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Puerto Rico *
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Puerto Rico continued to suffer from economic decline and a political stalemate between the president and the opposition-controlled legislature in 2007. The political leadership also faced persistent corruption allegations during the year.
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 with limited voting rights.
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. Gubernatorial elections scheduled for 2008 may change the balance of power and end the stalemate.
Although Puerto Rico had for years been showcased as one of the Caribbean’s major economic success stories, its performance has moved from stagnation to outright decline over the past several 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, Acevedo-Vila’s government faced a crisis in May 2006 that forced a two-week shutdown of most government offices.
Corruption continued to plague Puerto Rican political life in 2007. A federal grand jury continued its investigation of Acevedo-Vila and several aides over alleged violations of campaign finance laws and the PPD’s purchase of $40,000 in suits for the governor. In 2006, two allies of former governor Pedro Rossello had been convicted of extorting millions of dollars in kickbacks from a public works project in the late 1990s.
Political divisions within Puerto Rico reflect divisions among residents 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 federal income taxes, 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 Rican independence among political elites in Latin America than in Puerto Rico itself. In April 2007, hearings were held in the U.S. Congress on Puerto Rico’s status; while several lawmakers advocated another referendum on the issue, no concrete proposals emerged. In recent years, Congress has shown little interest in changing the territory’s status.
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.
The commonwealth is represented in the U.S. Congress by a single delegate. In January 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives restored voting rights to the delegates from Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and several other U.S. territories. The rights are limited, allowing Puerto Rico’s delegate to vote on floor amendments to legislation but not on final passage of measures. The delegate had previously been restricted to voting at the committee level.
Puerto Rico was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The island has a varied and vigorous media environment. During 2004, a coalition of human rights and gay organizations formally complained about frequent homophobic 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 protected by law, and Puerto Ricans frequently mount protest rallies against local or federal government policies. 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. The enforcement of drug laws has been accompanied by an increase in police corruption. In October 2007, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a number of police officers for, among other things, allegedly planting drugs seized in earlier raids on dozens of impoverished Puerto Ricans.
In recent years, there has been an upsurge in attempts by illegal migrants from various Caribbean countries to reach Puerto Rico, often in flimsy boats. 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.