Puerto Rico (pwār´tō rē´kō), island (2005 est. pop. 3,917,000), 3,508 sq mi (9,086 sq km), West Indies, c.1,000 mi (1,610 km) SE of Miami, Fla. Officially known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (a self-governing entity in association with the United States), it includes the offshore islands of Mona, Vieques, and Culebra. The capital and largest city is San Juan.
Smallest and easternmost of the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the north and the Caribbean Sea on the south. Mona Passage to the northwest separates the island from the Dominican Republic, and the Virgin Islands lie to the east. Puerto Rico is crossed by mountain ranges, notably the Cordillera Central, which rises to 4,389 ft (1,388 m) in the Cerro de Punta. Although rivers are short and unnavigable, some provide irrigation or hydroelectric power. The climate is mildly tropical, with little seasonal change. Rainfall is plentiful, despite some arid regions in the south. Hurricanes are likely to occur between August and October. In addition to the capital, other important cities are Ponce, Caguas, and Mayagüez.
Puerto Rico's fertile soil supports one of the densest populations in the world. The Puerto Ricans are descended from Spanish colonists and also from Africans and Native Americans. Spanish and English are the official languages, although Spanish is predominant. Roman Catholicism is the main religion. Spanish is the medium of instruction, but English is studied as a second language by all students. Institutions of higher learning include the Univ. of Puerto Rico (with its main branch at Río Piedras), Inter-American Univ. at San Germán, Catholic Univ. at Ponce, and a Catholic college for women at San Juan.
Manufacturing replaced agriculture as the greatest contributor to Puerto Rico's national income largely because of "Operation Bootstrap," which from the 1940s attracted U.S. firms to the island through the use of tax exemptions and duty-free access to the United States. Pharmaceutical, electronics, and apparel industries have been the most important, along with food processing, oil refining, and the manufacture of machinery and chemicals. Livestock raising (for meat and dairy production) has surpassed the growing of sugarcane as the chief agricultural pursuit in Puerto Rico. Coffee, pineapple, plaintains, and bananas are other leading crops. Reforestation has been undertaken to restore tropical woods in the interior, where the Caribbean National Forest is set apart. Tourism is also a major source of revenue, as is money remitted by Puerto Ricans (about 5 million) living in the United States.
The United States is by far Puerto Rico's chief trading partner. The leading exports include pharmaceuticals, electronics, apparel, canned tuna, rum, beverage concentrates, and medical equipment. Imports include chemicals, machinery and equipment, clothing, food, fish, and petroleum products. Although Puerto Rico has the most diversified and powerful industrial economy in the Caribbean, significant population growth and insufficient jobs have contributed to social and economic problems and to continued emigration.
Puerto Rico's governor and both legislative houses are popularly elected for four-year terms. There are 27 senators and 51 representatives. An elected resident commissioner serves a four-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives but cannot vote. On the local level, Puerto Rico is divided into municipalities, each with its own mayor and assembly. Puerto Ricans share all the rights and obligations of U.S. citizenship, including service in the armed forces; however, they do not pay federal taxes and cannot vote in national elections. The U.S. government handles Puerto Rico's foreign affairs, and U.S. military installations are maintained on the island.
Early History and Spanish Rule
Before the Spanish arrived the island was inhabited by the Arawak people, who called the region Borinquén or Boriquén. Christopher Columbus visited the island in 1493 and named it San Juan Bautista [St. John the Baptist], but he sailed on to Hispaniola to plant a settlement. Juan Ponce de León began the actual conquest in 1508, landing at San Juan harbor, which he called Puerto Rico [Span.,=rich port]. A settlement was founded in 1521 on the site of present-day San Juan. As hardship, disease, and Spanish massacres eliminated the Arawaks altogether, they were replaced as plantation workers by African slaves, first introduced in 1513. Deposits of placer gold were virtually depleted during the 1530s, after which the Spanish devoted their full attention to the sugar plantations.
Raids by the nearby Carib and by British, French, and Dutch pirates, however, hampered agricultural prosperity. San Juan, meanwhile, became a leading outpost of the Spanish Empire. Treasure-filled Spanish galleons that anchored there on their long trip to Spain attracted buccaneers. George Clifford, earl of Cumberland, held Puerto Rico for five months in 1598, and the Dutch besieged the island in 1625. Spain's response was to build several fortresses (whose walls still stand) that made San Juan virtually impregnable. Coffee was introduced in the 18th cent. to supplement sugar.
Beginning in the 1820s there were some uprisings against Spanish rule, but all were put down. Most notable was the Lares rebellion (Grito de Lares) of 1868. As part of a Spanish reform movement that extended to Puerto Rico, slavery was abolished in 1873, and the new Spanish republican constitution of 1876 granted Puerto Rican representation in Spain's parliament.
A movement for self-government, supported by liberal groups in Spain, grew in Puerto Rico during the 1880s. Finally, in 1897, largely through the efforts of the Puerto Rican statesman Luis Muñoz Rivera, Spain signed a charter granting the island some autonomy. The new form of government had little chance to operate, however, for a few months later the Spanish-American War erupted. U.S. troops landed at Guánica on July 25, 1898, and occupied the island without much difficulty. By the Treaty of Paris (Dec. 10, 1898), which ended the war, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States.
