Freedom in the World 2002 - Puerto Rico [United States]

Polity: Parliamentary with elected governor
Population: 3,900,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: White mostly Spanish origin (80 percent), black (8 percent), other, including Indian and mixed (2 percent)

Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 2
Status: Free


The year was marked by continuing controversy over the status of the small island of Vieques. For several years, some leading Puerto Rican political figures, supported by civil rights leaders and political officeholders in the United States, have raised protests over the U.S. Navy's use of the island as a bombing range. A number of protestors were arrested and given jail sentences for participating in demonstrations during naval exercises on the bombing site during the past summer. The protest campaign, however, died down after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11.

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. Though 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. The commonwealth constitution, modeled after that of the U.S., 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. A supreme court heads an independent judiciary, and the legal system is based on U.S. law.

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 American policy towards Puerto Rico. Protests continued during 1999 and into 2001. Puerto Rico's governor, Sila Maria Calderon, a member of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, 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. A referendum scheduled by the U.S. Navy for November was canceled in the wake of the terror attacks. At year's end, Calderon indicated that President George W. Bush had pledged to abandon the military use of Vieques in 2003.

Calderon was elected governor in 2000, winning 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 island's relationship with the U.S. remains a fundamental issue. In a nonbinding 1993 referendum, voters narrowly opted to retain commonwealth status. Commonwealth status received 48.4 percent of the vote, statehood 46.3 percent, and independence 4.4 percent. The vote indicated significant gains for statehood, which in the last referendum, in 1967, received only 39 percent of the vote. Voters also opted for the status quo in a 1998 referendum. Although many more voters chose statehood over independence, the percentage who voted for no change in the island's status was greater than it had been in the 1993 referendum. In one of his last acts as president, Bill Clinton created a task force to study whether Puerto Rico should retain its current status, or become a state or an independent country. Any vote to change the island's status would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress. As Washington seeks to cut the federal deficit, the benefits the island receives under Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code will be phased out over the next ten years. This fundamental change in U.S.-Puerto Rican economic relations would mean the eventual end to a system in which subsidiaries of U.S. companies operating on the island receive income tax and wage credits. The tax-free status of interest earned on income would also be eliminated.

Calderon was elected on a platform that stressed anticorruption themes. A leading NPP senator, Edison Misla Aldarondo, was arrested for influence peddling and investigations were initiated into corruption cases that involved several other major political figures from both major parties.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are guaranteed all civil liberties granted in the United States. The press and broadcast media are well developed, highly varied, and critical. In recent years, the Puerto Rican Journalists' Association has charged successive governments with denying complete access to official information. A recent controversy involved an effort to adopt a proposed Freedom of Information Act for the island. Press freedom organizations have expressed skepticism about the proposed law, contending that such measures often do more harm than good and urging instead strict adherence to the basic right of freedom of speech.

The greatest cause for concern is the steep rise in criminal violence in recent years, much of which is drug related. Puerto Rico is now the Caribbean's main drug transshipment point. Since mid-1993, about 80 public housing projects, or about two-fifths of the total, have been under the control of the National Guard, the first time U.S. military units have been routinely deployed to fight crime.

Puerto Rico is predominantly Roman Catholic. Freedom of religion is guaranteed, and a substantial number of Evengelical churches have been established on the island in recent years. Laws have been adopted calling for equal rights for women in education, at the work place, and in other aspects of society. Women's rights organizations, however, claim that women are still subject to widespread discrimination.

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