United States Caribbean Dependencies

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United States Caribbean Dependencies


Puerto Rico

U.S. Virgin Islands


Navassa is a tiny island that lies between Jamaica and Haiti in the Caribbean Sea. Its area is five square kilometers (two square miles). Navassa was claimed by the United States under the Guano Act of 1856. The island, located at 18°24’ n and 75°1’ w is uninhabited except for a lighthouse station under the administration of the coast guard.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a total area 9,104 square kilometers (3,515 square miles). It is the smallest and most easterly of the Greater Antilles, a group of four islands in the northwestern portion of the Caribbean Sea. Puerto Rico lies between 17°51’ and 18°31’ n and 65°13’ and 67°56’ w. It is separated from the Dominican Republic (on the island of Hispaniola) to the west by the Mona Passage, which is 121 kilometers (75 miles) wide. Puerto Rico is separated from the Virgin Islands to the east by Vieques Sound and the Virgin Passage.

The main island of Puerto Rico is roughly rectangular in shape. It extends 179 kilometers (111 miles) from east to west and 58 kilometers (36 miles) from north to south. It is crossed from east to west by mountain ranges, the most prominent being the Cordillera Central, rising to nearly 1,338 meters (4,390 feet). The coastal plain is about 24 kilometers (15 miles) wide at its broadest point.

About one-third of the island’s land is arable. Fifty short rivers flow rapidly to the sea. Islands off the coast include Mona and Desecheo to the west and Vieques and Culebra to the east.

The mildly tropical climate is moderated by the surrounding sea, and seasonal variations are slight. The prevailing winds are the northeast trades. In San Juan on the northern coast, mean temperatures range from 24°c (75 °f) for January to 27°c (81 °f) for July. Mean annual rainfall varies from 91 centimeters (36 inches) on the south coast to 152 centimeters (60 inches) in San Juan and may total more than 457 centimeters (180 inches) on the northern mountain slopes in the interior. Tropical fruits and other vegetation abound. Endangered species on the island included the Puerto Rican plain pigeon, Puerto Rican parrot, Puerto Rican boa, giant anole, and hawksbill, leatherback, olive ridley, and green sea turtles.

The population was estimated at 3,927,188 in 2006. San Juan, the capital, had an estimated

population of 422,000. The population of the San Juan metropolitan area is more than one million.

The population has more than doubled since 1930, despite extensive migration to the U.S. mainland. Improved economic conditions on the island and diminishing opportunities in the United States slowed migration by 1970. Thousands of Puerto Ricans commute annually between Puerto Rico and the United States.

Puerto Ricans are of Spanish descent (80%), black (8%), or mixed ancestry (10%). Nearly all of the Amerindian inhabitants (about 0.4% of the population in 2002) were exterminated in the 16th century. There is a small number of people of Asian descent (0.2%).

Spanish is the official language, but many Puerto Ricans also speak English, which is required as a second language in the schools. The Roman Catholic religion is predominant (85%), but evangelical Protestant sects also have wide followings.

San Juan is the busiest commercial air center in the Caribbean. There is excellent air service to New York, Miami, other points in the Caribbean and Latin America. More than 40 steamship companies provide overseas freight and passenger service; San Juan, Ponce, and Mayagüez are the principal ports. In 1998 there were 14,400 kilometers (9,020 miles) of paved highway; trucks carry the bulk of overland freight.

The first visit by a European explorer was 19 November 1493, when Christopher Columbus landed. Archaeological finds indicate that at least three Amerindian cultures had settled on the island long before Columbus’s arrival. The first Amerindian group are believed to have come from Florida. Having no knowledge of agriculture or pottery, they relied on the products of the sea; their remains have been found mostly in caves. The second Amerindian group, the Igneri, came from northern South America. Descended from South American Arawak stock, the Igneri brought agriculture and pottery to the island; their remains are found mostly in the coastal areas. The third culture, the Taíno were also of South American Arawak origin. The Taino combined fishing with agriculture. A peaceful, sedentary tribe, the Taíno were adept at stone-work and lived in many parts of the island; to these Amerindians, the island was known as Borinquén.

