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Freedom in the World 2011 - Puerto Rico

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 22 August 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Puerto Rico, 22 August 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e5247a7c.html [accessed 22 September 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: 4,000,000

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

Overview

In one of the biggest police scandals in Puerto Rico's history, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested dozens of police officers for alleged involvement in drug trafficking in October 2010. Also during the year, students and public employees mounted regular protests in response to fiscal austerity measures, and a decision to increase the size of the Supreme Court raised concerns about judicial independence.

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. Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá of the PPD won the 2004 gubernatorial election, defeating his PNP opponent by a razor-thin margin. Acevedo-Vilá was indicted on corruption charges by a U.S. grand jury in March 2008, but he refused to withdraw his candidacy ahead of the November 2008 elections. The result was a major shift in Puerto Rican politics. PNP gubernatorial candidate Luis Fortuño, 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 chambers of the legislature. Acevedo-Vilá was acquitted in March 2009 of violating the island's campaign finance laws, though nine of his associates reached plea agreements with the government, and several testified against the former governor.

Once in office, Fortuño was forced to contend with a fiscal crisis that was exacerbated by the global economic turndown. His moves to raise taxes and cut 30,000 workers from the public payroll triggered a series of trade union protests in 2009. Layoffs continued in 2010, with an additional 17,000 public jobs cut, leading to further protests. From April to June, students mounted a strike at the University of Puerto Rico, closing down 10 of the system's 11 campuses to protest tuition increases and cuts in public spending for higher education. Some violence broke out at the largest campus after police intervened in an effort to halt the protests.

In October, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested 133 people, including 89 police officers, for alleged involvement in drug trafficking. Puerto Rico has become a major transit point for illegal narcotics moving from South America to the eastern United States.

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 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 Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). 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 PIP candidate for governor received just 2 percent of the popular vote in 2008.

Corruption is an endemic problem in Puerto Rican politics. A number of leading political figures have been indicted in recent years on various corruption charges. Puerto Rico was ranked 33 out of 178 polities surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Puerto Rico's tradition of varied and vigorous news media has been under strain due to a decline in newspapers stemming from the economic crisis and other factors.

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 protests 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 the island's Supreme Court heads an independent judiciary. However, concerns about politicization at the Supreme Court emerged in November 2010, when the four justices appointed by current governor Luis Fortuño approved a resolution asking the legislature to expand the court from seven to nine members, ostensibly to deal with a heavy caseload. The three-justice minority dissented, arguing that the expansion was unnecessary and approved without sufficient debate. The legislature quickly passed the measure, and Fortuño was expected to appoint the two new justices in 2011, giving his picks an overwhelming majority on the court, potentially for many years to come.

Crime is a serious problem. 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.

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. Identity theft and immigration fraud are endemic in Puerto Rico. In March 2009, an identity-theft ring stole the personal data of over 7,000 Puerto Rican schoolchildren and sold them to illegal immigrants in the United States. Following this incident, the Puerto Rican government, with the help of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, issued new birth certificates and identification cards with enhanced security features.

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 in practice.

* 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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