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Posted 3/8/2013

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By Erica Robbins

Second in a series of four stories about the history of the Antilles Office

On Facebook, the relationship status between the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands would probably read:  “It’s Complicated.”

The first of this series of four stories about the history of Jacksonville District’s Antilles Office described the location of the archipelago of islands that includes Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  This installment will look at how Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are related to the United States.

Puerto Rico was claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1493. By 1898, after 400 years of colonial rule, the indigenous Taíno population was nearly exterminated and African slaves were introduced. Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. by the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico is not a state, but rather a U.S. territory with commonwealth status. Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917.

The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) were formerly the Danish West Indies. They were sold to the United States by Denmark in the Treaty of the Danish West Indies of 1916. Now an organized, unincorporated United States territory, the islands are considered an insular area, which is a U.S. territory that is not related to any of the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia. They are called "insular” because they were once administered by the War Department's Bureau of Insular Affairs, now the Office of Insular Affairs at the Department of the Interior.

Both Puerto Rico and the USVI are unincorporated territories of the United States, and as such, U.S. citizens are free to travel there without a passport, just as they may travel freely between states and other territories without a passport.

Products manufactured in Puerto Rico are considered to be “Made in the USA.” In both the USVI and Puerto Rico, most federal taxes are not levied and no federal income tax is collected from island residents, except for federal employees.

Puerto Ricans and residents of the USVI are U.S. citizens and they may vote in Democratic and Republican Party presidential primary elections. Under the U.S. Constitution, as residents of unincorporated territories rather than states, they do not vote in general elections for the U.S. president and vice president unless they reside in one of the fifty states. Though they cannot vote for president, the current chief of state is President Barack Obama, but the head of government is the governor.

Currently, more than 10,000 active duty military personnel from Puerto Rico serve in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, and since 1917, more than 200,000 have served in every conflict since World War I.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands each elect a delegate to Congress from their at-large congressional district. However, the elected delegate, while able to vote in committee, cannot participate in floor votes.

The relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has been a matter of fierce internal debate in Puerto Rico for many years. Of the two major groups, one favors the continuance of commonwealth status, while the other favors statehood, centering on the right to vote and the potential for increased funding from Washington, D.C. A third, smaller group supports independence for Puerto Rico. When the issue was put to a public vote in 1967, 1993 and 1998, Puerto Ricans chose not to alter the existing relationship with the United States.

In 2012, there was a shift in popular opinion, and nearly 54 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for a change in the U.S. commonwealth’s relationship with the United States. They approved a non-binding referendum that would make the island the 51st state and would give them “rights, benefits and responsibilities equal to those enjoyed by all other citizens of the states of the union.”  Though President Obama promised to uphold their vote in the case of a clear majority, the measure requires final approval from Congress. However, the District of Columbia, or Washington, D.C. has long sought statehood but has yet to win it.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Antilles Office administers construction projects throughout the island of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. Other key missions include flood control, navigation, support to the military and others, disaster response and recovery, environmental restoration, real estate and regulatory missions for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Antilles Area Office is located in San Juan, and has three resident offices: the North Puerto Rico Resident Office and Support for Others Resident Office, co-located in San Juan on the northern part of the island, and the South Puerto Rico Resident Office in Ponce, on the southern end of the island. The workforce of 53 employees includes engineers, construction inspectors, planners and economists, biologists and environmental scientists, attorneys, geologists and real estate, safety and administrative personnel.

Defense of Puerto Rico is the responsibility of the U.S. The United States Northern Command provides military support for the civil government in the U.S., and protects the territories (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) and national interests of the United States within the contiguous United States, Alaska, Canada and Mexico, as well as the air, land and sea approaches to these areas. Mona Passage, between the islands of Mona and Puerto Rico, is a key shipping lane to the Panama Canal, making Puerto Rico a strategic location for the U.S.

antilles office construction corps disaster recovery Disaster Response environmental restoration flood control military operations navigation puerto rico real estate regulatory San Juan U.S. Army Corps of Engineers u.s. virgin islands USVI Virgin Islands