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Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

When Christopher Columbus arrived there in 1493, the island was inhabited by the peaceful Arawak Indians, who were being challenged by the warlike Carib Indians. Puerto Rico remained economically undeveloped until 1830, when sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco plantations were gradually developed. After Puerto Ricans began to press for independence, Spain granted the island broad powers of self-government in 1897. But during the Spanish-American War of 1898 American troops invaded the island and Spain ceded it to the U.S. Since then, Puerto Rico has remained an unincorporated U.S. territory. Its people were granted American citizenship under the Jones Act in 1917; were permitted to elect their own governor, beginning in 1948; and now fully administer their internal affairs under a constitution approved by the U.S. Congress in 1952. In spite of broad popular support for the autonomy of the Commonwealth government and a rapidly modernizing industrial society, there were expressions of dissatisfaction. Puerto Rican extremists dramatized their desire for independence with an attempt to assassinate President Truman on Nov. 1, 1950, and on March 1, 1954, they wounded five congressmen in an attack on the U.S. Capitol.

A self-help program of economic development and social welfare (called “Operation Bootstrap”) was forged in the 1940s by four-time governor Luis Muñoz Marín. In a little more than four decades, much of the island’s crushing poverty was eliminated. This was done partly through the development of manufacturing and service industries, the latter related to an enormous growth in tourism. Also, many Puerto Ricans migrated to large cities on the mainland U.S.

Puerto Rico is a major hub of Caribbean commerce, finance, tourism, and communications. San Juan is one of the world’s busiest cruise-ship ports, and Puerto Rico’s standard of living continues to be among the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Its future political status, however, remains unclear. On March 4, 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that called for binding elections in Puerto Rico to decide the island’s permanent political status.

Since the 1940s, the U.S. Navy had used Vieques island as a bombing range. Protests against the exercises grew in recent years, and in a July 2001 referendum, residents of the island voted overwhelmingly to close the base. The navy withdrew from Vieques in May 2003.

The Nov. 2, 2004, gubernatorial elections led to a two-month recount and a court challenge. On Jan. 2, 2005, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the Popular Democratic Party was declared governor. He received 48.4% of the vote, and his main challenger, Pedro Rossello of the New Progressive Party, 48.2%. Acevedo supports the existing U.S. territorial status of the island; Rossello supports statehood for Puerto Rico.

In May 2006, a political standoff led to a two-week-long budget crisis resulting in the partial shutdown of the government, including all public schools. More than 100,000 workers went without pay.

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