Despite the large number of definitions that arise from the vast diversity of fields that are influenced by geography, it is fundamentally described as a science that tries to explain, from the perspective of spatial analysis, the various phenomena that affect humans and their relationships to the physical, cultural and social environment in a particular place and time. The fundamental questions that drive research in geography are: where and why. Where do things occur? Why do they occur? And more particularly, why do they occur where they occur? Structurally, geography is divided into two large fields of knowledge, which are physical geography (focused on the study of the spatial distribution of phenomena that exist apart from humans) and human geography (which is interested in the study of the spatial distribution of social and cultural phenomena, which do depend on humans).

Puerto Rico is a tropical island located in the Caribbean region. Like most of the other islands in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico includes a number of smaller islands, islets, and keys that border its coasts and are part of its jurisdiction. In terms of its absolute location, the main island of Puerto Rico is located at between the coordinates of 17o 50’ N and 18o 30’ N latitude and between 65o 30’ W and 65o 15 W longitude. The main island of Puerto Rico is 110 miles long (from Punta Higüero in Rincón to Punta Puerca in Ceiba) and has a distance from north to south of 40 miles (at its widest point, from Isabela to Cabo Rojo). In general, Puerto Rico has a size of 3,435 square miles, which is equal to 8,870.74 square kilometers. Its physical origin is placed at between 150 and 200 million years ago, in what is known as the Mesozoic Era between the Triassic and Jurassic periods on the geological time scale. As a result of the clash of the Caribbean plate and the North American plate, what is now known as the central mountainous interior of the island, the largest terrestrial structure on the island, emerged at that time. Later, as part of exogenous natural processes (erosion and wear), a second physiographic region of importance developed, known as the karst (north and south). Its presence is best seen in the northern region of the island and because of its characteristics it is one of the most ecologically and environmentally sensitive and vulnerable regions, as well as one of great importance for Puerto Rico’s industrial development. Following the karst region is the coastal plain (north, south, east, and west), a younger physiographic region, but one of great historical importance in the socio-economic development of the island.

The island has no natural lakes, so the storage of water depends on dams and reservoirs (36 in total) and the extraction of the resource from aquifers and directly from superficial currents (rivers and streams). The island has a vast hydrologic network with more than 1,200 currents, both superficial and subterranean. In climactic terms, due to its location, Puerto Rico has an equatorial tropical climate (Af) in the Köppen climate classification system. This type of climate is characterized by high temperatures and abundant precipitation for most of the year, and as a result, there are tropical rain forests, such as El Yunque National Forest, with precipitation of up to 200 inches a year and average temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. The island has regional climactic variations, however, the most important of which is the difference between the north and the south of the island. This is a function of the mountainous central interior, specifically the part known as the Central Mountain Range, which plays a fundamental role in the distribution of precipitation on the island and causes the south to have much less precipitation than the northern region. The extreme of this phenomenon can be seen in the area of the Guánica Dry Forest, a dry tropical forest with less than 30 inches of annual precipitation.

The human geography of the island of Puerto Rico is even more dynamic than the constant changes in its limited but complicated physical geography. Puerto Rico’s location has played a fundamental role in its historical, socio-economic, and political development. The location of the island in the Caribbean led two powers to colonize it (in a little more than 520 years to the present) to maintain their presence because of its strategic (logistical) value as a bastion of war, at some times, as well as its potential as a center of trade in the region. According to various estimates, the island has been inhabited for at least 3,000 years. However, despite the presence of a considerable indigenous population of South American ancestry that covered millennia of indigenous groups, in general terms the official history commonly focuses on the colonial periods the island has been subject to.

The political and colonial reality of Puerto Rico affects all spheres of social and economic life, constitutes the most relevant and transcendent issue to be resolved, and is intrinsically linked to many of the island’s social and economic problems. From 1493, with the arrival of the Spaniards, the island was under the colonial control of the Spanish Crown for approximately 400 years until 1898, when it was invaded during the Spanish-American War by the United States, which has territorial, political and socio-economic sovereignty. Since the invasion, the island has been considered an “unincorporated territory” of the United States and since 1917 U.S. citizenship has been imposed on those born in Puerto Rico. After a little more than 50 years of military and civil control, the United States Congress approved a Constitution for the island in 1952, with the adoption of the concept of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Structurally, the design of the island’s government is a republican system of government based on a division and balance of powers, consisting of Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. The first two of those are elected by direct vote of the eligible citizens every four years and the third is appointed by the Executive but confirmed by the Legislative.

From the Spanish colonial period through the first 30 to 40 years of the current U.S. colonial period, the economy of Puerto Rico was based on agriculture, particularly in sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco production. After World War II, and particularly as a policy of “economic development,” a massive industrialization process known as Operation Bootstrap was undertaken. It was an “investment by invitation” model that transformed production from one that was mainly agricultural to one that was basically manufacturing. This strategy resulted in explosive economic growth that catapulted the island ahead, at least for two decades, to be recognized as an economic model for the entire region, not only in the Caribbean but also throughout Latin America. This process provided the conditions for the birth and consolidation of a middle class, in socio-economic terms. The growth never was transformed into economic development, however. With the economic crisis that followed this process, and aggravated by the energy crisis of the 1970s, a new economic strategy was adopted in the form of Section 936 of the United States Internal Revenue Code, which provided incentives for foreign investment in Puerto Rico. Congress repealed the statute in 1996, however, with a 10-year transition period that ended in 2005. Since the repeal of the statute in 1996, Puerto Rico has faced the challenge of developing a new economic model, which has yet to be achieved. This lack of a new economic model is substantially the basis for the economic crisis that affects the island, which has grown even worse in recent years.

Based on information from the census conducted every ten years by the United States Census Bureau, the population of Puerto Rico in 2010 was 3,725,789 people. Of that total, some 1,785,171 people, or 47.9%, were males and 1,940,618, or 52.1%, were females. Some 903,295 people (or 24.2% of the population) are minors under 18 years of age and 541,998 people (or 14.5% of the population) are over 65 years of age. With a population of 3,808,610 people in 2000, the statistics show a percentage change of -2.2% in the total population. Additionally, there were population reductions of 2.7%, 1.8%, 20.9%, 3.8% and 21.6% in the sectors mentioned above. These important changes, both in the total and in the general structure of the population, have the common denominator of a process of emigration that has increased in the last 5 years. This process is mainly sparked by the difficult economic situation Puerto Rico has experienced in the last decade due to factors that have been germinating for a long time, at least the last 60 years, under all of the political administrations that have governed the island.

Author: Harrison Flores Ortiz
Published: February 21, 2016.

Related entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rican Foundation of the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.