female…what a story!”

Vote For Me! also received national coverage from Fox News Channel, National Public Radio, Univision, Telemundo, Hoy, WSKQ-FM, MEGA-FM, WADO-AM, WNYC, VIVA Magazine, El Diario/La Prensa, El Nuevo Dia, Siempre, and other  news outlets.

Vote For Me! was also invited to Harvard University, Brown University, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the JFK School of Government, Hunter College, the NYU Graduate School of Journalism, Hampton University, City University of New York (CUNY) Center for Puerto Rican Studies, and the Newark Film Commission.

You may view all of the following…

A trailer of the film:


Reviews of the film:





Cast and crew credits:



"Nelson Denis"Nelson Antonio Denis is a writer, film director, and former New York State Assemblyman. His award-winning films premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and screened throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

His editorials for the New York Daily News and El Diario (over 300 of them) won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

He is the writer of eight feature-length screenplays, writer/director of the feature film Vote For Me!, and author of the book War Against All Puerto Ricans.

Vote For Me "The Movie"


He represented El Barrio/East Harlem in the New York State Assembly (1996-2000) and developed a leadership initiative with the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation.

Denis recently completed the novel JUAN BOBO, and has a lifelong interest in the history, culture and folklore of Puerto Rico.

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