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Puerto Rico
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Globe Open Map Puerto Rico is part of the Greater Antilles and is situated east of the Dominican Republic between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean (Rivera, 2005a).

In territorial size, Puerto Rico is about 3,500 square miles (9,100 square kilometers, or slightly less than three times the size of Rhode Island). Its terrain is mostly mountainous, although there is a coastal plain in the north and sandy beaches along most of its coast (Rivera, 2005a). It is very strategically located along the Mona Passage, which leads to the Panama Canal. Many small rivers ensure that fresh water is plentiful and the natural harbor in San Juan is one of the largest in the Caribbean. The capital is the city of San Juan.


The climate of Puerto Rico is best described as “mild tropical” with few seasonal variations in temperature. The temperatures average about 80° F (26°C) most of the year. Humidity is high, but winds from the east keep the temperature moderate (Rivera, 2005a). The archipelago is vulnerable to occasional hurricanes, but less so than some of the other Caribbean islands (Puerto Rico, 2004).


As far back as the 15th century, Taíno Indians inhabited Puerto Rico (History of Puerto Rico, 2004). The Taíno Indians were originally from South America. They were a peaceful people who lived in small villages. Their lives changed dramatically when, in 1493, Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage to the New World, claimed the land for the King and Queen of Spain (Shoendorf, 2000). When the Spanish discovered gold, they enslaved the Taínos and mistreated them to such an extent that they were virtually extinct by 1520 (History of Puerto Rico, 2004).

Shortly thereafter, the first African slaves were brought to support the colonial exploitation of the island. The Spanish kept the Africans as slaves until the practice was abolished in 1873 (History of Puerto Rico, 2004). Puerto Rico continued as a Spanish military outpost for over four centuries. When the Treaty of Paris was signed at the end of the Spanish-American War on December 10, 1898, the United States acquired Puerto Rico. Refugees and European immigrants settled in Puerto Rico in the early 19th century. Since 1917, Puerto Ricans have been considered citizens of the United States. “The contemporary culture of Puerto Rico emerged from the blending of European, African, and Native American traditions.” (History of Puerto Rico, 2004).

Political Organization

Flag of the Puerto RicoThe legal status of Puerto Rico is hard to define. Although the United States holds ultimate sovereignty over its affairs, Puerto Rico enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy. As a commonwealth territory of the United States of America, Puerto Rico’s citizens are also citizens of the U.S. However, Puerto Rico has its own constitution (which has been ratified by the U.S. Congress) and Puerto Rico does not pay U.S. federal income tax (Puerto Rico, 2005).
Puerto Rico controls its own internal affairs (in a manner similar to that of individual U.S. states) and sends its own team to the Olympic Games (Puerto Rico, 2005). Despite continuous debate between the various political parties, Puerto Ricans have voted to continue as a commonwealth of the United States (Puerto Rico, 2005).

Puerto Rico has three branches of government:

  1. Executive Branch - The chief of state is the President of the United States, and the head of the island’s government is a Governor who is popularly elected for a four-year term. The present Governor, Anibal ACEVEDO-VILA since 2 January 2005, succeeded Sila Maria Calderón, who was the first woman to serve in this office. She is a firm believer in maintaining the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico with the U.S. (Sila María Calderón, 2005).
  2. The Legislative Branch is comprised of a bicameral body known as the Legislative Assembly, which includes the Senate (with 28 members) and the House of Representatives (54 members). The Assembly is elected every four years. Puerto Ricans elect a Resident Commissioner every four years as a nonvoting representative to the U.S. House of Representatives who functions primarily as a process observer for the Puerto Rican government (Politics of Puerto Rico, 2004).
  3. The Judicial Branch is comprised of a Supreme Court, Appellate Court, and a Court of First Instance composed of two sections: a Superior Court and a Municipal Court. The Governor appoints all the judges with the consent of the Senate. In contrast to the common law system prevalent in most of the U.S., Puerto Rico’s laws are based on the Spanish civil code.

Administratively, Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities, each led by a mayor and a council elected for 4-year terms (Politics of Puerto Rico, 2004).


Puerto Rico’s estimated Gross Domestic Product in 2002 was $71.1 billion (per capita GDP $18,409). In terms of revenue, agriculture has been outpaced by tourism and other service-based economic activity, along with industries that include pharmaceuticals, electronics, apparel, beverage concentrates, rum, medical instruments, food processing, and cement manufacturing (Economy of Puerto Rico, 2005). Historically, Puerto Rico’s duty-free access to U.S. markets and investment by U.S. firms has created one of the most vibrant and diversified economies in the Caribbean. However, the repeal of tax incentives and the recent increase in oil prices have dealt significant blows to the economy (Rivera, 2005b).

©2005 Maria de Lourdes Serpa.
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