Brief Read on the Carta Autonómica of 1897


In 1897, Spain offered an Autonomic Charter to both Cuba and Puerto Rico in a desperate attempt to retain its last two colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Puerto Rican liberal Criollos accepted. The Cuban Rebels and revolutionary Puerto Ricans in the exile rejected the offer.

The Carta Autonómica of 1897 was liberal indeed. Sixteen Puerto Rican delegates were to be elected by popular vote to represent the island in the cortes of the kingdom while three senators were to be chosen by an assembly of elected officials to serve in the Peninsular Congress. The assembly also elected the eight members of the Consejo de Administración (Administrative Council), which together with the 32 member and popularly-elected Cámara de Representantes (Chamber of Representatives) constituted the Puerto Rican Parliament or legislature.

Title VII, article 43 of the charter guaranteed veto power to the Puerto Rican parliament over decisions reached by the Peninsular Congress, while Article 2 declared that the “present constitution shall not be amended except by virtue of a special law and upon petition of the insular parliament.”[i]

The charter also provided for the creation of a cabinet by the wining coalition or party. The seven ministries of the new cabinet were of extreme importance and included: Treasury; Agriculture, Industry and Commerce; Public Works, Communication and Transportation; Public Education; and Justice and Government, plus a presiding cabinet member.[ii]

However, as established by Article 41, the governor retained command of all the armed forces in the island, and all authorities and offices remained subordinated to his office.[iii] Moreover, the charter was declared by royal decree and not by a law passed by the cortes. Thus, while seeking liberal reforms, Sagasta and the liberals circumvented the most republican of Spanish institutions.

The new regime was inaugurated On February 8, 1898 and general elections were held in March 27 of the same. Of roughly 120,000 votes the autonomistas obtained over 97,000 versus the conservatives 3,729 votes.[iv] Sixteen autonomistas, ten from the liberal faction and six from the orthodox, were elected as diputados a cortes.

On April 10 of the same year the first cabinet was formed and the three senators chosen.[v] On April 21, 1898 scarcely two months after the inauguration of the autonomic government, the Governor General of the island declared Martial Law. On July 17, 1898, constitutional guarantees were reinstated and the Insular Parliament was inaugurated. Eight days later the United States invaded Puerto Rico.

La Carta Autonómica in Global Context

The Carta Autonómica and the subsequent electoral victory represent the triumph of the autonomistas and throughout the following century it would capture the imagination of different political groups seeking autonomy or other decolonization formulas. However, the circumstances of such success must be examined.

The granting of the Autonomous Charter had as much to do with chance (the assassination of Cánovas del Castillo) as it had to with international and colonial problems plaguing Spain. By 1897, the Cuban war of independence was in full swing and diplomatic relations between the United States and Spain had reached a historical low.

In 1895, when the Cuban rebellion reignited with the Grito de Baire, the U.S. followed a path of neutrality, which actually favored the Spaniards.[vi] American neutrality and recognition of Spanish sovereignty over Cuba, however, was conditional. The Spaniards had to facilitate Cuban trade with the U.S. and were not to relinquish control over Cuba to any third party. Moreover, as Louis Pérez has argued, any modification of sovereignty that “did not result in U.S. acquisition of the island was unacceptable.”[vii]

When it became evident that the Spaniards could not bring an end to the war by military means, the Cleveland administration took a firmer stand seeking to gain concessions for the Cubans hoping that such measures would stop the conflict and prevent the independence of the island. The Cuban rebels themselves had become an unwanted third party.[viii]

By 1897 it was clear that sooner or later the Cuban rebels would win the war. For three years, the Cubans had been destroying the infrastructure of the island rendering the Spanish army incapable of launching major military actions. According to Valeriano Weyler, supreme commander of the Spanish forces in Cuba, the rebels “had brought the Spanish army to the brink of defeat.”[ix] The rebels were so certain of their imminent victory that they rejected Spain’s offering of autonomy.[x]

Unlike their counterparts in Puerto Rico, the Cuban leaders had the military means to obtain independence. This situation left McKinley’s administration with two choices: to accept Cuban independence or to sanction military intervention. McKinley followed Cleveland’s latest approach. In his inaugural address, he referred to the unrest in Cuba, and stated that a “firm and dignified policy that would protect the rights of Americans everywhere was needed.”[xi] The increasingly aggressive posture of the United States government put Spain in a precarious position and made the ceasing of hostilities imperative. It is within this context that the autonomic charter of 1897 came into existence.