Puerto Rico and the United States
Puerto Rico remained under direct military rule until 1900, when the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, setting up an administration with a U.S. governor, an upper legislative chamber appointed by the U.S. president, and an elected house of delegates; the U.S. Congress was given the right to review all legislation. Meanwhile, a movement for Puerto Rican independence gained strength as pressures to define the island's political status grew. In 1917 the Jones Act stipulated that Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory whose inhabitants were entitled to U.S. citizenship. The act provided for election of both houses of the Puerto Rican legislature, but the governor and other key officials were still to be appointed by the U.S. president, and the governor was empowered to veto any legislation.
During World War I, U.S. holdings in Puerto Rico increased, and the change to a one-crop economy was completed. The island's territorial status gave Puerto Rican sugar a ready market within U.S. tariff walls; however, large corporations encroached on land where foods had been raised for subsistence, thus causing social upheaval in the countryside and necessitating greater food imports. Absentee ownership and one-crop culture aggravated the ills of overpopulation. Sanitary and health improvements under the U.S. occupation further accelerated population growth. Many Puerto Ricans criticized the American regime for its menace to the Hispanic roots of Puerto Rican culture. Criticism intensified when the sugar market dropped in the 1930s and many workers, always near the edge of starvation, became even more desperate.
Recovery measures were taken during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and especially under the governorship (1941–46) of Rexford G. Tugwell. Military activities related to World War II also aided the economy. The Popular Democratic party, headed by Luis Muñoz Marín, adopted a program based on economic reform and expansion, but other political parties were more concerned with U.S.–Puerto Rican relations. The Conservative Republicans advocated statehood; the Independentists, led by Gilberto Concepción, and the Nationalists, headed by Pedro Albizu Campos, favored immediate independence.
The Postwar Years and Commonwealth Status
In 1946, the U.S. government granted Puerto Rico increased local autonomy, exemplified by the appointment of the first native Puerto Rican governor, Jesus T. Piñero. The right of popular election of the governor followed, and Muñoz Marín won the 1948 election. His administration undertook a program of agricultural reform and industrial expansion called "Operation Bootstrap." On July 25, 1952, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was proclaimed. The continuing Nationalist campaign for independence, however, was dramatized by an attempt to assassinate President Harry S. Truman in 1950 and by a shooting attack in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954. Muñoz Marín was reelected in 1952, 1956, and 1960. He was succeeded by another Popular Democratic candidate, Roberto Sánchez Vilella.
In the face of an increasingly active movement for statehood, Sánchez arranged a plebiscite in 1967 in which Puerto Ricans could choose among independence, statehood, and maintenance of the commonwealth relationship. An overwhelming majority voted for no change, but Puerto Rico's status continued to be a lively issue, with most citizens favoring either statehood (an option the U.S. Congress showed little interest in pursuing) or commonwealth; only a small percentage desired independence. In the 1970s and 80s voters chose Popular Democratic party candidates in some gubernatorial elections while favoring prostatehood New Progressive party candidates in others.
In 1992, New Progressive party candidate Pedro Rosselló was elected governor (he was reelected in 1996). In 1993 and 1998, however, voters in nonbinding referenda rejected any change from commonwealth status by narrow margins, although more U.S. politicians voiced support for the statehood option. In the same period disputes over military use of Vieques caused friction. Challenges to the tax exemptions supporting Puerto Rico's industries brought cuts in 1993 and finally their abolition in 1996; uncertainty over the effect on the local economy was heightened by the loss of low-wage jobs in apparel manufacture to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Sila María Calderón, of the Popular Democratic party, was elected governor in 2000, becoming the first woman to hold the post.
Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, also of the Popular Democratic party, was narrowly elected in 2004 to succeed Calderón. In Sept., 2005, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a fugitive independence activist and convicted felon, was killed in a shootout with the FBI. The FBI's handling of that and subsequent incidents involving independence supporters, as well as its lack of cooperation with a Puerto Rican investigation into Ojeda Ríos's death, sparked demonstrations that continued into 2006 and protests from Puerto Rican government officials. A government financial crisis in May, 2006, led to a partial government shutdown for two weeks until the governor and legislature agreed on an emergency loan plan as a solution to the crisis. In 2008 Acevedo was charged with corruption and violating campaign financing laws, which he denied. He subsequently lost (Nov., 2008) his reelection bid to Luis Fortuño, the Progressive party candidate; Acevedo was acquitted in Mar., 2009. In the 2012 election Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic party defeated Fortuño; a plurality of the voters favored statehood in a nonbinding ballot question concerning Peurto Rico's status. In 2015 the governor announced the island would not be able to pay off its debt obligations and would seek to negotiate with its creditors.
See F. Cordasco and E. Bucchioni, comp., The Puerto Rican Experience (1973); L. S. Rowe, United States and Puerto Rico (1975); R. A. Van Middledyk, The History of Puerto Rico (1975); R. Gordon, Social History of Puerto Rico (1976); R. Carr, Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment (1984); A. M. Carrion, Puerto Rico (1984); J. Morales, Jr., Puerto Rican Poverty and Migration (1986); R. Fernandez, The Disenchanted Island (2d ed., 1996); F. L. Rivera-Batiz and C. E. Santiago, Island Paradox: Puerto Rico in the 1990s (1997).