Freedom in the World 2006 - Puerto Rico [United States]

Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 3,927,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (85 percent), other [including Protestant] (15 percent)
Ethnic Groups: White (80.5 percent), black (8 percent), other [including Amerindian and Asian] (11.5 percent)

Ratings Change
Puerto Rico's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to a consolidation of freedom of assembly.


After nearly two months of vote recounting and legal struggles, Anibal Acevedo-Vila was officially recognized on December 23, 2004 as having won the November 2 election for governor of Puerto Rico. The killing of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, a one-time leader of the illegal wing of the island's independence movement, led to a number of public protests and demonstrations. The year was also marked by an upsurge in criminal violence, much of which was tied to strife between rival gangs for control of drug trafficking on the island.

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 of Puerto Rico 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.

After one of the closest elections for governor in Puerto Rico's history, Anibal Acevedo-Vila was declared the winner of the November 2 election on December 23, 2004. The candidate of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD), Acevedo Vila won 48.4 percent of the vote while his main opponent, former governor Pedro Rossello, the candidate of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), received 48.2 percent. Acevedo-Vila won by a margin of 3,500 votes out of a total of 1.9 million votes cast. At the same time, the NPP retained control of the commonwealth's legislature and prevented the adoption of key aspects of the new governor's program.

The close nature of the election reflected divisions among Puerto Ricans over the island's future political status. For years, Puerto Ricans have been nearly equally divided between those who favor the continuation of the commonwealth status and those who favor Puerto Rico's formally becoming part of the United States as a state. A third option, independence, has little popular support; indeed, the Independence Party (PIP) candidate for governor, Ruben Berrios, failed to poll 5 percent of the vote, the party's worst showing in recent years. Several referendums during the past 15 years have resulted in narrow endorsements for continuation of commonwealth status. At present, the U.S. Congress shows no interest in changing Puerto Rico's status.

Although nationalist passions have cooled somewhat since the 2003 decision by the United States to abandon the use of the small island of Vieques as a bombing range – a decision reached in response to several years of protest – the past year was notable for a controversy triggered by the death of a one-time leader of the illegal wing of the independence movement. Filiberto Ojeda Rios, who was the leader of a militant group that claimed responsibility for bombings and who had been convicted of a $7.2 million bank robbery in the United States, was killed by U.S. federal agents during a gun battle. Some observers, however, accused the agents of having allowed Ojeda Rios to die by failing to quickly summon medical assistance for the wounded man. A number of protests and demonstrations took place in response to his killing.

During 2005, Puerto Rico was plagued by a wave of violent crime, much of which was related to the illegal drug trade. The island has become a major point of entry for drugs from South America en route to the United States. The island's murder rate is high by U.S. standards, as are the rates of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS.

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

Puerto Rico has a varied and outspoken media environment. During 2004, a coalition of human rights and gay organizations formally complained about frequent antihomosexual comments and jokes on radio and television. 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.

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by law, and Puerto Ricans frequently mount protest rallies against government policies or policies of the United States. 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 the most serious problem facing the island. The law enforcement and legal systems have been seriously tested by the upsurge of drug-related crime. 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.

In recent years, there has been an upsurge 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.

Although relatively prosperous by Caribbean standards, Puerto Rico suffers from high rates of poverty. In 2005, the government began implementing a program to demolish many of the government – provided housing units, a breeding place for crime, and relocate the occupants to better units.

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

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