American Propaganda:

Controlling Public Opinion in Puerto Rico

Propaganda Norte-americana:

Controlando la Opinión Pública en Puerto Rico

Master of Fine Arts in Visual Arts Program
Vermont College of Norwich University, Vt, USA
An Essay by John Rivera-Resto, 2001.

Winter 2000

The winter of 1999-2000 found me driving to Montpelier, the tiny but charming capital of the State of Vermont, driving through a blizzard. The walls of snow on both side of the road were high enough to block the view. My brother Ricky was my traveling companion on this hazardous journey, and my first semester multi-media end-of-semester art project, was safely stored in the back of my van. I had never seen so much snow since the blizzard of 1978, which blanketed most of northeast Ohio, and broke records for seasonal snow. There had been so many abandoned vehicles covered by snow all along the side of highway, that it took the thawing of Spring to clear them all away.

We had grown up in the tropical paradise island of sunny Puerto Rico, where the only time you saw snow, was on television shows and the movies. Up to the time I moved to Cleveland in 1977, it had not occurred to me -strange as it may seem, that snow was actually freezing cold. Everyone on television seem to be having a great time playing in the snow, just like us island-boys had a good time at the beach in 84 degree weather. So while we had seen snow -in theory, we had never experience the cold -through television!

views of vermont and puerto rico in winter

These images illustrate why, when you grow up in a tropical paradise, snow can be a bit of a shock. But what you never anticipate, is the cold.

I was enrolled in the master's program with the goal of getting my MFA in Visual Arts. In addition to working back home with an artist-instructor on your semester project, you had to do research and write an essay on your choice of subject matter approved by your group instructor back in Vermont. Since I found myself having to do art that was not commissioned by a client, I decided to do art about certain subjects meaningful to me. The projected in the back of my van on its way to being setup at the student exhibition gallery, was Political terror in Latin America (see it listed in the Paintings page).

During that semester I started doing research for my essay paper for the next two semesters. My group instructor and counselor in Vermont was Janet Kaplan, Executive Editor of Art Journal. I had selected the subject of propaganda art as my main area of research and she approved it after going over my outline. But once back in Cleveland, I decided to divide the essay into two parts, and use my experience of growing up in Puerto Rico as an illustration of how propaganda works.

The resulting essay was: American Propaganda: Controlling public opinion in Puerto Rico. This is the essay posted below. To date, is is one of the most read pages in Muralmaster. It's rewarding to me that the material has generated such great deal of interest. And, oh yes, I got a passing grade. The following is a quote taken from Janet's critical appraisal after reading the finished manuscript: -"John writes beautifully, with clarity, elegance and passion, and he grounds his claims in careful thinking." It is my sincere hope that the reading captures your interest too and prove to a be a valuable source of information.

"Rule is the normal exercise of authority, and is always based on public opinion, today as a thousand years ago, amongst the English as amongst the bushmen. Never has anyone ruled on this earth by basing his rule essentially on any other thing than public opinion."

José Ortega y Gasset
The Revolt of the Masses

American Propaganda: controlling public opinion in Puerto Rico


"Saying the pledge of allegiance." Photograph of a Puerto Rican classroom, by Jack Delano, 1941.


Public opinion is the key to maintaining control; maintaining control is the key to power. An approving or at least acquiescent public opinion is the foundation of all government. Public opinion ultimately is as decisive in a totalitarian state or empire as in a democracy.

Abraham Lincoln, in the Lincoln-Douglas debate, put it this way: "With public sentiment on its side, everything succeeds; with public sentiment against it, nothing succeeds." But if public opinion is so powerful -we may ask ourselves, how does a dictatorial regime maintain arbitrary rule? The answer is simple: by manipulating public opinion. And, how is public opinion manipulated? -Through censorship and propaganda.

Part One of this essay will provide basic examples and definitions of general interest, and deal specifically with the issue of the manipulation of public opinion through the universal use of propaganda and how propagandist have employed art to achieve their aims. Part Two explains how American propaganda has been utilized in maintaining control of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.

However, at this point of the reading, before you the reader proceed any further, I will take a pause to make a statement that is relevant to my arguments; that being that -"I am a Puerto Rican citizen." What's more, I am an artist who happens to be a Puerto Rican citizen born in the United States.

And furthermore, like the vast majority of the American people, I have a problem with duplicity, particularly when all its shades of insincerity, deceitfulness, deception and dishonesty are veiled under the American democratic creed and mantel of freedom, liberty, equality, and justice for all.

Why am I unveiling myself before you having thus barely completed the road to this introduction? I will tell you. I grew up in the American colony of Puerto Rico under a "democratic" colonial regime that has for over a century maintained a repressive and dictatorial control over the lives of millions of people, treating them as second class citizens with one hand, wielding on the other the bible of democratic freedoms while all the time preaching the high and noble ideals of universal liberty and human rights.

The fact that this colonial control has lasted so long is a direct result of an effective and systematic use of psychological propaganda, which has been able to maintain a good level of favorable public opinion in Puerto Rico towards the United States, and has kept the people of the United States in complete ignorance of the things being done in their name.

It has taken me twenty years since I relocated to my birthplace in the U.S. mainland -and a lot of reading and research, to clear the cow-webs that were blinding me to the reality of my former state of being while living another twenty years under a torrent of propaganda in a tropical "island paradise". A lifetime. To say that I have a bias against U.S. policies in Puerto Rico would be an understatement.

However, it is because I have a bias, that I will endeavour at this point to clarify that my bias is informed and based on personal (and collective) experience, and that I will take pains to be as precise and as accurate as public sources of information allow in the exposition of my reasoning.

Through this essay I will present facts and arguments that will, for lack of a better word, inform or enlighten the reader about the paradoxical nature of the U.S.-Puerto Rican relationship; how the United States has maintained political and commercial hegemony over the citizens of Puerto Rico; and how it controls Puerto Rican (and American) public opinion through the use of overt and covert propaganda means.

And in completion, considering the fact that I am an artist, that is (allow me to elaborate), a practicing painter who is conscious of the truism that art and artist have always been a part and tool of political propaganda, I would like to explore and find examples of what set of skills not commonly associated with art making an artist must develop to be successful in the psycho-political field.

I will seek these examples among my own experience during my years in Puerto Rico. It is my belief that knowing propaganda techniques will enable the artist who has an interest in civic affairs to better focus the force of his creative skill in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.

You the reader may wonder (if you share some degree of culture) -why would an artist want to abandon the lofty abode of those who search universal aesthetic enlightenment, risking the safety of that unperturbed no-man's land of critical neutrality, to forcefully enter the treacherous trenches of politicized terrain?

Let me provide you with one answer. Having experienced foreign political manipulation and the pressing social problems it creates, I feel a compelling need to call attention to this state of affairs by reporting what I have witnessed. In plain words, I want to select moments from my experience; through my art, I want to call your attention to something.

Calling attention is what propaganda art does best. In selecting an image, the artist provides its audience with an instance in which the historical meaning and political surround of the reported information can be read in a single glance. In doing so the artist is not only engaged with the audience to simply report, but to persuade.

To persuade others is to influence public opinion. Therefore, images like a painting or a photograph, such as Guérnica by Spanish artist Pablo Ruíz Picasso, or the film still of a woman holding a wounded child in Sergei Eisenstein’s film Potemkin, can be inherently political.


Detail from Guérnica. 1937.


Film still from Potemkin. 1926.

But how does an artist select -or creates- an image that is both informative and persuasive? An image that merely informs but does not persuade makes for very weak propaganda. Therefore, the artist must be skilled in the techniques that improve his selection of the reporting image if persuasion is to be achieved.


Denis Diderot (1713-84), all around genius -philosopher, satirist, novelist, playwright, art critic- and leading editor of The French Encyclopaedia, in debating with analogies from painting and humanism about how essentially political and crucial the intentional selection of an image is, observed: -"What is desperately needed, increasingly so, is art that mirrors the interest of ordinary people and ceases to be decoration; choose this reflection [the image] well."

Part One


In the April 9th of 2000 Sunday edition, the Cleveland Plain Dealer printed a front page article announcing in bold letters -"Europe has had it up to here with the U.S.", and that, concluded the article, public opinion for the United States in France and in Europe was waning to an all time low. This story was motivated by the publishing of a French book about the U.S. and a series of subsequent articles that first appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde.

First reported by the New York Times, the story made headlines in many of our nation's newspapers, was picked up with much interest by other organizations in the media, and was perceived as unsettling news among policy makers, business leaders, and media analysts. Why the reaction? Because, in political and economic terms, American objectives must be "perceived" as being compatible with the objectives of other countries if they are to accept American leadership in world affairs. And, to cultivate a positive perception the United States must first maintain control of public opinion here and abroad.