Columbus, accompanied by a young nobleman named Juan Ponce de León, landed at the western end of the island. He called the island San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) and claimed it for Spain. Not until colonization was well under way would the island acquire the name Puerto Rico (“rich port”), with the name San Juan Bautista applied to the capital city.

The first settlers arrived on 12 August 1508, under the able leadership of Ponce de León, who sought to transplant and adapt Spanish civilization to Puerto Rico’s tropical habitat. The small contingent of Spaniards compelled the Taíno, numbering perhaps 30,000, to mine for gold. The Taíno population began to suffer from being forced to work. They also lost men in their rebellion against the Spanish. By 1514, there were only about 4,000 remaining. By then, the gold mines were nearly depleted. The Spanish colonizers then began importing slaves from Africa and sugarcane growing became the leading economic activity.

Puerto Rico was briefly held by the English in 1598 and San Juan was besieged by the Dutch in 1625; otherwise, Spanish rule continued until the latter part of the 19th century. The island was captured by U.S. forces during the Spanish-American War (1898). Under the Treaty of Paris (December 1898) Puerto Rico was ceded outright to the United States.

Puerto rico remained under direct military rule until 1900. At that time, the U.S. Congress established an administration with a governor and an executive council, appointed by the U.S. president, and a popularly elected House of Delegates. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship.

In 1947, Congress provided for popular election of the governor. In 1948, Luis Muñoz Marín was elected to that office. A congressional act of 1950, affirmed by popular vote in the island on 4 June 1951, granted Puerto Rico the right to draft its own constitution. The constitution was ratified by popular referendum on 3 March 1952.

Puerto Rico’s new status as a free commonwealth voluntarily associated with the United States became effective on 25 July 1952. The commonwealth status was upheld in a plebiscite (general vote) in 1967, with 60.5% voting for continuation of the commonwealth and 38.9% for Puerto Rican statehood.

In 1993 another plebiscite vote drew nearly 1.7 million voters or 73.6% of those eligible. The voters choose to keep the commonwealth status 48.4% to 46.2% for statehood and 4.4% for independence.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico enjoys almost complete internal autonomy. The chief executive is the governor, elected by popular vote to a four-year term. The legislature consists of a 28-member senate and 51-member house of representatives elected by popular vote to four-year terms. The Supreme Court and lower courts are tied in with the U.S. federal judiciary. Appeals from Puerto Rican courts may be carried as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Popular Democratic Party (PPD) was the dominant political party until 1968, when Luis A. Ferré, a New Progressive Party (PNP) candidate, won the governorship. Ferré had supported statehood in the 1967 plebiscite. The PNP also won control of the house, while the PPD retained the senate. The PPD returned to power in 1972 but lost to the PNP in 1976 and again, by a very narrow margin, in 1980; in 1984, it took roughly two-to-one majorities in both houses.

The pro-commonwealth PPD remained in control of the government in every election from 1984–92, when Pedro Rosselló, an PNP member and supporter of statehood, was elected governor; Roselló was reelected in 1996. In the November 2000 election, Sila M. Calderon of the PPD was elected governor.

There is a small but vocal independence movement, divided into two wings: the moderates, favoring social democracy, and the radicals, supporting close ties with the regime of Communist leader Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Puerto Rico elects a commissioner to serve a four-year term as a nonvoting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In November 2000, PPD candidate Anibal Acevedo-Vila was elected commissioner from Puerto Rico; in November 2004, Acevedo-Vila was elected governor of Puerto Rico. Luis Fortuno of the PNP was elected commissioner in November 2004. The next election was scheduled for November 2008.

