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Caribbean, Puerto Rico

chief port, Greater Antilles, local matters, populated island, islands of Cuba

Puerto Rico, freely associated commonwealth of the United States, composed of one large, densely populated island and several small islands in the West Indies. Officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Spanish Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico), it forms part of the Greater Antilles along with the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica. San Juan, on the northeastern coast, is Puerto Rico’s capital, chief port, and largest city.

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for almost four centuries until it was ceded to the United States following the Spanish-American War (1898). Today, it remains geographically and culturally part of Latin America despite its close ties to the United States. Almost all residents speak Spanish as their primary language.

Puerto Rico is Spanish for “rich port.” The name was first applied to its capital, known as San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico, in the 16th century. Gradually the capital city came to be called San Juan and the island Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is sometimes called the Island of Enchantment.

Since the arrival of European settlers in Puerto Rico in the late 1400s, foreign powers have played an important role on the island. Spanish colonial administrators ruled with little input from residents. When Puerto Rico became a territorial possession of the United States in 1898, the United States appointed almost all the governing officials on the island. Although the United States extended U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, Puerto Rico remained a territorial possession.

During the first half of the 20th century, many Puerto Ricans were dissatisfied with U.S. rule, and a growing movement for independence or at least for self-government in local matters began. In 1952 Puerto Rico achieved local self-government when it became a commonwealth. Under the provisions of Puerto Rico’s constitution, residents elect a governor and legislators who control local matters on the island, and the U.S. government maintains jurisdiction over the island’s defense, foreign relations, and trade agreements.

Since 1952 Puerto Ricans have debated whether the island should remain a commonwealth, attempt to become the 51st state of the United States, or become an independent nation. Puerto Rico has held a number of referenda on this issue. The vast majority of voters remain closely split between commonwealth status and statehood.

Puerto Rico has a pleasant tropical climate. On the main island, a fertile coastal plain surrounds a mountainous interior. Puerto Rico’s topography and climate have made it an excellent place to produce crops such as sugar and coffee for export to other countries. These export crops began to play a major role in the island’s economy by the end of the 18th century. They provided money for Spain, but they did not help develop a balanced, diversified economy. For most of Puerto Rico’s history, the economy was heavily dependent on outside markets and sharp fluctuations in demand and prices.

The island’s economic circumstances improved after World War II (1939-1945), when the island undertook a program to develop light manufacturing and to improve service industries such as banking. Tourism also became a major industry, annually attracting millions of visitors. Nevertheless, the economy remained heavily dependent on outside markets, tourists, and various subsidies from the United States. When the United States suffered a recession in the 1980s, the result in Puerto Rico was high unemployment, and many Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland United States in search of opportunity. In the early 21st century, however, many mainland Puerto Ricans returned to the island to establish businesses, work in industry and other areas of the economy, or reside as retirees.

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