Image: U.S. soldiers adjust an American flag
Brennan Linsley  /  AP
U.S. soldiers adjust an American flag over the coffin carrying the body of Staff Sgt. Angel D. Mercado Velazquez, minutes after arriving from Iraq, inside a hangar at Muniz Air National Guard Base, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 9, 2006. Puerto Rico has been under U.S. jurisdiction since 1898, and its people 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. Yet Puerto Ricans can't vote for president, and their representative in Congress can't vote either.
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updated 10/31/2010 11:37:14 AM ET 2010-10-31T15:37:14

Dayra Rivera saw the letter as a slap in the face for Puerto Ricans: No, Apple Inc. told her, you cannot 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 would not ship to an "international" destination. Never mind that Puerto Rico's 4 million residents are American citizens, and that it is closer to the mainland than Hawaii.

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

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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 is 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 problem.

Puerto Ricans cannot decide whether they want to go for statehood, have some sort of in-between commitment or break up altogether. They have voted on the issue three times to date, 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 now controls the legislature and the governor's office, hopes to hold another vote. And the U.S. House of Representatives 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."

Under U.S. jurisdiction since 1898
For the record, Puerto Rico has been under U.S. jurisdiction — some would say boot heel — since 1898, its people 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, 2001, terror attacks. The island shuts down and shoots off fireworks on the Fourth of July, American Independence Day.

Yet Puerto Ricans cannot vote for president, and their representative in Congress cannot vote either. They pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes that finance the government's retirement and principal medical programs; they do not pay federal income tax (they pay Puerto Rican income tax instead, so it is no paradise.)

And The Associated Press considers its reporters in Puerto Rico foreign correspondents.

Both Spanish and English are official languages, although 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 the U.S. Congress have wondered if they need passports to travel to Puerto Rico, according to an anecdote often told by New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, son of Cuban immigrants. And 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 do not need passports).

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

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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 are not from another country; they are from Puerto Rico. 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." Pierluisi said that 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.

'It's definitely very American'
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 United States 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). And technically it is a commonwealth, which means it has some political and economic autonomy.

But Puerto Rico does not make the Forbes list of best countries to do business. It doesn't have its own seat at the United Nations, and it is 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 later moved to New York but has now returned to help out in her family's water-bottling business. "But it's very hard to categorize. It's neither here nor there."

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

A number of companies do not ship to Puerto Rico to avoid conflicts over exclusive distribution agreements that some manufacturers have in the island. Others will not ship because it is too expensive, often more than twice what it costs with the major shipping companies to a mainland U.S. destination. Sometimes, there also are problems with warranties that might not be applicable in Puerto Rico.

At least one company, www.buyonlineshiptopr.com, allows people to work around it by having their goods shipped to Miami, Florida, then sent by U.S. Postal Service. Primo Delgado, the marketing director, said they have worked with most of the major online retailers since opening in April. Even if Puerto Rico should become a state, he said, it would face the same complexities and shipping would still be a problem.

But Rivera sees it as injustice all the same. She fired off a note to popular consumer rights advocacy blog Consumerist.com, which publicized her cause, as did several other online forums.

"A lot of people were really upset over this situation," she said. "They weren't treating Puerto Rico right."

Rivera says she generally stays out of the status debate, but the iPhone saga has pushed her toward statehood. "I want Puerto Rico to be a state so this situation gets fixed," she said.

She may not have to wait. An Apple spokeswoman said the cancellation of Rivera's iPhone case had been a mistake, although she would not say why or how it was made. And in August, Rivera got a follow-up: Another e-mail that her case was en route.

This time the e-mail was in Spanish.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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