For more than 400 years, the island’s economy was based almost exclusively on sugar. Since 1947, agriculture has been diversified to include dairy production. A thriving manufacturing industry has been established. In 1952, there were only 82 labor-intensive plants on the island. By 1990 there were 2,000 plants in Puerto Rico.

Beginning in 1956, there has been a focus on the tourist industry. By 2006, the gross domestic product (GDP) reached $74.89 billion, up from $15.8 billion in 1986. The leading industrial products were pharmaceuticals, electronics, apparel, food products, and tourism. An estimated 5.0 million tourists visited Puerto Rico in 2004.

U.S. taxes do not apply in Puerto Rico, since the commonwealth is not represented in Congress. New or expanding manufacturing and hotel enterprises are granted exemptions of varying lengths and degrees from income taxes and municipal levies. In 1940, when annual income per capita was $118, agricultural workers made as little as 6 cents an hour, and the illiteracy rate was 70%. By 2005, per capita GDP was $18,600, and illiteracy had declined to just 6% (estimated to be slightly higher for females).

In 2001, Puerto Rico’s exports totaled $46.9 billion, imports totaled $29.1 billion. Puerto Rico’s businesses have duty-free access to the markets of the United States.

According to 2000 Census, about 86% of the population ages 16 to 19 years old were enrolled in school; of those, about 18% were enrolled in private schools. There are 14 institutions of higher education on the island. The main state-supported university is the University of Puerto Rico, with its main campus at Rico Piedras. Other institutions of higher learning are the Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, and the Inter-American University with campuses at Hato Rey, San Germán, and elsewhere.

In 2004, there were 1.1 million main telephone lines on the island; that year there were an estimated 2.7 million mobile cellular telephone lines, up from 169,265 in 1996. As of 2004, 127 radio stations (74 AM, 53 FM) were operation. In 2006, there were 32 broadcast television stations.

The two largest Spanish-language daily newspapers, both from San Juan, are El Vocero de Puerto Rico (259,000 daily circulation in 2002), and El Nuevo Día (227,000). Publishing in English is The San Juan Star (daily circulation 76,873).

U.S. Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands lie about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Puerto Rico and 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) south-southeast of Miami, between 17°40’ and 18°25’n and 64°34’ and 65°3’ n. The island group extends 82 kilometers (51 miles) north to south and 80 kilometers (50 miles) from east to west, with a total area of at least 353 square kilometers (136 square miles).

Only three of the more than fifty islands and cays are of significant size. These are St. Croix, which measures 218 square kilometers (84 square miles) in area; St. Thomas, which measures 83 square kilometers (32 square miles); and St. John, which measures 52 square kilometers (20 square miles). The territorial capital, Charlotte Amalie, is located on St. Thomas. Charlotte Amalie has one of the finest harbors in the Caribbean.

St. Croix is relatively flat, with a terrain suitable for sugarcane cultivation. St. Thomas is mountainous and little cultivated, but it has many snug harbors. St. John, also mountainous, has fine beaches and lush vegetation; about two-thirds of St. John’s area has been declared a national park.

The subtropical climate, with temperatures ranging from 21–32°c (70–90 °f) and an average temperature of 25°c (77°f), is moderated by northeast trade winds. Rainfall, the main source of fresh water, varies widely, and severe droughts are frequent. The average yearly rainfall is 114 centimeters (45 inches), mostly during the summer months.

The population of the U.S. Virgin Islands was estimated at 108,605 in 2006, down from 123,498 in 2002. St. Croix has two principal towns: Christiansted and Frederiksted. Economic development has brought an influx of new residents, mainly from Puerto Rico, other Caribbean islands, and the U.S. mainland. About 80% of the population is black. Most are descendants of slaves who were brought from Africa in the 17th century when Denmark ruled some of the islands. English is the official and most widely spoken language.