The Cleveland Plain Dealer


Le Monde

Public opinion -the attitudes, perspectives, and preferences of a population toward events, circumstances, and issues of mutual interest, is the most measured, courted and influential gauge of popular approval or discontent by individuals, business, political organizations, the mass media and government as well as in academic research.

The public's favor is what determines the success and failure of a policy decision that would, for example, launch a new consumer product such as "the new Coke", or the Clinton Administration's intervention in Somalia. Governments fall with considerable frequency when public opinion erodes popular support (the Japanese ministries are a case in point) and no responsible corporate CEO will make a policy decision without first consulting the latest sample survey or public opinion polls to check projected approval ratings.

For better of for worse public opinion may be shaped by permanent circumstances and by temporary influences. It can also be manipulated through the use of mass communication media, the opinions of influential persons, and the concerted campaigns of public relations professionals. The sugar, oil, tobacco and pharmaceutical conglomerates are clear examples of corporate giants who have manipulated public opinion to gain commercial and political advantages.

With the rapid development of advanced communications such as the World Wide Web (the "internet"), public opinion has played an increasing role in international relations as well. This has given rise to extraordinary efforts to influence public opinion within and beyond national boundaries. United States policy makers are very much aware that people-to-people relations have replaced government-to-government relations to a considerable extent.

Oren Stephens, an expert on America's overseas information program and a key director in the United States Information Agency (USIA)1, explains that while the United States has four foreign policy "instruments" -diplomatic, military, economic, and psychological, in theory, it is the psychological instrument that advances America's national and international interests through the calculated manipulation of the power of public opinion.

The determination, enunciation, and execution of national policy require that the public opinion factor be taken fully into account. This process, he argues, should provide a foundation or base from which the propagandist can operate with some hope of success in creating a favorable world opinion towards the United States.2

But affecting public opinion involves influencing people's behavior either by establishing a new attitude (as in favoring a new product or a candidate running for first-time election) or by hoping to change an already existing attitude (as in trying to get people to switch from one soft drink to another or to re-elect someone for whom they voted before).

However, people will not change their attitude and their behavior unless they are persuaded through some form of communication that involves a source that delivers a message through some medium to an audience. In other words, the process of communication involves who says what to whom through which medium.3 And, this process of communication for the purpose of inducing or intensifying specific attitudes and behavior is known as "propaganda".


Propaganda was originally defined as the dissemination of biased ideas and opinions, often through the use of lies and deception. As scholars began to study the topic in more detail, many came to realize that propaganda was not the sole property of "evil" as associated with totalitarian regimes, and that it often consisted of more than just clever deceptions.

And, since the ultimate goal of modern propaganda is having the recipient of the message (the targeted audience) come to "voluntarily" accept the position of the source (individuals, businesses, ethnic associations, religious organizations, political organizations, and governments at every level) as if it were his or her own, the word propaganda has since evolved to mean mass "suggestion" or influence through the use of symbols and the psychology of the individual.

Because propaganda is frequently accompanied by distortions of fact and by appeals to passion and prejudice, it is often thought to be invariably false or misleading. However, this is a relative view. Although the propagandist may intentionally distort facts, others may present it as faithfully as objective observers.

For example: education, whatever its objectives, is a form of propaganda as much as a billboard advertisement or a political cartoon. In addition, no matter what the message may be, propaganda attempts to persuade through rational or emotional appeal or through the organization of personal opinion. The essential distinction in types of propaganda lies in the intentions of the propagandist.

According to propaganda experts Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, "the ultimate goal of the propagandist is not to inform or enlighten people but to move the masses toward a desire position or point of view." 4 To this I have to bring to mind that the ultimate test of skill of the propagandist is to move the masses toward a desire position or point of view without them noticing that they are being manipulated.

To Influence people the propagandist has a wide range of sophisticated propaganda techniques which, to use one example, have been evident in election campaigns. These include the propaganda of the deed (influencing public opinion by actions rather than words), the use of television, the manufacture of news by staged events, the skilful recruitment and use of opinion leaders, and the adjustment of appeals to group interest. These techniques vary in their sophistication, range, and effectiveness, but they all try to persuade by implementing the following principles:

1. Distract the audience (the listener, the viewer or the reader) from the complete picture.

2. Encourage the audience to look only at the factors that are important to accepting the propagandist's argument as true.

3. Offer propaganda as a reason to believe the argument, when in reality, it will provide weak, distracting, or irrelevant reasons.

4. Some of these persuasive techniques may be relevant to your decision to agree or not, but others will not be.5


Persian Gulf War Satellite Photograph. Surgical bombing in operation "Desert Storm". 1991. An example of propaganda given to believe the argument of a "bloodless" war. Photographs, because of their "instantaneous" visual nature, tend to be believed as authoritative "eyewitnesses". In reality, when properly employed for propaganda, they distract from the complete picture by focusing only on the factors that are important to accept the intended message.

There are many "classic" propaganda techniques. I will briefly focus on three: testimonial, generalization, and scare tactics. Testimonials is the quoting or paraphrasing an authority or celebrity to support one's argument. According to learning theory, people attend to and are influenced by a message stemming from a high-credibility source, a person who has relevant experience and is thought to be expert or trustworthy.6

Often, the celebrity is not qualified to express an opinion on the subject. For example: movie stars are used to recommend a product they may know nothing about. Testimonials can be used in a positive way as well. If the person quoted is truly an authority on the subject being talked about, the testimonial can support an argument. An authority on a subject could be a person who can give advice based on experience.


Your Country Needs You. 1914. British recruitment poster by Alfred Leete

James Montgomery Flagg's-I-want-you-for-the-u.s.-army

I want you for U.S. Army. 1917. American recruitment poster by James Montgomery Flagg.


You too should join the Reichswehr 1919. German recruitment poster by Julius Ussy Engelhard.

The above image is an example of propaganda utilizing a "high credibility source" to deliver the message -in this case, Lord Kitchener, the highly respected British war-hero and Secretary of War. This World War I poster was so successful as a recruitment tool, that other nations on both side of the conflict such as the United States and Germany used it as a model for their own propaganda.

Generalization is a statement that suggests that all members of a group are the same in some way. A generalization denies that some members of the group may be different. For example: -"All Puerto Ricans eat hot spicy foods". (Most never do. Hot spicy foods are not a part of Puerto Rican cuisine; hot spicy foods are a part of Mexican cuisine.) Generalization can also apply to places and things. For example: -"World beaches are polluted with plastic debris". (Many may not be.) People who use generalizations often cite an example in which the situation is true in one instance to convince you that is true all the time.

Scare tactics is the threat that if you do not do or believe this, something terrible will happen. People using this technique write or say alarming worlds or phrases to persuade you to believe an argument. For example: -"Illegal immigration endangers every worker in the United States". (This statement does not say "how" illegal immigration will endanger everyone.) The purpose of the statement is to scare you into believing the argument. The propagandist wants his audience to make a decision based on fear about the issue, not on logical reasoning.


El Communismo destruye la familia. [Communism destroys families]. Anti-Communist poster, Spain. 1936.

La Estafa. [The Swindle]. Anti-Castro comic book, published by The U.S. Information Agency, 1960's and 70's. University of Miami Archives.

Notice the above right image. It illustrates an extremely effective and accessible tool for propaganda scare tactics. Some five million comic books were disseminated in Latin America. Some of the storylines: University students were "forced to fight against the merciless forces" of the revolutionary government; Castro's plans to "invade" Puerto Rico (hence the need for a strong military "defence" force on the island).

Regardless of the tactics used by propagandists to influence public opinion, propaganda has some shortcomings with the audience to rely upon it alone. This is because the audience is made up of individuals who may not be receptive to the message. As in the parable of the farmer spreading the seeds, propaganda will not take hold on the intended audience unless the "mental" ground is favorable for the message to take root.

For example, seeing is not necessarily believing: two people viewing the same object may see entirely different things, and both may have a completely false impression of what the object actually is. The reason, grossly oversimplified, is that they are seeing with the mind as well as with the eye. Everyone considers the message from his or her own particular point of view based upon its own disposition, knowledge, experience, observations, interests, and all other factors we generally encompass in the word "background". In other words, while the communication of the message is the prime mover in propaganda, it will only accomplish its purpose if it is considered in the proper perspective.

As in the case of French public opinion's perceptions about the United States, their perspective (as observed by Oren Stephan in his book Facts to the Candid World) may derive in large part from stereotyped impressions -"the pictures in the head"- of the foreigner about America and Americans. When favorable impressions exist, the propagandist must cultivate them; where no impressions exist, he must create them; and where false ones exist, he must correct them. This, of course, takes time, so to the extent that he or she can, the propagandist does his work through long-range cultural and educational programs.


