Freedom in the World 2003 - Puerto Rico [United States]

Polity: Parliamentary with elected governor
Population: 3,900,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (85 percent), Protestant and other (15 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Spanish origin (80.5 percent), black (8 percent), Amerindian (0.4percent), Asian (0.2 percent), mixed and other (10.9 percent)

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


The year 2002 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 protested 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 2001; there was also a controversy over a lack of press access to the island. The protest campaign, however, died down after the terrorist attacks on the United States but was reinitiated during the past year. At the end of the year, the United States government announced that it would abandon use of the island for military training during the first half of 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. 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 U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's governor, Sila Maria Calderon, a member of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP), 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.

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. However, nothing significant has developed from this Clinton initiative. 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 and the government of Puerto Rico has been lobbying for a replacement.

Calderon was elected on a platform that stressed anticorruption themes while, at the same time, several political figures from her party and the NPP and cabinet members were arrested and faced trials. Among them was a leading NPP representative, Edison Misla Aldarondo, who was arrested and tried for influence peddling; a verdict is expected in early 2003. Another was the Secretary of Educaction during the administration of Gov. Pedro Rossello, Victor Fajardo, who was tried and convicted on corruption charges, including misappropriation of federal education funds.

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 and the Overseas Press Club of Puerto Rico have charged successive governments with denying complete access to official information. Renewed efforts to adopt a proposed Freedom of Information Act for the island failed. Press freedom and professional organizations continued to express skepticism about the proposed law, contending that the measure would do more harm than good and urging instead strict adherence to the basic right of freedom of speech and the press.

A protest by statehood supporters, led by NPP President Pesquera, concerning the placement of a U.S. flag in a government agency turned into a riot in which he and other top party officials were arrested, charged and faced trials. Subsequently, the Puerto Rico Justice Department demanded and received the raw footage of the event from several television stations. In addition, the prosecutors and a Special Independent Prosecutor panel summoned the news director of the public television station and some of the reporters and photojournalists who covered the incident as witnesses. The action was seen as a threat to press freedom.

The greatest cause for concern is the steep rise in crime, much of which is drug related. Puerto Rico is one of the Caribbean's main drug transshipment points.

Puerto Rico is predominantly Roman Catholic. Freedom of religion is guaranteed, and a substantial number of Evangelical 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.

This 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.