- Associated Press - Monday, November 1, 2010

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico | Dayra Rivera saw the letter as a slap in the face for Puerto Ricans: No, Apple Inc. told her over the summer, you can’t have the free iPhone case promised to U.S. customers.

Apple, which was giving out plastic cases because of problems with dropped calls, said it wouldn’t ship to an “international” destination. Never mind that Puerto Rico’s 4 million residents are U.S. citizens and that it is closer to the mainland than Hawaii.

“I felt like I was being treated like a second-class citizen,” said Ms. Rivera, a 46-year-old manager of a clothing store near the capital, San Juan.

Apple, as it turns out, is hardly alone in considering the island 1,000 miles southeast of Florida a foreign land. Other businesses, politicians, entertainers and even Puerto Ricans themselves are not quite sure what to make of a place where highway distances are in kilometers but road speeds in miles per hour.

Puerto Rico and the United States are like one of those couples who have been together forever without getting married, forcing people to make awkward introductions at weddings like “and … this is her special friend.” Perhaps comedian Larry David captured the confusion most bluntly on the TV program “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as he riffed on America’s boundaries, asking: What is Puerto Rico anyway?

It’s a question the island asks itself all the time. For now at least, the most Puerto Rican thing about Puerto Rico could be its identity issues.

Puerto Ricans can’t decide whether they want to go for statehood, have some sort of in-between commitment or break up. They voted on the issue in 1967, 1993 and 1998 and each time decided to keep the status quo.

The issue may come up again in 2011: The pro-statehood movement, which controls the legislature and the governor’s office, intends to hold another vote. The U.S. House has passed a bill that would allow Puerto Rico’s government to ask its residents if they want to change the island’s commonwealth status.

But most exasperating of all is that even as Puerto Rico is preoccupied with its status, much of the United States hardly seems to know or care.

Several months ago, House candidate Vaughn Ward, a Republican from Idaho, called Puerto Rico a “country” in a political debate. When corrected, he said, “I really don’t care what it is. It doesn’t matter.”

For the record, Puerto Rico has been under U.S. jurisdiction since 1898, and its people have been citizens since 1917. The island is home to 150,000 military veterans, and three-quarters of its National Guard troops have been deployed overseas since the Sept. 11 attacks. The island shuts down and shoots off fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Yet Puerto Ricans can’t vote for president, and their representative in Congress can’t vote, either. They pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes but not federal income tax. (They pay Puerto Rican income tax instead, so it’s no paradise.) Associated Press considers its reporters in Puerto Rico foreign correspondents.

Spanish and English are the official languages, though you will hear much more of the former than the latter. The island has a holiday in honor of Eugenio Maria de Hostos, a figure associated with Puerto Rican independence. It puts up its own Miss Universe contestant and its own Olympic team.

Confused? So is Congress. Members of Congress have wondered if they need passports to travel to Puerto Rico, according to an oft-told anecdote by New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants. Joachim de Posada, an author and business consultant who lives in Puerto Rico, gets the passport question all the time, most recently in Germany. (Answer: U.S. citizens don’t need passports.)

“It is amazing the level of ignorance I find, not only in the U.S., but all around the world,” Mr. de Posada said.

There are other U.S. territories, such as Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but none has near the population of Puerto Rico and the huge cultural impact on the mainland that comes with it.

The question of what exactly the island is lingers even among Puerto Ricans in the United States, who outnumber those in Puerto Rico. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has called her parents immigrants, but they’re not from another country — they’re from Puerto Rico. Justice Sotomayor herself in recent years has been careful not to come down publicly on one side or the other of the statehood issue.

Not so Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, the nonvoting representative in Congress.

“The question about the statehood for Puerto Rico is not whether it’s going to happen; it’s when,” he said. “I have no doubt that’s where we’re headed.”

Mr. Pierluisi said the growing Hispanic population in the United States will compel Congress to support statehood if islanders demand it.

Hector Pesquera, co-chairman of the National Hostos Independence Movement, has a very different take. To him, Puerto Rico would be obliterated by statehood.

“People who vote in favor of statehood are like chickens voting for Kentucky Fried Chicken,” he said.

The rest of the world is similarly all over the place in its dealings with Puerto Rico. The island has its own ranking on World Economic Forum’s annual ranking of global competitiveness — coming in at No. 41, between Cyprus and Spain. The U.S. is ranked No. 4.

Puerto Rico also got its own ranking in a Gallup World Poll published in July of the happiest countries (No. 23) and its own spot on Transparency International’s annual list of corruption perceptions, coming in at 33rd least corrupt. (The U.S. was 22nd.) Technically it is a commonwealth, which means it has some political and economic autonomy.

But Puerto Rico doesn’t make the Forbes list of best countries in which to do business. It doesn’t have its own seat at the United Nations, and it’s not invited to the annual Ibero-American summit of Spanish-speaking countries.

“You’ve got your fast food, your Costco, the mall. It’s definitely very American,” said 32-year-old Adriana Pons, who was born on the island and moved back from New York to help in her family’s water-bottling business. “But it’s very hard to categorize. It’s neither here nor there.”

That comes back around to the question of whether Puerto Ricans can get free iPhone cases.

Several companies don’t ship to Puerto Rico to avoid conflicts over exclusive distribution agreements that some manufacturers have in the island. Others won’t ship because it’s too expensive — often more than twice what it costs with the major shipping companies to a mainland U.S. destination. Sometimes, there are also issues with warranties that might not be applicable in Puerto Rico.

At least one company, www.buyonlineshiptopr.com, enables people to work around it by having their goods shipped to Miami, then sent by the U.S. Postal Service.

Primo Delgado, the marketing director, said the company has worked with most of the major online retailers since opening in April. Even if Puerto Rico were to become a state, he said, it would face the same issues, and shipping would still be a problem.

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