Art can be used and has been used as an effective tool of propaganda to shape public opinion. This is so because, in a sense, all works of art perform a social role, since they are created for an audience. That is: art performs a social role when it influences collective behavior or people; it is created to be seen or used primarily in public situations; it expresses or describes collective aspects of existence as opposed to individual and personal kinds of experiences. In other words, art can influence attitudes, affecting the way people think or feel and, ultimately, the way they act.

The idea that art may be used to influence social behavior is regarded by some as impure, as mere propaganda. For some, "propaganda art" is a contradiction in term. The word propaganda has a sinister ring that suggests manipulative persuasion, intimidation and deception. In contrast, the idea of art implies to many people a special sphere of activity devoted to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and freedom. But we could not analyze art's complete role in contemporary culture if we ignored its social functions. What's more, the history of art demonstrates that aesthetic excellence is unrelated to the functions which art performs; excellence is not a simple matter of serving noble purposes.

A survey of the history of art indicates that neither the rulers, the revolutionaries, nor the philosophers ignored the importance of emotion in human affairs. Medieval churchmen, the leaders of the Counter Reformation (which, by the way, were the first to coin the word "propaganda"), the art officials at the court of Louis XIV, and the ministers of cultural affairs in certain modern states have all demanded that art convey a message to the masses.

This of course was not a new concept. Ancient empires such as the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans or the Byzantine had used art on monumental scales to inspire awe -and fear- on friends and foes alike. But it was France, during the last half of the eighteenth century that our modern concept of art as propaganda gradually gained support until it reached full development during the revolution.

Art historian James A. Leith, in his book The Idea of Art as Propaganda in France 1750-1799, provides us with a well-researched and analytical study, which focuses wholly on the development of the modern idea of art as propaganda. He writes that French revolutionaries and intellectuals such as Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, were very much aware that they would have to sue the emotional appeal of all the arts -drama, poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, engraving, and architecture- to inspire the masses with new political ideals.7

Lieth also points out that while the French revolutionaries failed to mobilize the arts effectively (their regime did not have the stability necessary for such control), their intentions remained significant. They brought the modern state to the threshold of totalitarianism in the fullest sense of the word –that is, mobilization of every available instrument for impressing ideas on the minds of others. Since the French revolution various totalitarian regimes have taken up the idea of total mobilization of the mass media in order to indoctrinate the masses: Bolshevik Russia, Nazi Germany, Red China, and Castro's Cuba -not to mention the regimes on the right since Napoleon.


Napoleón Bonaparte. Painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1810. A born propagandist, Napoleon understood perfectly well the influence of art in human affairs and utilized it to such great effect that his legend persists to this day. While still a young general, he published his own newspaper (an earlier version of the U.S. army's Stars and Stripes) and even wrote glowing articles about himself! Later on, as First Consul of the Republic and as Emperor, he mobilized an army of artist and intellectuals into the service of the state establishing a style know as "empire" and creating a personality-cult that came to serve as the model for future dictators.

Government propaganda is also a big part of democratic countries, though official agencies now prefer to refer to it with euphemisms such as "information service" or "public education" or "free advertisement". This avoidance of the word caused by a sense of incompatibility with the ideals of democracy meant that propaganda was increasingly associated with the one party state -which use the term unashamedly in official terminology. But beyond the polemics provoked by the modern notions of propaganda, the age-old use of art in the service of politics has been at the heart of controversial debates.

These debates centred on questions that are still relevant: does the use of art for propaganda always imply the subordination of aesthetic quality to the message? Alternatively, can the criteria for judging aesthetic quality ever be separated from ideological values? Art critic Toby Clark argues that the idea that artistic imagination should remain uncompromised by ideological commitments is not new, but, as argued by critics such as Clement Greenberg (1900-1994) in the decades following World War II, the view gained a special force and significance by its reiteration throughout a growing system of museums, galleries, and publications devoted to this particular view of public art.8

In truth, two principal conceptions of the value of art have competed with each other since classical times. Those who hold one point of view have insisted that the main value of art lies in its usefulness as an educational force in the service of religion or some secular ideal. Those holding the other view have asserted that the main value of art consists in its ability to give aesthetic satisfaction independent of an extraneous purpose. The artist of the Italian renaissance, the art patrons of early eighteen-century France, the Impressionists of the nineteen century, and various groups in more recent times have expected art simply to delight the heart and please the eyes.

This is the same argument that Greenberg most influentially voiced in 1939 when he warned against the corrupting effects of what he call "kitsch", which he saw in both the American mass culture and in populist official art of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. He proposed that to defend true art against this, artists should attend to purely artistic concerns; to make, in effect, abstract art, which would be immune to political exploitation.9

This "arts-for-arts-sake" philosophy became the dominant artistic ideology of the period. From mid-1940's New York emerged as the leading center of modern art, just as the United States now led the world economy. By the 1950's, the American School of Abstract Expressionists, among them Greenberg's friend Jackson Pollock (1912-56), was upheld as the epitome of this pure art form. This was at a time when in long lasting regimes, like that of the Soviet Union, the term "propaganda" had no negative connotations among communist, and little distinction was made between propaganda and art.

But the fate of Abstract Expressionism, and the idea that art could remain separate from propaganda, came to be radically challenged in the mid-1970's with the realization that some of the numerous exhibitions which exported Abstract Expressionism (coordinated by New York's Museum of Modern Art -MOMA), and the accompanying curator's statements in which nationalistic rhetoric contrasted the "mark of freedom" in American painting with the "regimented kitsch of the Soviet communism", had been funded and coordinated by the CIA.

To a generation of artists and critics radicalized by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, this fact made a deep impression and many questioned the idea that art should be or even could remain separated from political concerns. Among these was the critic Lucy Lippard10 (b. 1937), who in a 1980 article for the feminist magazine Heresies called for "some propaganda for propaganda": -"such a 'good propaganda' would be what art should be: a provocation, a new way of seeing and thinking about what goes on around us". This positive use of the word has not caught on widely, but the question of whether art can be both political and good remains a live issue for contemporary artists.

In her book, But is it art?, Nina Felshin talks about a "remarkable new hybrid" that emerged in the mid-70's, expanded in the 1980's, and is reaching critical mass and becoming institutionalized in the 1990's.11 She is talking about the "activist art", artwork that combines political art practices and methodologies, but their techniques are those of mass media propaganda -the use of posters, billboards and other populist art forms- and their aims involved a change of attitude on the part of the individual and the community at large. Those in this group are sometimes inclined to speak about "artistic responsibility". For them, art does not exist merely to entertain and gratify; it must edify.

The idea that artistic production might be motivated by the artist's own political convictions barely existed until the late eighteenth century. Again, the French revolution was the catalyst that gave fuel to this artistic development. The French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) stands out as an early example of an artist who chose to unite his aesthetic and political convictions. Other artists soon required themes of more obvious human and social relevance. Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) painted enormous historical and political spectacles, as in Liberty Leading the People, one of the early monuments of revolutionary art.


Oath of the Horatii. 1785. Painting by Jacques-Louis David. An artistic masterpiece that preached patriotism and self-sacrifice in the interest of the state.


Liberty leading the people. 1830. Painting by Eugene Delacroix. All classes are involved in a highly participatory uprising.

In contrast, the work of Delacroix's contemporary, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), exemplifies that of an artist painfully divided by the transition between the traditional and modern conceptions of the artist's role. While he was a court artist, he was also a liberal-minded intellectual, critical to the repressive and corrupt policies of his employers, and in his own privately made drawings he attacked the abuse of power and the barbarism of war. Art historian and critic Michael Levey says that Goya is "always the modern man; the artist who comments on not only what he sees but what he knows".12

Therefore, the means of making an ideological statement are almost limitless: architecture, theatre, music, sports, clothes, and the color of a ribbon can communicate a political view, as can spectacles of violence such as revolutions, terrorism, and suicides. And when a society is wealthy and free enough to indulge its artist in the expression of their private and possibly capricious impulses, we nevertheless have others who employ ideological themes out of choice because of their personal interests and preferences.


From the series Disasters of War. Published 1810-63. Etchings by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes -simply known as Goya.

A brief word must be added to finalize this portion of the essay and the topic of propaganda art by addressing art and propaganda in totalitarian regimes. As noted earlier, a regime must have more stability than that which existed during most of the French revolution. Moreover, such a regime must also be much more ruthless in sacrificing whatever cultural prestige it may have had among rival states, in suppressing the creative freedom of the artist, and in repudiating arts-for-arts-sake. In short, it must break decisively with the conception of art and the artist, which we owe to fifteen-century Italy.

After World War I propaganda achieved great importance as an instrument of national policy in the totalitarian state. Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union deliberated molded public opinion through government propaganda agencies. Every aspect of national life and policy was exploited for purposes of propaganda. Revolutionary leaders had always been aware of the importance of emotion in human affairs.

