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Freedom in the World 2010 - Puerto Rico [United States]

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 1 June 2010
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010 - Puerto Rico [United States], 1 June 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c1a1ea11c.html [accessed 23 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: N/A
Population: 3,971,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free

Overview

Former governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila was found not guilty of corruption charges by a United States federal court in March 2009. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's economy continued to worsen amid the global financial crisis.


Having been captured by U.S. forces during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico acquired the status of a commonwealth of the United States following approval by plebiscite in 1952. As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico exercises approximately the same control over its internal affairs as do the 50 states. Although they are U.S. citizens, residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections and are represented in the U.S. Congress by a delegate to the House of Representatives with limited voting rights.

Power has alternated between the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) for several decades. Anibal Acevedo-Vila of the PPD won the 2004 gubernatorial election by a razor-thin margin over his PNP opponent. Acevedo-Vila was indicted on corruption charges by a U.S. grand jury in March 2008, but he refused to withdraw his candidacy ahead of the 2008 gubernatorial election. The result was a major shift in Puerto Rican politics. PNP candidate Luis Fortuno, who had served as the island's representative in the U.S. Congress, firmly defeated the incumbent, while the PNP secured overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate elections. Acevedo-Vila was acquitted in March 2009 of nine counts of violating the island's campaign finance laws. Nine of his associates reached plea agreements with the government, and several testified against the former governor.

Fortuno's agenda has been dominated by a fiscal crisis that was exacerbated by the global economic turndown. His proposals to raise taxes and cut 30,000 workers from the state payroll triggered a series of trade union protests at various times in 2009. Although Puerto Rico had for years been showcased as one of the Caribbean's major economic success stories, its performance has moved from stagnation to outright decline over the past several years. Per capita income stands at just over one-half the level of the poorest state in the United States, labor-force participation is low, and poverty rates are high.

For years, Puerto Ricans have been nearly equally divided between those who support the continuation of commonwealth status and those who favor full U.S. statehood. Commonwealth supporters argue that the special status allows the island to maintain its separate culture and an exemption from federal income taxes, while advocates of statehood seek presidential voting rights and full representation in Congress. A third option, independence, has little popular support; the Independence Party (PIP) candidate for governor received just 2 percent of the popular vote in 2008. While many Puerto Ricans have looked to the new American president, Barack Obama, to resolve the island's status, no initiatives emerged from the administration during its first year.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The commonwealth constitution, modeled after that of the United States, provides for a governor elected for four-year terms and a bicameral legislature, currently consisting of a 27-member Senate and a 51-member House of Representatives, elected for four-year terms. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are guaranteed all civil liberties granted in the United States.

The commonwealth is represented in the U.S. Congress by a single delegate. In January 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives restored limited voting rights to the delegates from Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and several other U.S. territories. The change allows Puerto Rico's delegate to vote on floor amendments to legislation but not on final passage of bills.

The major political parties are the pro-commonwealth PPD, the pro-statehood PNP, and the pro-independence PIP.

Corruption is an endemic problem in commonwealth politics. Puerto Rico was ranked 35 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Puerto Rico's tradition of varied and vigorous news media has been under strain by a decline in newspapers due to the economic crisis and other factors. The San Juan Star, the commonwealth's principal English-language print outlet, was forced to close for financial reasons in 2008. While plans for a cooperatively owned English-language replacement were discussed, a new paper had not been established by the end of 2009.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in this predominantly Roman Catholic territory. A substantial number of Evangelical churches have been established on the island in recent years. Academic freedom is guaranteed.

Freedom of assembly is protected by law, and Puerto Ricans frequently mount protest rallies against local or federal government policies. There is a robust civil society, with numerous nongovernmental organizations representing the interests of different constituencies. The government respects trade union rights, and unions are generally free to organize and strike.

The legal system is based on U.S. law, and a supreme court heads an independent judiciary. Crime is a serious problem for the island. The murder rate is three times that of the United States, with a large proportion of drug-related homicides. The center of the narcotics trade has shifted from San Juan to smaller communities, leaving housing projects in some towns under virtual siege by drug gangs. The enforcement of drug laws has been accompanied by an increase in police corruption. In 2009, police officers were charged with involvement in a high-profile case in which a fake traffic stop was set up to steal drugs from a dealer.

In recent years, there has been an upsurge in attempts by illegal migrants from various Caribbean countries to reach Puerto Rico, often in flimsy boats. Many are brought to the island by smugglers.

Women enjoy equal rights under the law in education, at the workplace, and in other aspects of society. However, women's rights organizations maintain that women are still subject to widespread discrimination.


*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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