Some of the oldest religious congregations in the Western Hemisphere are located in the Virgin Islands. A Jewish synagogue there is the second-oldest in the New World, and the Lutheran Congregation of St. Thomas, founded in 1666, is one of the three oldest congregations in the United States. Baptists make up an estimated 42% of the population, Roman Catholics 34%, and Episcopalians 17%.

In 2000 there were 856 kilometers (531.6 miles) of roads in the U.S. Virgin Islands; the U.S. Virgin Islands has the only U.S. roads where driving is done on the left side of the road. Cargo-shipping services operate from the U.S. ports of Baltimore, Maryland, and Jacksonville and Miami, Florida. Both St. Croix and St. Thomas have airports, with St. Croix’s facility handling the larger number of jet flights from the continental United States and Europe.

Excavations at St. Croix in the 1970s uncovered evidence of a civilization perhaps as ancient as ad 100. Christopher Columbus, who reached the islands in 1493, named them for the martyred virgin St. Ursula. At this time, St. Croix was inhabited by Carib Indians, who were eventually driven from the island by Spanish soldiers in 1555.

During the 17th century, the archipelago was divided into two territorial units, one controlled by the British, the other controlled by Denmark. Today these units are the British (UK) Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The separate history of the U.S. Virgin Islands began with the settlement of St. Thomas by the Danish West India Company in 1672. St. John was claimed by the company in 1683 and St. Croix was purchased from France in 1733. The holdings of the company were taken over as a Danish crown colony in 1754. Sugarcane, cultivated by slave labor, was the backbone of the islands’ prosperity in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The slaves revolted and the Danish colonizers brutally suppressed them. Finally, in 1848 Denmark abolished slavery in the colony. A long period of economic decline followed. Denmark sold the islands to the United States in 1917 for $25 million.

Congress granted U.S. citizenship to the Virgin Islanders in 1927. In 1931, administration of the islands was transferred from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior, and the first civilian governor was appointed. In the late 1970s, the Virgin Islands government began to consider ways to expand self-rule. A UN delegation in 1977 found little interest in independence, however, and a locally drafted constitution was voted down by the electorate in 1979.

The chief executive of the U.S. Virgin Islands is the territorial governor, elected by direct popular vote (prior to 1970, territorial governors were appointed by the U.S. president). Governor John DeJongh assumed the office on 1 January 2007.

Constitutionally, the U.S. Congress has plenary authority to legislate for the territory. Enactment of the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands on 22 July 1954 vested local legislative power—subject to veto by the governor— in a unicameral legislature. Since 1972, the islands have sent one nonvoting representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. Donna M. Christensen, a Democrat, was elected to serve a two-year term as representative in November 2006.

Courts are under the U.S. federal judiciary; the two federal district court judges are appointed by the U.S. president. Territorial court judges, who preside over misdemeanor and traffic cases, are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. The district court has appellate jurisdiction over the territorial court.

Tourism, which accounts for approximately 70% of both gross domestic product (GDP) and employment is the islands’ principal economic activity. The number of tourists rose dramatically throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, from 448,165 in 1964 to 2.6 million in 2005.

Rum remains an important manufacture, with petroleum refining (on St. Croix) a major addition in the late 1960s. Economic development is promoted by the U.S.-government–owned Virgin Islands Corp. In 2004 the per capita GDP was $14,500. The unemployment rate was 6.2% in 2004. Exports for 2001 totaled $4.23 billion while imports totaled $4.61 billion. The island’s primary export is refined petroleum products. Raw crude oil constitutes the Virgin Island’s principal import. In 1990, median family income was $24,036.

The territorial Department of Health provides hospital and medical services, public health services, and veterinary medicine. Education is compulsory. The College of the Virgin Islands was the territory’s first institution of higher learning. There were about 70,900 main line telephones in 2004, and 41,000 mobile cellular phones. The Virgin Islands had 22 radio stations (6 AM, 16 FM) and 5 broadcast television stations in 2004.

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United States Caribbean Dependencies

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United States Caribbean Dependencies