It was in fact their awareness of the power of emotion, which made them wish to conscript the fine arts in the service of their cause. Art at the service of the state was used to produce emotionally charged images that idealized workers and peasants and elevated their leaders into personality cults. And to effectively communicate its message to a mass audience, it used easily readable populist styles and mediums of mass communication such as films, billboards, comic books and posters that were designed to be "intelligible to millions".


Flag Bearer. 1933. Painting by Hubert Lanzinger. An example of the elevation of leaders into personality cults.


Long live the great Stalin. 1938. Poster by Sirocenqo.

Many radical ideas of the role between art and mass culture were explored the final decades of the nineteen-century. But in their slim track The Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95) provided the most enduring theory of social change (revolution). However, in their philosophical theories, neither Marx nor Engels described in detail what art's role was to be. Although in their remarks on nineteen-century art and literature they indicated their preference for "realism", the definitions of realism became increasingly conflicting as adopted by Marxist-oriented art movements.


Olympiad. Film still, 1938. German documentary sports film written, directed and produced by Leni Reifenstahl. An example of the glorification of the worker and the ideals of the state.


Maoist poster. Easily recognizable and mass produced populist art. The Chinese borrowed heavily from one of the greatest political cartoonist in the West, David Low.


"Very well, alone then!" Political cartoon by David Low. He was called "the greatest caricaturist in the world" for his depictions and his merciless satirizing of the personalities and policies of German dictator Adolf Hitler, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and other leaders of his times.

In the early decades of the twentieth century totalitarian states embraced a shifting mixture of anarchism (ex. China, Argentina), fascism (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperialist Japan, and Franco's Spain), socialism (Mexico), and communism (Soviet Union), and came to different conclusions on how art might play a role in social change.

In Mexico, for example (as in many countries outside Europe emerging our of a state of colonialism), "Marxist Nationalism" was expressed artistically in "the Mexican mural movement". Through this form, public art functioned to articulate revised narratives of national identity.


Night of the Rich and Night of the Poor. 1927-28. Fresco series by Diego Rivera.

The Mexican Mural Movement took advantage of the monumental scale and populist appeal of mural paintings as an instrument for developing class-consciousness and national identity. Marxist ideas of art have been a great influence in Latin American art.


Rastafarian poster of Haile Selassie (Emperor of Ethiopia 1930-74). 1980. Painting by Pete Jammal. Selassie became an icon for subversive (revolutionary) African popular movements.

In state-communism, "Socialist Realism", formally introduced under Joseph Stalin in 1934 as the official aesthetic of the Soviet Union, became an instrument to educate a largely illiterate population in furthering an ambitious agenda of modernization. Soviet art was consequently primarily state funded, public, and directed to a mass audience. And, as the Soviet sphere of political predominance increased, Socialist Realism was later imposed by Marxist-communist states throughout the world (Eastern Europe, People's Republic of China, Cuba, and states in post-colonial Africa) and has been one of the most widely practice and enduring artistic approaches of the twentieth century.

The global influence of Marxism in the arts as well as in politics cannot be underestimated. World famous figures in the arts such as playwrights Jean-Paul Sartre (who was also a novelist and philosopher) and Bertolt Brecht (who was also a major poet) -or, among other poets, Pablo Neruda; or, among painters, Pablo Picasso -regarded themselves as Marxists and Communists. More generally, there is a specifically Marxist view of the role of the art in society that remains widely held and is powerfully operative in the world today. That the true function of art is "social criticism".


Atombrieg Nein [Atom War No]. 1954. Poster by Hans Erni. An example of political art following the principles of social criticism.

According to this view, art would get people to understand in a deeper way than they do what is wrong with the society they live in, and with their own relationship to that society, and therefore with their own lives; and it should make them want to change society (notice how this blends so well with what Nina Felshin described as "activist art"). As a result of this view, Marxist view art as a revolutionary instrument and a prime tool of propaganda. Moreover, while many of the Marxist inspired ideologies of the twentieth century have become discredited and impractical in the world today, the Marxist view of the role of art remained strong and comes close to being the prevailing orthodoxy.

Part II

The relationship between the United States and the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has been one of the most talked about, scrutinized, agonized, analyzed, and debated subjects in the history of Latin American-United States relations. This small island with a population density of three and a half million people, that is geographically as well as culturally set in the middle of two worlds who perceive each other (with a few exceptions) as: one Anglo-American, Protestant and white; the other Latin-American13, Catholic and brown, has been called by politicians, scholars and intellectuals: "the connecting bridge between the two Americas".


Symbols of an imperfect relationship. The American flag and the Puerto Rican flag flow side by side in every school and public building in Puerto Rico.

Such an important and significant title is a panoramic reflection of the role an "emerging" Ibero-America (see the previous endnote) is expected to play in the social, political and economic future of the Western Hemisphere in "the New Millennium", especially as it relates to the continuing American agenda of global supremacy. Furthermore, in a relationship between neighbors that in the final decades of the past century was continually marked by conflict and distrust, Puerto Rico has become, from the United States point of view, a showpiece of the benefits and good will that 'freedom, democracy, and the American people' can bestow upon it's "good neighbors of the South".

This begs the question: -Why then does hardly anyone in the United States mainland know anything about Puerto Rico? Oh, they have heard the name in some form or the other, most possibly through its association to popular television shows such as "New York Undercover" or "NYPD Blues" (actor Jimmy Smits not withstanding, the Puerto Rican is the one that is always up to no good -I'm generalizing of course, but not too much) or the movie version of "West Side Story" (the Puerto Ricans are the cool dancers -I think- who are up to no good). To be fair, a lot more people know a thing or two about Puerto Rico, such as its geographical location: "in the middle of Mexico", or that Puerto Ricans are cool-sexy dancers that move like "Ricky Martin" (for once, they are right!).

But, putting all "humor" aside, there is perhaps in the mind of many contemporary critics on both sides of the waters, a more compelling reason why Puerto Rico has been maintained away from the microscope of public scrutiny. That is that the American people might not like the reflection of their image. Because, if they were to look too close, they might discover a nation of people who have been kept, in their name, in a permanent state of colonial bondage. That is to say, that for over one hundred years, the people of Puerto Rico have been exploited as a market for U.S. goods, investment and cheap labor and its citizens treated as second class Americans. If this is so, how was it accomplished?

The focus of this essay is not Puerto Rican history, or American policy in regards to Latin America; the focus of this essay, as was presented in Part One, is manipulation of public opinion through propaganda and propaganda art. But in order to demonstrate how powerful and pernicious propaganda can be in molding public perceptions to the extent of brainwashing, no other example will be more compelling and close to home than that of the propaganda program of "Americanization" in Puerto Rico.

What makes this case study such a good example to work with is that most of the early facts pertaining to this case were so overt that they are in black and white, so to speak. They are part of a history that is well documented, undisputed, and available for public scrutiny -to anyone who wishes to see things for themselves. So in Part Two of the essay I will attempt to present -in an extremely brief and concise fashion (there are simply too many ramifications to explore within the paltry space of a few pages)- some highlights of the issue, just enough to serve as an example.

I always felt odd when it occurred to me that I could say the Pledge of Allegiance (of the United States), recite the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, sing all the lyrics to the song Age of Aquarius (!) and identify quite a number of U.S. presidents and American national heroes. What was strange about it was that I could do all this without knowing a word of English or understanding what I was saying (I learned English in my twenties). Even more peculiar was that many old timers could do pretty much the same thing as well as some of my school buddies -not that they could do it perfectly, just close enough. None of them spoke English; all were Spanish speakers.

This was my experience during the 1960's and 70's, when I was living in Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island-nation of Spanish-speaking people14 who had been invaded by the United States in 1898 during the Spanish American War. That the Americans had come to stay was never questioned -they were a part of the scenery. The American flag waved next to the Puerto Rican flag in the schoolyard; the United Sates national anthem was played before every ceremony and event (no lyrics, just the music). It was just done; no one understood a word or questioned why. Today, the Americans are still the masters of the island -and now, I know why they stayed.


"Then thousand miles from tip to tip" Political cartoon, 1898. The birth of a new world power.


By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States of America had proclaimed its Manifest Destiny of exporting its benefits to "inferior" peoples, especially to the peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico (ruled by Spain) and Hawaii, as Secretary of State Blaine suggested in a written report seven years before the Spanish-American War.15 This was all part of the over-all plan of American expansionist policy of the period. Another eloquent speaker of the time endorsing these ideas was statesman Henry Cabot Lodge. He wanted to include Canada, too.

Well before the outbreak of the war in 1898, the American press built up support for war to accomplish these objectives. Their view was that war was good for business. Historian John Tebbel writes: -"It was a time when national honour and patriotic pride were elevated to the stature of religion. People were optimistic because times were good, and they wallowed in romantic nationalism".16


"The sinking of the Maine" Front page headlines, 1898. The National Geographic Society did an investigation in 1999, using computer simulations. All investigations agreed that an internal explosion of the forward magazines caused the destruction of the ship.

