At the end of the 19th century, when the United States was toying with the idea of becoming an empire like the United Kingdom or Japan, Puerto Rico and Cuba came into the possession of the United States. Cuba, which was slated for independence in the Treaty of Paris, and Puerto Rico, still a territory of the United States, had a lot in common. Both had been colonies of Spain until the Spanish-American war and both were under U.S. control thereafter. Cuba became independent in 1902 and Puerto Rico gained U.S. citizenship in 1917.

In the 1950s, Puerto Rico gained a larger measure of home rule along with its constitution. Cuba toppled an American-supported political regime in favor of communism, and was financially supported by the USSR. During the Cold War, the two islands were used by the United States and the USSR to showcase democracy and communism.

Differences between Puerto Rico and Cuba

As Puerto Rico copes with crisis, we can see some differences between the territory of Puerto Rico and the nation of Cuba. (Data from the World Bank.) Note that Cuba has about 10 times the land and more than 3 times the population of Puerto Rico.

  • In 2018, Puerto Rico’s GDP was $101.131 billion.
    Cuba’s was $96.851 billion.
  • Puerto Rico’s per capita income was 25,240.
    Cuba’s was 8,541.
  • Unemployment in Puerto Rico is 11.44%
    In Cuba, it’s 2.26%
  • Exports from Puerto Rico last year totaled $60.57 billion.
    Cuba’s exports came to $2.6 billion.
  • Average life expectancy in Puerto Rico in 2017 was 79.98 years.
    Average life expectancy in Cuba was 79.21 years
  • The birth rate in Puerto Rico was 1.30.
    Cuba’s was 1.72.

Even though Puerto Rico is currently facing serious financial troubles and unsupportable debt as the Island struggles to recover from the devastating 2017 hurricane season, Puerto Rico is much better off financially than Cuba. Major health indicators are comparable.

Cuba’s leaders routinely argue for independence for Puerto Rico, while Puerto Rico’s voters routinely reject independence.

U.S. statehood was never on the table for Cuba, while Puerto Rico voted for statehood in 2012, 2017, and 2020.

Puerto Rico and Cuba are “two wings of the same bird,” according to Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez de Tio. They certainly have similarities, but the differences in their political and economic systems make the two areas a comparison of apples and oranges. For the past century, they have followed different paths.



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