Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

Freedom in the World 2004 - Puerto Rico [United States]

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Puerto Rico [United States], 18 December 2003, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
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.

Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 2
Status: Free
Population: 3,900,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Roma Catholic (85 percent), other [including Protestant (15 percent)
Ethnic Groups: White [mostly spanish origin] (80.5 percent), other (11.5 percent), black (8 percent)


After several years of intense controversy, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience, the U.S. Navy abandoned the use of the small island of Vieques as a bombing range in 2003. Puerto Rico acquired the status of a commonwealth of the United States following approval by plebiscite in 1952. Under its terms, Puerto Rico exercises approximately the same control over its internal affairs as do the 50 U.S. states. Although they are U.S. citizens, residents cannot vote in presidential elections and are represented in the U.S. Congress by a delegate to the House of Representatives who can vote in committee, but not on the floor.

Sila Maria Calderon, a member of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP), was elected governor in 2000. She captured 48.5 percent of the vote against 45.7 percent for her main rival, Carlos Pesquera of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP).

The controversy over Vieques was triggered in 1999, when a Puerto Rican civilian was killed accidentally during a bombing exercise. The incident ignited protests by Puerto Ricans and stimulated a debate over U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico. Governor Calderon sided with the protestors and urged a speedy shutdown of the bombing range and a handover of the territory involved to Puerto Rico. Calderon sponsored a referendum in 2001 in which voters opted strongly for the return of Vieques to Puerto Rican control. Subsequently, U.S. officials agreed to eliminate the bombing range and to shut down the Roosevelt Roads naval base, both of which were accomplished in 2003.

The island's relationship with the United States remains a fundamental issue. There have been several nonbinding referendums in which Puerto Ricans were asked to choose from among three options – a continuation of the commonwealth status, statehood, or independence. In the most recent referendum, in 1998, Puerto Rican voters opted to retain commonwealth status by a narrow margin over the statehood alternative. Any vote to change the island's status would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress. During her term, Governor Calderon has deemphasized the question of the island's status, focusing instead on economic development and crime prevention. Puerto Rico's status could emerge as an issue again after the next election for governor, scheduled for November 2004.

Governor Calderon has emphasized the fight against official corruption during her tenure. In an important case, Edison Misla Aldarondo, the former speaker of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives, was convicted of extortion and money laundering and sentenced to nearly six years in prison.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The commonwealth constitution, modeled after that of the United States, provides for a governor and a bicameral legislature, consisting of a 28-member Senate and a 54-member House of Representatives, elected for four years. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are guaranteed all civil liberties granted in the United States.

The press and broadcast media are well developed, varied, and critical.

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

There is a robust civil society, with numerous nongovernmental organizations representing the interests of different constituencies. Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by law, and Puerto Ricans frequently mount protest rallies against government policies or policies of the United States. Trade union rights are respected by the government 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 the most serious problem facing the island. More than 750 murders were committed in 2003, and the murder rate was three times the average for the United States. Puerto Rico is one of the Caribbean's main drug transshipment points, and a substantial percentage of murders are drug-related. Governor Sila Maria Calderon has made crime prevention a major priority of her administration. The effort, however, has been hampered by low police morale and an inadequate legal system.

A controversy has emerged over the issue of capital punishment. Although Puerto Rico prohibits the death penalty, Puerto Ricans are subject to the death penalty for crimes that violate U.S. federal law. Differences between Puerto Rican and U.S. departments of justice emerged in the case of two men accused of kidnapping (a federal crime) and murder in San Juan. The U.S. Justice Department is seeking the death penalty in the case.

In 2003, there was a surge in attempts by illegal migrants from various Caribbean countries, many traveling in flimsy boats, to reach Puerto Rico. Many were brought to the island by smugglers, who encouraged their migration efforts by warning that new U.S. policies would make illegal immigration more difficult in the future.

Laws granting equal rights for women in education, at the workplace, and in other aspects of society have been adopted. Women's rights organizations, however, claim that women are still subject to widespread discrimination.

Copyright notice: © Freedom House, Inc. · All Rights Reserved

Search Refworld