This pretext to start a war with Spain was the incident of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor. The "splendid little war" -a phrase coined by Hearst newspaper war correspondent Richard Harding Davis (1864 - 1916) lasted 115 days. United States, by this act of militarism, was now an Imperialists world power with Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines in its colonial portfolio. In fact, the United States government postponed for two weeks the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which would officially end the war, until its fleet reached and "liberated" the people of "Porto Rico."

Not everyone was in favor of America's new diplomacy. Morefield Storey, a wealthy Boston lawyer who had been prominent in the anti-slavery movement first and then in the anti-imperialist movement, said of the taking Puerto Rico that -"it was done not by the will of its citizens, but by grant [at gun point] from Spain... one oppressor succeeds another, and the people whose liberties we interfered to defend are not consulted either". He was right.


-"Well, I hardly know which to take first!" Editorial cartoon, 1898. This cartoon reflects the belief of those who thought the war was an excuse to seize territory. History proved them right.

Tebbel writes: -"Americans closed their eyes to any claim of other people's humanity, and whatever moral outrage there might be was confined to the intellectuals and Democratic newspapers". Historian Richard E. Welch Jr., words it this way: "Those were years of prosperity and expansion on the home market. Nothing else seemed to matter". Beginning in 1898, the United States sought to remake Puerto Rican society into something akin to its own, to remodel islander's attitudes and institutions to more closely resemble those of the sovereign power.


-"General Miles Makes A Landing In Porto Rico". 1898 newspaper headline. Major General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the invasion, issued a general proclamation in the only language he spoke to the people of Puerto Rico, who could not understand him even if they could hear him. It was the first public statement from his government on the island: -“In the prosecution of the war against the kingdom of Spain by the people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Puerto Rico… They bring the fostering arm of a free people, whose greatest power is in its justice and humanity to all those living within its fold.” Puerto Ricans scratched their heads in bewilderment.

In the spirit of the times, "Americanization" was undertaken. -"Like most countries", explained Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (who had been governor of both Puerto Rico and the Philippines prior to World War II), "we were convinced that we had the best form of government ever devised in the world and that our customs and habits were also the most advisable". 17

The remodelling of Puerto Rico was not simply a matter of appropriating the resources of the land. U.S. leaders also sought to replace Spanish institutions. They had a clear agenda for the Americanization of the island, a requisite for the eventual rule and integration into the United States of a population they perceived as politically immature and unequipped for self-government. One of the causes for their political immaturity (quoted by a senator from Louisiana) was that "the hot sun of the tropics affected the reasoning faculties of the brown people".

holding-his-end-up,-editorial cartoon, 1898

-"Holding his end up." Editorial cartoon, 1898. During this time, the terms "Yellow journalism" and the "yellow press" were coined to describe American journalism and associated newspapers that present little or no legitimate well-researched news, while instead, using eye-catching headlines, imaginary drawings, and a parade of so-called experts or eyewitnesses for purpose of increasing sales and inflaming public attitudes and prejudices.

Not everyone agreed. Hubert Herring writes: -"Whatever may be said of the Puerto Ricans, they are not children. For 400 years they served Spain. Other colonies revolted and escaped, but Puerto Rico was peaceful and small. The Puerto Ricans had recourse to politics, and they became expert. They outplayed Spanish governors and cabinets systematically and malevolently".18

Ironically, Puerto Ricans had painstakingly negotiated from Spain internal autonomy, which was put to an end by the American invasion six months after it was inaugurated. The concessions made by Spain allowed more autonomy to Puerto Rico than it possesses today after one hundred years of American rule.

Luis Muñoz Marin (first elected Puerto Rican governor of Puerto Rico), whose father, Luis Muñoz Rivera had been an important member of the negotiating team, writes: -Spain had granted Puerto Rico an autonomous form of government. Puerto Ricans ran the island under a responsible Cabinet system, and the governor-general, baring his military command, was as purely ceremonial as his colleague of Canada. Puerto Rico had control of her customs, a measure of treaty-making power, and sixteen representatives in the Madrid Courts. She was empowered to develop her economic life as best suited her tastes and interests". He adds, -But there seems to be a feeling in the United States against permitting others to be responsible for their own welfare".19

Historian Arturo Morales Carrión has described the process of Americanization from the Puerto Rican point of view: -"Americanization as a creed did not simply involved embracing the principles of American Federalism or establishing the political institutions of republican America, but of accepting American tutelage with the notion that one belonged to a decadent and inferior civilization, that the new tutors were the benevolent masters, that one had to undergo not simply a civic but a psychological transformation".20

This unself-conscious belief in the superiority of everything from the United States drove the extensive reforms implemented by U.S. military administrators. The feeling of inferiority has been one of the most damaging aspects of American propaganda. This has helped perpetuate a colonial mentality of political vacillation and uncomplaining submissiveness.

Then the United States reinforced that sense of inferiority by making Puerto Rico an incorporated territory (not a state, not a nation, not free, a land in political limbo). The native Puerto Rican's rights were not and still are not constitutionally guaranteed; rather, they are congressionally determined. During its first 17 years of American rule, the island citizens were called "the people of Porto Rico"; the islander was not a citizen of any place.

An excerpt from a speech delivered by Puerto Rican poet and statesman, José de Diego, clearly reflects their collective sense of frustration and betrayal. -"We request American citizenship with all the rights inherent to the great title of American citizens. This is citizenship with autonomy. And if one of these two, one independent of the other, which is absurd, is offered to us, we prefer self-government to American citizenship, rather than citizenship without self-government." (July 1, 1907)


Another myth American propaganda has labored to convincingly create is that Puerto Ricans cannot survive economically on their own. Two weeks after the army landed, a second army of businessmen and speculators invaded the island. According to an editorial by The New York Times, Puerto Rico was -"...a highly productive island... yielding coffee, sugar, fruits, nuts and tobacco. The business of the country is in an unusually sound and healthy condition." July 29, 1898. In short, Puerto Rico was (my words) a "robber-baron's haven", its population blind, bound and gagged.

The local economy was taken over and absentee landowners and corporations appropriated the land. Small farmers (the core of a mostly self-sufficient economy) were taxed out of their farms (for usually less than twenty dollars) providing huge levies of cheap labor for the new American landowners. Commerce was only allowed through U.S. merchant companies whose tariffs were more than double that of the U.S. mainland. Trade with other nations was prohibited [see appendix note at the end of the essay].

There was opposition in Congress from those who thought that these harsh economic measures were a blatant violation of American Ideals and individual freedoms. But their voices were unheard. Here are some quotes: -"The humane people of the United States cannot too soon be aroused to the fact that the Republicans in Congress are proposing to commit, in the name of the nation, an act of unparalleled and shameful cruelty. Now the Republican plan is, on the one hand to refuse the Porto Ricans a market for what they raise, and on the other to tax them exorbitantly for the food they must have or starve. Did a Borgia or a Bajazet ever condemn his subjects to death with a more refined cruelty?" 21

To create a working class of trained workers for American firms it was first necessary to indoctrinate them in American culture, to make them desire American products, and make them buy American goods. The aim of this policy was to create a dependency -a colony.

Next, the education system was completely reinvented. English was made the official language and a policy of discrimination based on communication began. Within two years, all Puerto Rican schools had reading material in English, U.S. history books, and U.S. maps. Thanks to a donation of a Civil War veteran's organization, boasted the military governor, -"nearly every school house in the island is provided with an American flag".22

During the next four decades, English teachers were brought from the United States and paid by Puerto Ricans at double the wage of local teachers. Puerto Rican teachers were forced to teach in English or lose their jobs. They were tested yearly for English proficiency and their scores publicly posted -an act that was humiliating to them.

Hundreds of American teachers have gone to Puerto Rico to teach English, but they were paid with Puerto Rican dollar. None of this came out of the public purse of the United States. Their salaries, along with other expense attached to English instruction, have been a crushing burden on the slender resources of the Island. The last thing the Puerto Rican masses needed was English... Why teach them English when the majority live and die within twenty miles of the ocean and never see it?" 23


-"Overheard in the National Art Gallery." Editorial cartoon, 1898. Notice that the name of Puerto Rico [which means "Rich Port"] was changed and remained so for decades to facilitate Anglo pronunciation of the name. It was not until the formation of the Commonwealth in 1952 when the governing of local affairs reverted into native hands, that the name was officially reinstated.

Puerto Rico's 400 years of history as a people was being systematically erased. "American heroes" would replace their own national heroes, American holidays were to replace Spanish holidays, and Protestant missionaries would convert the people to Anglo-Saxon values. The children were taught in school to sing the "Star Spangled Banner", "America", "Hail Columbia", and other patriotic songs of its conquerors. They had to salute the flag each day. In some schools they had to dress in red, white and blue. The Puerto Rican flag was no more. The print media, later radio, and then television continually served a diet of propaganda news and patriotic symbols.


