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Puerto Rico experienced the closest governor's race in the island's history during 2004, with the outcome undetermined one month after the November poll.
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.
The commonwealth's election commission was still tabulating results in the latest governor's race on November 30. Anibal Acevedo Vila, the candidate of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP) was slightly ahead of Pedro Rossello, who represented the New Progressive Party (NPP), which favors statehood status for the island. The margin was razor-thin: 48.38 to 48.18. Ruben Berrios, the candidate of the pro-independence Independence Party, received less than 5 percent of the vote.
The narrowness of the election results reflects divisions within the population over the principal issue confronting Puerto Ricans for years: its relationship with the United States. Several nonbinding referendums in the past have shown Puerto Ricans almost equally divided between those who support the current, commonwealth status, and those who prefer that the island formally become part of the United States as a state. Rossello had anchored his campaign on a proposal for the United States Congress to define the island's status, an action Rossello said would lead to a binding referendum on the issue. He advocated a referendum that would include only two options - statehood or independence - and exclude the commonwealth status quo, which he described as a "colonial" option.
The new governor will succeed Sila Maria Calderon, a member of the PDP. During Calderon's tenure, the United States military agreed to abandon the use of the small island of Vieques as a bombing range after several years of negotiations and civil disobedience. The United States also shut down the Roosevelt Roads naval base.
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.
Puerto Rico has a varied and outspoken media. During 2004, a coalition of human rights and gay organizations formally complained about frequent anti-homosexual comments and jokes on radio and television. The coalition announced plans to ask the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to conduct investigations of attacks on gays in the media.
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. During 2004, a strike by workers at the island's water utility caused water shortages and polarized the population between supporters and opponents of the action.
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 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. 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.
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.