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Puerto Rico…History…Commonwealth Status

Puerto Rico: A Modern Island Rich in History

Len DeGroot, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MORNING CALL. All rights reserved.

From the bustling streets of San Juan to the mist-covered peaks swathed in rain forests, Puerto Rico vibrates with life. The island is a complex and sometimes contradictory part of the United States.

A Modern Island Rich in History

Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico on Nov. 19, 1493, on his second voyage to the New World. Today, Old-World Spanish influence exists alongside modern industry.

Places in Puerto Rico:

Rincon - A Mecca for surfers.

Arecibo - Founded in 1616.

Founded in 1963, the Observatory of Arecibo houses the world's largest radio telescope of its type.

San Juan - The capital city has one of the biggest and best natural harbors in the Caribbean. The island is located along the Mona Passage - a key shipping land to the Panama Canal.

Vieques - In 1941, the Navy acquired 26,000 acres on Vieques, roughly two-thirds of the island. Of that, about 900 acres have been used as a live-ammo range. Puerto Ricans have been protesting years of shelling they say has destroyed Vieques' economy and environment. Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, right, and Aldolfo Carrion, were charged with entering a restricted area last year.

El Yunque - Puerto Rico is home to one of the Caribbean's largest tropical rain forest. In 1876 Spain declared El Yunque a forest reserve, making it one of the oldest parks in the Western Hemisphere. Now, El Yunque National Preserve is considered one of the jewels of the National Park System.

Ponce - Founded in 1692 and named after Ponce de Leon, it is home to the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center. This site contains the oldest cemetery in the Antilles, dating to 300 AD.


Population: 3,937,316

Area: 3,000 square miles

Average life expectancy: 75.76 years

Population growth: 0.54%

Net Migration rate:-.2%

Literacy rate: 89%


Roman Catholic: 85%

Protestant and other: 15%


White 80.5% Mostly Hispanic

Other: 11.5%

Black: 8%


Puerto Rico has had one of the most dynamic economies in the Caribbean region. Encouraged by duty-free access to the United States and by tax incentives, U.S. firms have invested heavily in Puerto Rico since the 1950s. Tourism is also an important source of income. The slowing economy is now a concern.

Economic indicators (2000 estimates):

GDP: $39 billion

GDP growth rate: 2.8%

Inflation rate: 5.7%

Unemployment rate: 9.5%


Puerto Ricans have held three major referendums on the status on their relationship with the United States in 50 years. Here's how they voted:


Commonwealth: 49%

Statehood : 39%

Independence: 1%


Commonwealth: 49%

Statehood : 46%

Independence: 4%

Other: 1%


"None of the above" was included on the ballot as a specific category

None of the above: 50%

Statehood : 46%

Independence: 3%

Other (Includes commonwealth and free association): 1%

History Of The U.S. And Puerto Rico

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MORNING CALL. All rights reserved.

The Treaty of Paris marked the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Spain ceded Puerto Rico and its dependent islands to the United States, prompting a new era of relations.

December 10, 1898

Treaty of Paris is signed. Gen. Nelson Miles is appointed military governor in charge of the Army of Occupation.

1906 President Theodore Roosevelt recommends that Puerto Ricans become United States citizens

1917 Puerto Rico is made a U.S. territory, naturalizing Puerto Ricans as citizens and allowing them to serve in the Army; 20,000 islanders are drafted into World War I.

1922 U.S. Supreme Court declares Puerto Rico a territory rather than a part of the Union, and says the U.S. Constitution does not apply.

1948 U.S. grants Puerto Rico power to elect own governor.

1941 U.S. establishes military bases on the islands of Vieques and Culebra.

1952 Voters approve new constitution and Puerto Rico is proclaimed a commonwealth. Flag is officially adopted.

1967 In the first in a series of referendums, voters affirm continuation of commonwealth status .

1976 New tax code allows U.S. companies to operate on the island without paying taxes. Congress repeals the exemption 1996 but allows the benefits to remain for 10 more years.

1978-80 Fishermen in Vieques disrupt military maneuvers and file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court charging bombardments are ruining their livelihood.

1983 Navy signs agreement to increase safety, reduce bombing and create jobs on Vieques.

1993 Voters reconfirm commonwealth status , as statehood gains support.

1999 Navy accidentally kills a man on Vieques when two bombs miss their target. The incident reignites movement to halt bombing there.

2001 President George W. Bush ordered a stop to the Navy bombing exercises on Vieques.

Bombing is set to stop by May 2003.

SOURCES: University of Kansas; Smithsonian Institution; Encyclopedia Britannica; Government of Puerto Rico ; National Archives; Commonwealth Elections Commission of Puerto Rico ; U.S. Census; AP; AFP; KRTN South Florida Sun-Sentinel / Len De Groot; Newsday

Defining the Commonwealth

Ivan Roman

Q: What is Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status?

A: The commonwealth is a unique legal status established in Puerto Rico in 1952 that set up an internal structure for the island to govern itself, as well as allowing fiscal autonomy. But it also meant the United States retained control over military defense, transportation, communications, immigration, foreign trade and other affairs.

Q: How did Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status come about?

A: The commonwealth emerged as a compromise after the U.S. Congress, facing formidable forces on the island pushing for statehood and independence, refused to offer either. After a three-year process, which included a Constitutional Convention to discuss how to establish a local government, Puerto Rico’s voters ratified the island’s constitution at the polls. The commonwealth’s government was sworn in July 25, 1952.

During the process, Congress retained veto power over the constitution and made several substantial changes to various drafts coming from the island, including limiting the Bill of Rights and the power of the Puerto Rican people to amend their constitution, leaving any change in political status subject to Congress’ approval.

Q: What are Puerto Ricans’ rights, obligations and limitations to those rights?

A: As on the mainland, all Puerto Ricans born on the island are U.S. citizens. However, Puerto Rico has one nonvoting representative in the House of Representatives and no senators. Those living on the island pay no federal income tax and do not vote for U.S. president. They do pay Social Security taxes, serve in the military and are subject to the draft. They receive federal welfare benefits. The island has more people than 25 states in the United States. That would give it significant congressional representation if it were a state.

Q: What is the controversy surrounding the commonwealth status?

A: Because it is so unique and was formed before the United Nations had clear guidelines for decolonization, the commonwealth’s legal status lends itself to confusing interpretations. Its critics call it a "glorified colony" and point to court cases and the application of laws from Washington to prove that Puerto Rico lacks sovereignty. Some of its defenders say the commonwealth is "in the nature of a compact" between Puerto Rico and the United States that can’t be altered unilaterally.

While it set up the internal self-government, constitutional experts say, the commonwealth did not much change the legal relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States that was in effect during much of the 54 years of U.S. military and civilian rule before the new status was created.

The Treaty of Paris signed after the Spanish-American War of 1898 ceded Puerto Rico to the United States and stated that the civil rights and political status of its native inhabitants were to be determined by Congress, a provision that, despite conflicting legal and political arguments, remains in effect today.

Q: Where does the controversy on political status stand now?

A: Newer economic hardships and the struggle to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques have forced out of the closet a more progressive wing of the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party that is calling for an "improved commonwealth" with enough sovereignty to control matters such as foreign trade. Critics say that is impossible under the U.S. Constitution and sovereignty comes only with statehood, independence or "free association" as defined by the United Nations.

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