-"Saying the pledge of allegiance." Photograph by Jack Delano, 1941. A Puerto Rican classroom.

Roberta Ann Johnson, author and Professor of Politics, writes: -"The United States officials reinforced that sense of Puerto Rican inferiority for they completely ignored Puerto Rican mores and acted as if they 'believed the island sprung from the ocean just on the eve of the landing of American troops'." 24 Political science professor, Gordon K. Lewis, an expert on Puerto Rican affairs and author of many writings on the subject, expressed an analysis of the situation in a very eloquent manner: -"Americans suffer a cultural ethnocentrism and a moral egocentricity that makes them bad colonial masters". 25

school-begins, political cartoon

-"School begins." Editorial cartoon, 1898. "Americans suffer a cultural ethnocentrism and a moral egocentricity that makes them bad colonial masters." -Gordon K. Lewis, author and Political Science Professor."

What were the motives behind the Americanization Program? Victor S. Clark, appointed president of the newly established Puerto Rico Board of Education, made explicit the goals of the educational policy in an 1899 report to his superiors: -"If the schools are made American, and teachers and pupils are inspired with the American Spirit, and people of both races can be made to cooperate harmoniously in building up the schools, the island will become in its sympathies, view, and attitudes toward life and toward government essentially American. The great mass of Puerto Rico is as yet passive and plastic... Their ideals are in our hands to mould." 26


But U.S. administrations failed to notice that you can't mold anything with a sledgehammer. The first fifty years of American occupation and military rule left much to be desired from "the fostering arm of the free people (of the United States)." It is no wonder that Puerto Rico's history in the century of U.S. sovereignty has been characterized by resistance to Americanization. Leaders of political parties favoring independence or some form of autonomy have vigilantly demonstrated their unwillingness to acquiesce to the island becoming essentially American in its language and customs.


The attempt by the United States to impose its language and institutions engendered resentment and fierce adherence to Puerto Ricaness. Photo credit: Alvin Baez/Reuters.

The overt coercive pressure to Americanize in the early decades of U.S. sovereignty (1898 to 1953) was not without effect, particularly on Puerto Rico's legal, educational and military structures. The U.S. influence on Puerto Rican society is undeniable, and a covert program of mass propaganda continues to maintain a positive perception towards American policy of political and economic dependence. But in spite of that, the symbols of Puerto Rican identity have not given way to U.S. replacement.

Puerto Rican leaders generally welcomed the United States take-over of the island because it represented democracy and they thought, the self-rule they had been seeking. But the reluctance of the United States to bestow self-rule and the attempt by the United States to impose its language and institutions engendered resentment and fierce adherence to Puerto Ricaness. In this way, the U.S. pressure in Puerto Rico may have strengthened Puerto Rican identity and Puerto Rican nationalism.

the-goddesses-of-liberty political cartoon

-"The Goddess of Liberty". Editorial cartoon, 1898. Images like this one helped create a myth of American benevolence.

U.S. propaganda to the world is that it has -through its benign tutelage, helped the poor people of Puerto Rico create a jewel in the Caribbean; a paradise of prosperity, democracy and freedom; that the days of its colonial system of government have ended. This is an image not easy to contradict -especially when it is continually repeated through the island's 98-percent American-controlled news and entertainment media.

After all, is not the government of Puerto Rico (misleadingly called 'A Commonwealth' -Canada was the intended model) an Estado Libre Asociado [a free state associated to the United States]? And here lies the crux of the matter -the big lie. It does not require incisive scrutiny to realize that Puerto Rico is neither free nor a state.

congress controls the gate political cartoon

-"Not Permitted to Enter." Editorial cartoon, 1898. This political cartoon captures the tense political situation. Congress controls the gates between the Constitution and Puerto Rico, implying that the latter would be ruled with a more restrictive, colonial government.

There has been, since 1947, an expansion of self-government. In fact, Puerto Rico made its greatest economic progress in the 1950's and 1960's, at a time when Puerto Ricans -not Americans- directed the island's local affairs. A number of Americans lent their expertise as consultants and aides, but all key cabinet and legislative posts where held by Puerto Ricans. 27

However, some 85 percent of the basic areas of government that constitute national sovereignty in any generally understood definition of the term (defence, maritime transportation, tariff policy and trade, financial laws, environment, citizenship, juridical appeals, minimum wages and other labor matters, civil aviation, postal, communication, customs, immigration, navigable waters, planning, transfer of federal lands, and military use of the island territory) remain under the jurisdiction and whims of an "oligarchy of strangers": the members of the relevant Congressional Committees. The government of Puerto Rico, in effect, governs practically nothing; the United States controls practically everything.

Why the need to maintain the lie? World opinion. After all, didn't the last vestiges of nineteenth-century colonialism disappear when the imperialist European powers of old granted independence to their former colonies (mostly in Africa and the West Indies) during the 1960's? Could the United States -the loud bard for democracy and human rights in the world- do no less with its Spanish colony? Obviously, it could (and should have) but it did not.

U.S. policy makers and business leaders felt that Puerto Rico was too good of a prize to let go without some sneaky political manoeuvering. So instead of doing the noble thing by fulfilling the promises of freedom made three days after landing on Guánica Bay, the United States instituted a system of subtle colonialism veiled through an effective program of propaganda. Why is the United States so intent on keeping Puerto Rico? What else: money and power.

you ungrateful skunk, political cartoon

The caption reads: -"You ungrateful skunk! After me knocking off that Spanish burden for you I guess you ought to be mighty proud and thankful to carry mine." This 1899 political cartoon about the United States attitude toward the Philippines (also a former Spanish colony) was the same to Puerto Rico.

According to 1989 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce: Puerto Rico, a small nation with a geographical area of one hundred miles by thirty-five, with a population of three and a half million people, is the fifth largest consumer in all the world of American goods. In fact, Puerto Rico is the largest buyer of American goods in the Western Hemisphere creating thus the equivalent of two hundred forty thousand jobs in the United States. And figures have increased in the succeeding years. -"We have our hats off to Puerto Rico."28

Profits to American companies are huge. San Juan is one of the world's 20th busiest container ports because everything has is imported. Consumers in Puerto Rico pay millions of dollars more a year than they would pay for the same products in the U.S. The mass media delivers a constant bombardment of advertisements with large shopping malls are only minutes away from everyone's reach.

Puerto Rican tax laws and enticements have been a godsend for American investors. In the late 1970's, U.S. corporate profits from direct investment in Puerto Rico amounted to more than the total profit from U.S. direct investments in all European countries combined.29 The benefits to the United States are simply too good to let go -or let loose.


The other side of the coin, of course, is Puerto Rico's strategic position to the military. Puerto Rico was for centuries an "Island Fortress". It was key to Spanish power in the region as it is now to the United States. As a result, Puerto Ricans have a long and distinguish military tradition. Along their Spanish overlords, they defended the island against British, Dutch, and French invaders; served under General Galves in the American revolutionary war; fought Spain's colonial wars in Latin America; and have fought for the United States in every conflict since the Spanish American War, in an army they consider "foreign".

In World War I, out of a population of one million three hundred thousand people, one hundred and forty thousand Puerto Rican men served under the American flag (with no desertions). In the Korean conflict, the all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry was one of the most distinguished, controversial and decorated units of the war. One of the pilots who died on the raid on Libya during the Reagan administration was a Puerto Rican. Wherever there is conflict involving U.S. Armed Forces, the "Boricuas" are there.


The all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry, -"The forgotten heroes of a forgotten wars." World War I, World War II (Naples-Foggia, Central Europe, Battle of the Rhineland); Korean War (Operation "Killer", Battle of Cherwon, "Jackson Heights", Outpost Kelly).

Puerto Ricans have a strong code of service, loyalty and duty. Over 200,000 have had "the priveledge" to serve in all U.S. wars since WWI, more than 2,000 have made the supreme sacrifice; four were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. They have earned the rights that many Americans take for granted. As defenders of "American ideals" they have distinguished themselves in all the branches of the United States Armed Forces and have earned the ranks of General and Admiral in spite of not enjoying full citizenship, not being able to vote in presidential elections for their Commander-in-Chief, not being able to elect the congressional members who send them to war, and without having had the right to be conscientious objectors to the draft.


The all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry, "The Borinqueneers." Painting by J. Andrea, 1992. National Guard Heritage Foundation. The battle portrayed was the last recorded battalion-sized bayonet attack by the U.S. Army by the famed and controversial all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry in action during the Korean War. The regiment's name derives from "Borinquen", the traditional Indian name of Puerto Rico, which is also the title of Puerto Rico’s national anthem, La Borinqueña.

