An American flag and Puerto Rican flag fly next to each other in Old San Juan a day after the Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave a televised speech regarding the governments $72 billion debt in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2015.  (Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Introduction

Puerto Rico is a large Caribbean island of roughly 3,500 square miles located in the West Indies. It’s the easternmost island of the Greater Antilles chain, which also includes Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola (divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic). After centuries of Spanish rule, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in 1898 and has been largely self-governing since the mid-20th century. It has a population of some 3.4 million people and a vibrant culture shaped by a mix of Spanish, United States and Afro-Caribbean influences.

Puerto Rico’s native Taíno population—whose hunter-gatherer ancestors settled the island more than 1,000 years before the Spanish arrived—called it Borinquén, and referred to themselves as boricua (a term that is still used today).

During his second expedition to the Indies in 1493, Christopher Columbus returned several Taíno captives to Borinquén and claimed the island for Spain, calling it San Juan Bautista. In 1508, Juan Ponce de León founded the first European settlement, Caparra, near a bay on the island’s northern coast; Caparra was renamed Puerto Rico (or “rich port”) in 1521.

Over time, people began referring to the entire island by that name, while the port city itself became San Juan. Smallpox soon wiped out the vast majority of the Taíno, with many others enslaved by the Spanish to mine silver and gold and to construct settlements.

In order to produce cash crops such as sugar cane, ginger, tobacco and coffee, the Spanish began importing more slaves from Africa in the 16th century. They also spent considerable resources turning San Juan into an impregnable military outpost, building a fortified palace for the governor (La Fortaleza) as well as two massive forts—San Felipe del Morro and San Cristobál—that would withstand repeated attacks by rival powers such as England, the Netherlands and France.

Under Spanish colonial rule, Puerto Rico experienced varying levels of economic and political autonomy over the centuries. By the mid-19th century, however, a wave of independence movements in Spain’s South American colonies had reached Puerto Rico.

In 1868, some 600 people attempted an uprising based in the mountain town of Lares. Though the Spanish military efficiently quashed the rebellion, Puerto Ricans still celebrate “El Grito de Lares” (The Cry of Lares) as a moment of great national pride.

In July 1898, during the brief Spanish-American War, U.S. Army forces occupied Puerto Rico at Guánica, on the island’s south side. Under the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the war later that year, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Cuba to the United States.

The interim U.S. military government established on the island ended in 1900 after Congress passed the Foraker Act, which formally instituted a civil government in Puerto Rico. Having enjoyed considerable autonomy in the latter years of Spanish colonial rule, many Puerto Ricans bristled under the control exercised by the United States.

In 1917, Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans and made Puerto Rican males eligible for the military draft; some 18,000 of the territory’s residents were subsequently drafted into World War I.

Big political, economic and social changes swept Puerto Rico after World War II. In 1948, Congress passed an act permitting Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor. Four years later, Puerto Rico would officially become a U.S. commonwealth, which enabled the island to create its own constitution and granted other powers of self-government.

By that time, the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments had jointly launched an ambitious industrialization effort called Operation Bootstrap. Even as Puerto Rico attracted an influx of big American companies, and became a center for manufacturing and tourism, the decline of its agricultural industries led many islanders to seek employment opportunities in the United States.

Between 1950 and 1970, more than 500,000 people (some 25 percent of the island’s total population) left Puerto Rico, an exodus known as La Gran Migración (the Great Migration). Today, more than 5 million people of Puerto Rican descent live in the United States, with huge communities centered in Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami and especially New York City.

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, but the island’s ambiguous status in relation to the United States has driven heated debate over the years between those who support its commonwealth status, those who favor full-fledged Puerto Rican statehood and those who want the island to be its own independent nation.

As citizens of a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans can elect a non-voting representative in Congress and vote in presidential primaries, but cannot vote for president because Puerto Rico is not part of the electoral college.

After three separate votes in 1967, 1993 and 1998 reaffirmed Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, a majority of residents who voted in a 2012 referendum said they were not satisfied with the status quo, and indicated their preferred choice was independence over statehood.

Hundreds of thousands of voters left the second part of the referendum blank, however, leaving the question open for further debate. A fifth referendum in 2017 ended in a majority vote for statehood, but only 23 percent of voters (a historic low) turned out.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Puerto Rico’s economic growth slowed, even as its national debt rapidly expanded. In 2015, the worsening economic crisis led its governor to announce that the commonwealth could no longer meet its debt obligations.

Two years later, under legislation passed by Congress to help Puerto Rico deal with its economic crisis, the commonwealth declared a form of bankruptcy, claiming debt of more than $70 billion, mostly to U.S. investors.

In September 2017, Puerto Rico’s economic woes were compounded when Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 hurricane with some 150 mph winds, made direct landfall on the island. In Maria’s aftermath, Puerto Rico’s inhabitants—some 3.4 million American citizens—found themselves in a humanitarian crisis, facing debilitating shortages of water, food and fuel and a deeply uncertain future.

Doug Mack, The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA. W.W. Norton, 2017.
Puerto Rico, History, Art & Archives: U.S. House of Representatives.
Smithsonian.
Library of Congress.
Puerto Rico statehood referendum draws big support—but small turnout, CNN.