Franklin D. Roosevelt photo

Message to Congress on Self-Government for Puerto Rico.

September 28, 1943

To the Congress:

When sovereignty over Puerto Rico was transferred from Spain to the United States in 1899, the Treaty of Paris did not settle the exact position of Puerto Rico in the orbit of American sovereignty. It left that for determination by the Congress of the United States. After a brief interval of military government, the Foraker Act in 1900 established a framework of colonial government. Under it the Legislative Assembly was given rather limited powers; and the Governor and an appointed Executive Council held the real substance of authority. The inhabitants were to be citizens of Puerto Rico- American nationals, but not citizens.

In 1917 the Puerto Ricans received full American citizenship. At the same time the Congress, by the Organic Act of Puerto Rico, created a full-fledged Legislature, and provided for a much greater participation by Puerto Ricans in the Executive Department of the Government, reserving to the President the power of appointment of only the Governor, the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Education, the Auditor, and the Justices of the Supreme Court. This action of the Congress in 1917 bound Puerto Rico much more closely to the United States, and provided a substantial advance in local self-government.

During the 45 years which have passed since the occupation of the island by the United States the economic situation of the Puerto Rican people, although materially improved in some respects, has not changed in essential character. Instead of development toward economic self-reliance, there has been a steady tendency to become more dependent upon outside markets for disposal of the single great crop—sugar—and upon outside sources for food, clothing, building materials, and most of the other necessities. Partly because of economic and geographical factors and partly because of tariff preferences and shipping laws, these relationships are, by now, almost wholly with the continental United States.

The population of Puerto Rico has increased from 950,000 to about two millions, making this one of the most densely inhabited areas on earth. Depending upon the obligation implied by our active participation in their development, Puerto Ricans have been encouraged, in so far as they could, to try to attain American standards of life. Wages in Puerto Rico, for instance, are several times as high as those in nearby islands not under our flag; literacy is much higher than in other Caribbean islands; the percentage of those who speak English has grown progressively in every decade; our agencies of public health have made inroads on diseases endemic in the island; and serious attempts have been and are being made to provide better housing and to raise the levels of nutrition.

During the 45 years of our sovereignty, the elements of world military and naval strategy have changed also. When the island was first brought under our flag, the Panama Canal had not yet been dug, and the airplane had not yet been invented. The Caribbean was something of a backwater in the broad current of world affairs. When the present war became imminent, however, it was obvious that the chain of islands running in a great arc from Florida to the shoulder of South America, enclosing the Caribbean Sea, formed a vast natural shield for the Panama Canal, suited in distance and conformation to the uses of the military plane. And of this island shield, Puerto Rico is the center. Its possession or control by any foreign power— or even the remote threat of such possession—would be repugnant to the most elementary principles of national defense.

It has long been the policy of the Government of the United States progressively to reinforce the machinery of self-govern. ment in its territories and island possessions. The principles for which we are now fighting require that we should recognize the right of all our citizens—whether continental or overseas—to the greatest possible degree of home rule and also of participation in the benefits and responsibilities of our Federal system.

Puerto Ricans of all political parties, however divergent their views as to the political future of the island, are united in asking for the right to elect their own Governor. I believe that they are entitled to it.

The Congress will recall that on March 9 of this year I recommended to it "that it consider as soon as possible an amendment of the organic law of Puerto Rico to permit the people of Puerto Rico to elect their own Governor, and to redefine the functions and powers of the Federal Government and the Government of Puerto Rico, respectively." In order to assist in framing the required legislation, in case the Congress should decide to grant this power to the people of Puerto Rico, I appointed a committee composed of an equal number of Puerto Ricans and continental residents. I requested them to make a study of the amendments to the Organic Act necessary to authorize the election of a Governor and to redefine the relationships of the Federal and Insular Governments affected thereby.

That committee met in Washington almost daily for three weeks this last summer. It has sent me a full report of its recommendations in the form of a proposed bill and a summary statement of such bill.

I am forwarding this report of the committee to the Congress for consideration by them. The legislation was drawn by the committee itself, and I am submitting it as a possible guide for such action as the Congress may decide to take.

Under this bill the people of Puerto Rico would be given an opportunity for the free exercise of the powers of local self-government in all three branches of government- executive, legislative, and judicial. There would be reserved to the President the power to veto only such measures passed by the Legislature as were beyond the proper field of local self-government. There would be a United States Commissioner General in Puerto Rico upon whom would devolve the responsibility for the execution of the laws of the United States, and for the coordination and supervision of the activities of Federal civilian agencies, and their correlation with the activities of insular agencies. He would also have authority to require reports of all activities of the Insular Government for transmittal to the President through the Secretary of the Interior. The fiscal relationship of the Insular Government to the Federal Government would not be altered, nor would the ultimate power of Congress to legislate for the territory. The people of the island would, however, be given assurance of the intention of Congress to obtain the concurrence of the people of the island before imposing upon them any further changes in the Organic Act.

There is no reason why their Governor and other officials should continue to be appointed from without. At this stage of Puerto Rican development, the withholding of this right is no longer necessary. There is no question of Puerto Ricans' ability now to administer their own internal affairs and to assume the attendant responsibility.

It is recommended by the report of the committee that this fact be recognized at once. I agree that this should be done; and suggest that the Congress should consider it as a matter of right and justice for Puerto Ricans.

As to the future, it is not proposed that the political development of Puerto Rico be left to chance. On the contrary, it is recommended by the committee that a continuing Joint Advisory Council, under the chairmanship of the Secretary of the Interior, be appointed to conduct continuing economic and political studies of all the elements of the Puerto Rican situation and of American necessities, to guide us for the future. This Council must report at least once during the life of each Congress.

In addition to the Secretary of the Interior, the Council would consist of the Governor of Puerto Rico and the Commissioner General, who shall serve ex officio, and also four persons to be appointed by the President of the United States, and five persons to be appointed by the Governor of Puerto Rico.

The Government of Puerto Rico should not be static; it should be changed and developed as conditions warrant. It is equally important that the economic situation of the Puerto Ricans should be improved. I am confident that with patience and cooperation both these objectives can be attained.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress on Self-Government for Puerto Rico. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209526

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