The military presence in Puerto Rico is overwhelming. Under the guise of a "common defence" (who are Puerto Rico's enemies? -Aside from that tale that Fidel Castro is planning to invade) the United States military bases use 13 percent of Puerto Rico's best land and maintain bases in the middle of the island most densely populated metropolitan area. But unlike American bases in other friendly nations, the U.S. does not pay a cent for the use of its land to Puerto Rico.

The United States government spends millions of dollars yearly in Federal Aid to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans pay no Federal taxes (up until the 1990's, American companies got huge tax incentives or pay no local tax). However, a fact that is not brought forth when debating issues of economic dependence (the old myth) is that 60 percent of all "federal aid" to Puerto Rico is in fact payment and pensions to federal employees (and its extensive intelligence apparatus) and social security benefits.


-"Who is Getting the Better Deal?" The numbers speak for themselves.

Another fact that remains hidden is that if the Federal government were to pay the government of Puerto for the "privilege" of having the military use some of the most valuable land for its large military bases, the "aid deficit" would more than balance. In fact, it's a pittance.

This of course is not the perception that the U.S. government wants the Puerto Rican people to dwelt on. Perhaps too much attention on the issue might bring about the realization that if the bases were to be closed the economic development of the land might bring millions of dollars in new industries (probably from Europe and Asia).

And if the trade restrictions were to be lifted and tariffs in the hundreds of millions returned to the Puerto Rican treasury the island might not be left in the catastrophic conditions American propaganda has forecast. The rice might be imported in packages with Chinese writing, its gasoline might come from the South (Venezuela), and there might be a period of privation of luxury items, but in the long term Puerto Ricans will do what do know how to do best: whine, adapt, survive, and prosper.


After more than a century of U.S. sovereignty, after one hundred and three years of partial integration into the institutions of a large powerful country with a history and traditions different from its own, after generations living under the American brand of colonialism, Puerto Ricans have nonetheless managed to endure the non-stop bombardment of a political, economical, cultural and psychological onslaught from a powerful and determined foreign influence.

It begs the question, why after more than a century of American controlling influence and continued propaganda, has the United States failed to Americanize the Puerto Rican people? Part of the answer rests in American difficulty when dealing with cultures different from its own. Gordon K. Lewis' observation -"Americans suffer a cultural ethnocentrism and a moral egocentricity that makes them bad colonial masters", rings truer than ever at the dawning of the twenty-first century.

puerto-rico-hoy,-ayer-y-para-siempre, painting by John Rivera-Resto

-"Puerto Rico hoy, ayer, y para siempre. " [Puerto Rico today, yesterday and forever] 1977. Painting by John Rivera-Resto. Flags have a single purpose: they represent something. -"It is our symbol of defiance and protest against the mistreatment of a century of domination." Sen. Rubén Berrios Martinez. La Independencia de Puerto Rico. 1993. Page 32.

In over a century of U.S. dominion, island leaders have attempted to communicate to the United States two interrelated messages: Puerto Ricans are a distinct people who require self-government, and Puerto Rico's uniqueness is worth preserving. Instead of eroding and destroying Puerto Rico's national identity with its program of political control, economic servitude and enforced Americanization, Puerto Ricans retain a strong sense of themselves as Puerto Ricans first, and then as Latin American.

Perhaps because of this identity conflict in the Puerto Rican experience, Americans are surprised to learn that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. But unlike most immigrants into the United States, Puerto Ricans never had the "Ellis Island" experience, nor had they to swim across rivers or climb over barriers into the United States. In fact, Puerto Ricans never had to leave their island to become citizens. They simply went to sleep one day as Puerto Ricans and wake up next day to find out that they were now "Americans". This is because Puerto Ricans are the only Latin American people forced to become U.S. citizens.

This happened in 1917 by an act U.S. Congress, which was voted into law by president Woodrow Wilson. The Jones Act, as it was called, gave U.S. citizenship to the natural habitants of Puerto Rico, and established an elected Senate. However, the governor of Puerto Rico continued to by named by the president of the United States and his cabinet had to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate and not the Puerto Rican legislature. It would take another thirty years to make the governorship an elected post.

Receiving U.S. citizenship did not mean that Puerto Rican would receive the full rights of American citizenship. To begin with, the Jones Art made certain that all political power stayed in Washington. Neither were the Puerto Rican people truly consulted in any decision-making. They were given "a choice" to become U.S. citizens, or to reject U.S. citizenship by leaving the Island (preferably for Spain). The option of being Puerto Ricans in their own free nation was not even considered.

To make things even more demeaning was American determination to deny its "new citizens" the right of representation in Congress, or the right to vote in presidential elections (they still do not have this rights unless they migrate to the U.S. mainland). To all intents and purposes, Puerto Ricans did not have any voice or vote in deciding their fate.


-"El pan nuestro." [Our daily bread] 1905. Painting by Ramón Frade. Puerto Rico's most beloved image of itself as "the jíbaro" (mountain farmer), their national symbol for facing privation and adversity with dignity, quite humility, and pride.

By making Puerto Ricans "U.S. citizens" Washington now had the excuse it needed to "legalize" their actions before the world (in a time of great global turmoil) and to maintain it's new "colony" under control, just in time to enter World War I. It also gave the U.S. a pretext to enlist Puerto Rican men to fight in their wars and the privilege to die protecting their "liberties and freedoms".


Puerto Rican cries about empty promises have been -and continue to be- a volatile dilemma for the United States who is always conscious of public opinion at home and abroad. The struggle over "Vieques Island", (a small Puerto Rican island municipality) where a small population is harassed daily by bombing practices by the Caribbean Sea Frontier Command of the United States Navy, dramatizes the inequality of power and influence in the relation between the Puerto Rico and the United States.

The situation in Vieques, which has received little or no attention by the mainland media -an act that would be comparable to the bombing of Martha's Vineyard by the navy- has strained the American vice-like control of public opinion in Puerto Rico by uniting (probably for the first time in a century) all social, political, and religious factions in the island on a common cause in spite of the increased efforts of American propaganda. This ‘David vs. Goliath’ issue has galvanized a society famous worldwide for its hospitality toward others into acts of civil disobedience and toppled a pro-American administration in the island.

peace for viequez march

-"Paz para Vieques." [Peace for Vieques] February 21, 2000. Over one-hundred thousand people participated in the march. Photo credit: GFR Media.

The United States is very aware that in the present age of instant communication the spotlight of world public opinion can be brought upon them if enough attention if focus on their colonialist policies on Puerto Rico. A positive perception of the United States must be maintained to control public opinion abroad particularly in a time when America needs to present its better face in other to assert American leadership in world affairs.

Puerto Ricans have not failed to notice this chink on the American juggernaut. They are very aware that the only path available to them in breaking through the barrier of American propaganda is to reach out to the world and change the course of public opinion in their favor.

But why has it taken so long for the people of Puerto Rico to stand up for their rights as a united people? One can argue that American propaganda has been so effective that for over a century it has maintain psychological control over a colonized people. But Puerto Ricans are greatly to blame for their own failure to break this psychological control. How did they fail? Many are the reasons, but I believe they suffer its most damaging blunder by not taking control of one of the most effective tools of counter propaganda: The Public School System.

a puerto rican classroom

Mi escuelita [My beloved school]. Print (artist unknown). Puerto Rico's oldest and most cherished battleground for reclaiming its cultural identity.

Education is one of the pillars of Puerto Rican society. Family and church are the other two. Educators and intellectuals have traditionally enjoyed great prestige and regard by all levels of the population. Education is seen as the way for upward mobility and social prestige and Puerto Rico enjoys one of the world's highest post-secondary enrollments with students attending twenty-nine private and six public institutions.

But the educational system in Puerto Rico differs from most public educational systems in the U.S. in the way it is controlled. While Americans are adamant about keeping state (and church) away from their public schools, Puerto Rican schools are under the control of a single state agency, The Puerto Rico Department of Education. Throughout its history the public educational system has been highly centralized, with policy and decision-making for all academic, administrative and fiscal matters.

education-in-puerto-rico, a highschool classroom

English class in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico. 1949. Spanish is the language of education; English is ineffectively taught as a second language in grades K to 12. Photo credit: OAH -Organization of American Historians.

I am a product of the Puerto Rican educational system and I believe that in many ways it is more effective that other educational systems, particularly in matters of discipline and methodology (I hold a bachelor's degree in education from Cleveland State University). Other nations such as Japan have a comparable system and no one can deny its effectiveness. It has many weaknesses that need to be remodeled to fit the needs of a rapidly evolving society. But I strongly believe that its strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

However, we must keep in mind that when The Puerto Rico Department of Education was instituted in 1899 its mission was to implement a program of ‘Americanization’ that would mold the island's sympathies, views, and attitudes toward life and toward government to be essentially American. Puerto Rican history, language, heroes and national symbols were brought back into the classroom in the 1950's when most of the island's institutions were turned over to Puerto Rican control. But what remained missing from the Puerto Rican history school texts -to this day, are most of the historical notes presented in this essay.


