Freedom in the World
Puerto Rico *
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Despite recent improvements in Puerto Rico’s economy, overall socio-economic conditions remain dire. The passage of pension cuts led to a two-day teachers’ strike in January, and in June, thousands protested a new fiscal emergency law that aimed to cut wages and benefits for electrical and water workers, among other public employees. Economic problems have led many Puerto Ricans to migrate, particularly to the mainland United States.
Political Rights: 37 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico exercises approximately the same control over its internal affairs as do the 50 states. The commonwealth constitution, modeled after that of the United States, provides for a governor elected for four-year terms and a bicameral legislature. The 27-member Senate and the 51-member House of Representatives are also elected for four-year terms. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens guaranteed all civil liberties granted in the United States, though they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. Residents of Puerto Rico can participate in the primary and caucus process, however. A single delegate represents Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress and is allowed to vote on floor amendments to legislation, but not on the final passage of bills. Pedro Pierluisi of the opposition New Progressive Party (PNP) was reelected to this post in 2012 by a narrow margin. In the November 6, 2012, gubernatorial election, Senator Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) received 47.7 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating incumbent governor Luis Fortuño of the PNP, who captured 47.1 percent. Four other candidates received less than 3 percent each. In legislative elections held the same day, the PPD won 18 Senate seats to the PNP’s 8; the Puerto Rican Independence Party won 1 seat. Three smaller parties won no seats. In the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, the PPD won 28 seats and the PNP won the remaining 23.
A two-part, nonbinding referendum on Puerto Rico’s territorial status was held the same day as the elections. The first question, asking whether voters wanted Puerto Rico to maintain its current territorial status, was supported by only 46 percent of the voters. A second question asked voters to choose whether they preferred statehood, independence, or a sovereign free associated state; the statehood option was selected by 61 percent of voters. However, with more than 470,000 voters choosing not to answer the question, in effect only 45 percent supported statehood. Governor García Padilla subsequently made it clear that he does not support statehood.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16
Power has alternated between the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) for several decades. Puerto Ricans have consistently been nearly equally divided between support for commonwealth status and full U.S. statehood, while the option of independence enjoys little popular support.
C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12
Corruption is common in Puerto Rico. A number of leading political figures have been indicted in recent years on various corruption charges. In May 2014, a Superior Court judge was charged with accepting bribes from a defendant in a criminal case; the case was ongoing at year’s end. The commonwealth was ranked 31 out of 175 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Civil Liberties: 52 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16
Puerto Rico’s tradition of varied and vigorous news media has been challenged by a decline in newspapers stemming from the ongoing economic crisis, among other factors. While internet access in Puerto Rico is slower and more expensive than in mainland United States, access is not restricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in this largely Roman Catholic territory. A substantial number of Evangelical churches have also been established in recent years.
Academic freedom is respected.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 10 / 12
Freedom of assembly is protected by law, and Puerto Ricans frequently protest local or federal government policies. Civil society is robust, with numerous nongovernmental organizations representing special interests. The government respects the rights of trade union rights, which are generally free to organize and strike.
F. Rule of Law: 12 / 16
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 2010, when the four justices approved a congressional resolution expanding the court from seven to nine members—ostensibly to deal with a heavy caseload—over the objections of a three-justice minority.
Crime remains a serious problem. 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 cartels. During 2014, 681 homicides were recorded—the lowest number in more than a decade and a 23 percent decline from the 883 homicides recorded in 2013. Puerto Rico, like surrounding Caribbean countries, remains a main trafficking route for international cartels. Between January and June 2014, more than 17,000 kilograms of cocaine were seized by security forces—a significant increase compared to the 820 kilograms seized in 2011. Experts have voiced concerns that this may be an indication of traffickers increasingly bypassing surrounding islands to move drugs through Puerto Rico, as more lenient customs requirements make it easier to transport packages from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States.
In September 2011, a U.S. Justice Department report accused the Puerto Rico Police of “profound” and “longstanding” patterns of civil rights violations and other illegal practices that have left it in a state of “institutional dysfunction.” According to the report, police frequently attack nonviolent protesters and journalists in a manner that compromises the constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The report also accused police of unwarranted searches and seizures. The police superintendent at the time and the Puerto Rico Justice Department claimed that the report was untrustworthy and lacked objectivity. A June 2012 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report on Puerto Rico’s police force further corroborated the Justice Department findings, charging that officers’ “use of excessive or lethal force is routine, and civil and human rights violations are rampant.” The ACLU report cited the targeting of poor, African-descent Puerto Ricans and Dominican immigrants as a prominent problem.
In May 2014, sixteen members of the police force were arrested for involvement in colluding with and providing protection to drug dealers. Twelve of them were found guilty of various charges—including robbery, extortion, selling illegal narcotics, and manipulating official records—in December, while the remaining four are scheduled to be tried in 2015.
In July 2013, the U.S. Justice Department announced a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico Police for sustained racial and sexual discrimination against a female officer. Earlier in the month, both sides had signed a major civil rights agreement to combat police misconduct.
Hate crimes against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people—including violent attacks and cases of murder—remain a problem. In 2013, the government signed a bill prohibiting employment discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 14 / 16
Puerto Ricans enjoy freedom of travel and choice of residence. There are no limitations on rights to enter institutions of higher education or choose one’s place of employment. Despite the prominence of organized crime, the rights to own property or operate a private business are generally not inhibited. The government is the largest employer on the island.
Although women enjoy equal rights under the law, the 2011 U.S. Justice Department report cited evidence that police officers failed to investigate incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence, including spousal abuse by fellow officers.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year