Soon after the second class battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, the U.S. entered the war and quickly defeated Spanish forces weakened by years of fighting in Cuba and the Philippines. As a result of its victory over Spain, and by virtue of the Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898, the United States gained full control over Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake island, and the Philippines, and limited control – by the Teller Amendment – over Cuba.[xii]

As it had been with the short lived political reforms obtained throughout the nineteenth century, the lifespan of the Carta Autonómica was at the whims of the military and political rulers from the peninsular metropolis. The Puerto Rican delegates were excluded from the peace negotiations even though the future of the island was at stake, and according to the island’s legal political relationship with Spain, as stated in the charter of 1897, they had veto power over such decisions. That they did not have a voice in the Paris protocols evidenced the ephemeral and capricious nature of liberal overtures within the Spanish political establishment.

[i] To read the document in its entirity, see; Fernós López-Cepero, Documentos Históricos-Constitucionales, 19-37.

[ii] Bayrón Toro, Elecciones y partidos políticos, 106-07.

[iii] Fernós Lopez-Cepero, Documentos Históricos-Constitucionales, 29.

[iv] Of 121,573 votes, the autonomistas obtained, 82,627 votes; the ortodoxos 15,068; while the incondicionales secured 2,144 and the oportunistas 1,585. There seem to be over 20,000 votes invalidated or not counted. Bayrón Toro, Elecciones y partidos politicos, 107.

[v] Bayrón Toro, Elecciones y partidos politicos, 109.

[vi] The Clevland and McKinley administrations were especially opposed to an independent Cuba. This posture was the result of a century-old policy which favored, and was ready to support Spanish sovereignty over the island. This rationale was based on the assumption that a Cuba controlled by a weak Spain would be nearly as valuable to the U.S. as it was under American sovereignty. See, Pérez, The War of 1898, 3-6, quoting Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, June 23, 1823, in Washington, The Works of Thomas Jefferson; And; John Quincy Adams to Hugh Nelson, April 28, 1823, in Ford, The Writings of John Quincy Adams. And; James Buchanan to Romulus Saunders, June 17, 1848.

[vii] Pérez, The War of 1898, 6.

[viii] LaFeber, The New Empire, 286, 292.

[ix] Pérez., The War of 1898: 94; quoting Weyler, Mi mando en Cuba.

[x] Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo, emboldened by the death of the Cuban rebel general Antonio Maceo on December 6, 1896, offered very limited autonomy to both Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Cuban rebels immediately rejected the overture and eventually so did the autonomistas in Puerto Rico, who also decided not to participate in the elections. Cánovas del Castillo’s offer convinced most of the autonomistas in Puerto Rico of the need to make a pact with Sagasta and the liberal fusionistas. See Rosario Natal, Puerto Rico y la crisis de la Guerra Hispanoamericana,146-153.

[xi] There was plenty of support for intervening in Cuba. Since 1895, Republicans were calling for Cuba Libre not least because the Junta Cubana in the U.S. kept the Americans interested in the war. Spanish criminal behavior was widely publicized, and perhaps exaggerated, by the yellow press, but reporters did nothing but to say what the public wanted to hear. Furthermore, religious papers supported intervention on moral grounds, using the same axioms behind Manifest Destiny. By 1898, opinion polls coincide that something had to be done about Cuba. See; Gould, The Spanish-American War and President McKinley, 18, 23-24. See also; LaFeber, The New Empire, 337.

[xii] The term “pacification” in the Teller Amenedement, allowed McKinley’s administration to establish a military occupation and ultimately, to impose the Platt Amendement on the Cubans. The Platt Amendement defined American-Cuban relations for four decades.

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