-"A Puerto Rican classroom." 1959. Puerto Rican history, language, heroes and national symbols were brought back into the classroom in the 1950's when most of the island's institutions were turned over to Puerto Rican control. Photo credit: Elliot Erwitt.

A long period of U.S.-Puerto Rican history has been whitewashed in the same manner as Japanese involvement in World War II has been whitewashed from Japanese school texts. Consequently, most Puerto Rican students are not introduced to these facts until they enter the halls of higher education, such as The University of Puerto Rico. As a result, Puerto Rican colleges and universities have been the most controversial, besieged, liberating and embittered "battle grounds" for the minds and hearts of the Puerto Rican people.


The people of Puerto Rico are facing their present dilemma as members of a nation without nationhood -a people whose past and present are obscured by propaganda and whose collective future is shrouded by uncertainty. Resolving the issue of whether to maintain the status quo, to become the 51st state of the United States, or to gain its independence, is the great schism that has kept Puerto Rico submissive in its colonialism.

Puerto Ricans must also understand that in order to make a decision about their political status and future as a nation as free people they must first be free. Perhaps they should play a joke on the United States by voting for independence in the next national referendum –to see what would happen. If they were to do so they will understand that all the century-old political infighting has been for naught. Because even if Puerto Ricans voted to be an independent nation it is the United States who has the last word and the power to grant it. Will the United States grant Puerto Rico independence? That is the question. I believe that it will not, unless, there are strings attached.

Wanting independence does not make Puerto Ricans anti-American. Wanting statehood does not make Puerto Ricans anti-Puerto Rican. Wanting the version of "Commonwealth" we have now, simply preserves their colonial status. So what is the answer to the Puerto Rican dilemma? Justice is the answer. Truth is the answer. The United States should rise to the calling of its ideals and grant Puerto Rico in the twenty first century the independence it promised at the closing of the nineteenth century. No Puerto Rican referendum is needed to do so. Then, the U.S. should help Puerto Rico through a period of adjustment. This would be the time to resolve many issues that nationhood and the end of colonialism creates.

Finally, after Puerto Rico has had an opportunity to experience freedom and true nationhood during a pre-determined period of time, Puerto Ricans should decide whether to continue to be an independent nation, or whether to apply to become the 51st state of the United States, or to satisfied the best of both interests by becoming a real Commonwealth in the model of nations that form the British Commonwealth. This will allow for a better resolution of issues such as travel between the two nations, commercial trade, and the continued integration of Puerto Rican resources into the American armed forces. Only by working together will both nations attain a resolution to a not-so-noble chapter of their history and thereafter move ahead as friends.


I am not a politician; I am a Puerto Rican artist born in the United States, raised in Puerto Rico, living in the United States. As a painter I follow the dogma that art should not preach or judge, but make us understand. As a writer I wrestle with both arguments in my conscience and try to understand so that I can be responsible for my words. I apologize for my errors and shortcomings. They are not intentional.

You the reader should not take my words and the thoughts expressed in this essay at face value. It will gain you more if you set out to learn the facts for yourself. I have included an extensive bibliography to get you started. My only intention is to set you off on that journey. But once you complete your journey, remember: publicly express your opinion whatever it may be. You might set others on their own journeys. And, wherever that may take them, I hope, may bring us closer.

John Rivera-Resto, May 2001.

These are some example of trade barriers imposed by the U.S. on the Island of Puerto Rico. Today, May 2001, it costs Puerto Rico twice as much to import rice (a basic staple) from California than it costs the United States to import the same amount from China or Japan who are thousands of miles away. The cost of shipping Puerto Rican coffee from Puerto Rico to New York costs almost three times what it costs to ship the same amount from Colombia (twice the distance) to New York. Instead of buying its gasoline directly from Venezuela at considerable savings to consumers and the islands ecology, American oil companies for decades processed crude oil in Puerto Rico (polluting the island), then shipped the product to the U.S. mainland for the final stages of refinement, and, to add insult to injury, sold gasoline to Puerto Rico (which now has to be imported back from the mainland) at inflated prices.

  1. The United States Information Agency (USIA), established in 1953 to conduct propaganda and cultural activities abroad, operated the Voice of America, a radio network that carries news and information about the U.S. in more than 40 languages to all parts of the world. In 1967 it was revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had for years covertly supported numerous American and foreign labour, student, and political organizations, such as Radio Free Europe, the efforts of which benefited U.S. foreign policy.
  2. Oren Stephans. Facts to a Candid World: America's Overseas Information Program. Stanford University Press, CA, USA. 1966. Pg. 68-69.
  3. Lasell, H.D., & Caseu. R.D. Propaganda, communication, and public opinion. Princeton University Press. 1946.
  4. Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda. W.H. Freeman and company, New York, 1991. Pg. 9-11.
  5. Bradley Steffens. Free Speech: Identifying propaganda techniques. T.L. Litt/Impact Visuals, Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1989. Pg. 5.
  6. Pratkanis, Greeward, Leippe, & Baumgadner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1988. Pg. 203-218.
  7. James A. Leith. The Idea of Art as Propaganda in France 1750-1799: A study of the history of ideas. University of Toronto Press, Canada, 1965. Pg. 156-159.
  8. Toby Clark. Art and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century: The political image in the age of mass culture. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York, 1997. Pg. 8-10, 13.
  9. Toby Clark. Art and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century: The political image in the age of mass culture.
  10. Lucy Lippard. Heresies Magazine, 1980.
  11. Nina Felshin. But is it Art?: The Spirit of Art and Activism. Bay Press, Inc., Seattle, 1995. Pg. 9-10.
  12. Michael Levy, Rococo and Revolution: Mayor Trends in Eighteenth-Century Painting. Oxford University Press, 1966, 1977. Pg. 204.
  13. The denomination Latin American is inexact, being rooted in the fact that Spanish and Portuguese derived from Latin. But in a very important region of Canada French is spoken -also a Latin tongue- yet no one thinks of French-Canada as being Latin America. This term is as inappropriate as if the United States were to be called Germanic America, based on the fact that English is a Germanic tongue. Therefore, it is only proper to refer to the American region with nations that have Spanish or Portuguese as their official language as Ibero-America. The reason for this is that all those countries were discovered, colonized and Christianized for Spain and Portugal, and these two countries constitute the Iberian Peninsula. When referring only to countries of Spanish tongue, we say Hispanic America.
  14. Puerto Ricans are described as being "bilinguals" (fluent in the Spanish and English language) by governing administrations (like the present one at the date of this writing) that favoured Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state of the United States. This is so because a pre-requisite for inclusion into the Union is that ‘English is spoken by a clear majority in the unincorporated territory.' In reality, according to many studies and the latest census figures, eighty percent of the island's population is monolingual; they can only speak Spanish.
  15. L. L. Cripps. Puerto Rico: The case for independence. Borinquen Books, Puerto Rico, 1993. Pg. 2-3.
  16. John Tebbel. America's Great Patriotic War with Spain: Mixed Motives, Lies and Racism in Cuba and the Philippines, 1898-1915. Marshall Jones Company, Manchester, Vermont. 1996. Pg. 407.
  17. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. American Imperialism: Viewpoints of United States Foreign Policy, 1898-1941. Doubleday, Doran & Co., New York, 1937. Pg. 85.
  18. Hubert Herring. Rebellion in Puerto Rico. The Nation CXXXVII, November 29, 1933. Pg. 618-19.
  19. From Luis Muñoz Marín. The American Mercury, XVI, No. 62, February, 1929.
  20. Arturo Morales Carrión. The National Question of Puerto Rico. 1990. Pg. 46.
  21. The Nation, LXX, No. 1807, pg. 122.
  22. Davies. 1899. Pg. 656.
  23. From Bailey W. Diffie and Justin Whitfield Diffie, The Broken Pledge. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1931. Pg. 199-220.
  24. Roberta Ann Johnson. Puerto Rico: Commonwealth or Colony? Pg. 46.
  25. Gordon K. Lewis. Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean. Harper Row, New York, 1968.
  26. Davies 1899:656. Roberta Ann Johnson. Puerto Rico: Commonwealth or Colony?
  27. Kal Wageneheim. The Puerto Ricans: A documentary history. Preager Publishers, Inc., 1973. Pg. 230.
  28. U.S. Department of Commerce. The Cleveland Plain Dealer. For the record: The growth of Puerto Rico. Monday, January 2, 1989.
  29. Figures according to both the Manchester Guardian of England and Le Monde of Paris. L.L. Cripps. Puerto Rico: the Case for Independence. Pg. 192.


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