Geography of Puerto Rico

A brief overview of the U.S. island territory

Fort San Cristóbal in Puerto Rico
Fort San Cristóbal in Puerto Rico. TexPhoto / Getty Images

Puerto Rico is the easternmost island of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, approximately a thousand miles southeast of Florida and just east of the Dominican Republic and west of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The island is approximately 90 miles wide in an east-west direction and 30 miles wide between the north and south coasts.

Larger Than Delaware and Rhode Island

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States but if it became a state, Puerto Rico's land area of 3,435 square miles (8,897 km2) would make it the 49th largest state (larger than Delaware and Rhode Island).

The coasts of tropical Puerto Rico are flat but most of the interior is mountainous. The tallest mountain is in the center of the island, Cerro de Punta, which is 4,389 feet high (1338 meters). About eight percent of the land is arable for agriculture. Droughts and hurricanes are the major natural hazards.

Four Million Puerto Ricans

There are almost four million Puerto Ricans, which would make the island the 23rd most populous state (between Alabama and Kentucky). San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, is located on the north side of the island. The island's population is quite dense, with about 1100 people per square mile (427 people per square kilometer).

The Primary Language Is Spanish

Spanish is the primary language on the island and for a short time earlier this decade, it was the commonwealth's official language. While most Puerto Ricans speak some English, only about a quarter of the population is fully bilingual. The population is a mixture of Spanish, African, and indigenous heritage. About seven-eighths of Puerto Ricans are Roman Catholic and literacy is about 90%. The Arawakan people settled the island around the ninth century CE. In 1493, Christopher Columbus discovered the island and claimed it for Spain. Puerto Rico, which means "rich port" in Spanish, wasn't settled until 1508 when Ponce de Leon founded a town near present-day San Juan. Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colony for more than four centuries until the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American war in 1898 and occupied the island.

The Economy

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the island was one of the poorest in the Caribbean. In 1948 the U.S. government began Operation Bootstrap which infused millions of dollars into the Puerto Rican economy and made it one of the wealthiest. United States firms that are located in Puerto Rico receive tax incentives to encourage investments. Major exports include pharmaceuticals, electronics, apparel, sugarcane, and coffee. The U.S. is the major trading partner, 86% of exports are sent to the U.S. and 69% of imports come from the fifty states.

United States Citizens Since 1917

Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the United States since a law was passed in 1917. Even though they are citizens, Puerto Ricans pay no federal income tax and they can not vote for president. Unrestricted U.S. migration of Puerto Ricans has made New York City the one place with the most Puerto Ricans anywhere in the world (over one million).

Pursuing Statehood Through the U.S. Congress

In 1967, 1993, and 1998 the citizens of the island voted to maintain the status quo. In November 2012, Puerto Ricans voted not to maintain the status quo and to pursue statehood through the U.S. Congress.

10-Year Transitional Process

If Puerto Rico were to become the fifty-first state, the U.S. federal government and the state-to-be will establish a ten-year transitional process towards statehood. The federal government is expected to spend about three billion dollars annually in the state toward benefits not currently received by the Commonwealth. Puerto Ricans would also begin paying federal income tax and business would lose the special tax exemptions that are a major part of the economy. The new state would probably obtain six new voting members of the House of Representatives and of course, two Senators. The stars on the United States flag would change for the first time in more than fifty years.

If independence were chosen by the citizens of Puerto Rico in the future, then the United States will assist the new country through a decade-long transition period. International recognition would come quickly for the new nation, which would have to develop its own defense and a new government.

However, for now, Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States, with all that such a relationship entails.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "Geography of Puerto Rico." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, Rosenberg, Matt. (2021, July 30). Geography of Puerto Rico. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Geography of Puerto Rico." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).