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Puerto Rico *
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The decline of the island’s economic performance accelerated in 2006, a development that, among other things, led to a two-week shutdown of the government. The year also brought convictions in a high-profile corruption case and signs of a renewed debate over Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.
Having initially been captured by U.S. forces during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico acquired the status of a commonwealth of the United States following approval by plebiscite in 1952. As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico exercises approximately the same control over its internal affairs as do the 50 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.
Politically, Puerto Rico is almost equally divided between the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP). The governor, Anibal Acevedo-Vila of the PPD, won election in late 2004 by a razor-thin margin over his PNP opponent. At the same time, the PNP controls both houses of the legislature. The result is near-gridlock in government, with Acevedo-Vila unable to push any significant part of his program through the opposition-dominated legislature.
Although Puerto Rico had for years been showcased as one of the Caribbean’s major economic success stories, its performance has stagnated in recent years. Per capita income stands at just over one-half the level of the poorest state in the United States, labor force participation is low, and poverty rates are high. With tax revenues dwindling, the government of Acevedo-Vila faced a crisis in May 2006 that forced a shutdown of most government offices. The shutdown lasted two weeks and ended only when the governor and legislature agreed to borrow $740 million to cover a budget deficit and establish a sales tax to pay for the loan.
In November, two allies of former governor Pedro Rossello were convicted of extorting millions of dollars in kickbacks from a public works project in the late 1990s. The case was the latest in a series of scandal prosecutions that have targeted officials from Rossello’s PNP administration of the 1990s.
Political divisions within Puerto Rico reflect divisions among Puerto Ricans over the island’s relationship with the United States. For years, Puerto Ricans have been nearly equally divided between those who favor the continuation of commonwealth status and those who favor full U.S. statehood. Commonwealth supporters argue that the special status allows the island to maintain its separate culture and an exemption from paying federal income tax, but advocates of statehood seek presidential voting rights and full representation in Congress.
A third option, independence, has little popular support; the Independence Party (PIP) candidate for governor, Ruben Berrios, failed to collect 5 percent of the vote in the most recent election. There appears to be more support for Puerto Rico’s independence among political elites in Latin America than in Puerto Rico itself. After a conference on the topic held in Panama in November 2006, legislatures in both Argentina and Brazil passed resolutions backing independent status. At present, the U.S. Congress shows no interest in changing Puerto Rico’s status. However, there have been calls within the commonwealth for another referendum on the matter in 2008.
The commonwealth constitution, modeled after that of the United States, provides for a governor elected for four-year terms and a bicameral legislature, currently consisting of a 27-member Senate and a 51-member House of Representatives, elected for four-year terms.
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 pro-independence PIP.
Puerto Rico was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Puerto Rico has a varied and vigorous media environment. During 2004, a coalition of human rights and gay organizations formally complained about frequent anti-homosexual 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 an increase in 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 are brought to the island by smugglers, who encourage their migration efforts by warning that new U.S. policies would make immigration more difficult in the future.
Laws granting equal rights for women in education, at the workplace, and in other aspects of society have been adopted. Women’s rights organizations, however, claim that women are still subject to widespread discrimination.