Freedom in the World
Puerto Rico *
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Luis Fortuno of the New Progressive Party won the November 2008 gubernatorial election. He defeated the incumbent, Anibal Acevedo-Vila of the Popular Democratic Party, who ran under the shadow of an indictment on corruption charges. The economy, which had been troubled for some years, declined further amid the global economic crisis in the second half of 2008.
Having 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.
Power has alternated between the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) for several decades. Anibal Acevedo-Vila of the PPD won the 2004 gubernatorial election by a razor-thin margin over his PNP opponent. However, the PNP controlled both houses of the legislature, leading to near-gridlock in the island’s government during Acevedo-Vila’s tenure.
Acevedo-Vila was indicted on corruption charges by a U.S. grand jury in March 2008, but he refused to withdraw his candidacy ahead of the November gubernatorial election. The result was a major shift in Puerto Rican politics. PNP candidate Luis Fortuno, who had served as the island’s representative in the U.S. Congress, firmly defeated the incumbent, while the PNP secured overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate elections. Fortuno would consequently have the opportunity to pursue an ambitious legislative agenda after taking office in January 2009.
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, Edwin Irizarry Mora, received just 2 percent of the popular vote in 2008.
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. Contributing to the commonwealth’s economic problems is a combination of low wages, relatively generous welfare benefits, and the ability of Puerto Ricans to migrate to the United States. A World Bank study published in 2008 ranked Puerto Rico at 211 out of 215 countries and territories on measurements of economic growth.
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 limited voting rights to the delegates from Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and several other U.S. territories. The change allows Puerto Rico’s delegate to vote on floor amendments to legislation but not on final passage of bills. The delegate had previously been restricted to voting at the committee level.
Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila in 2008 became the latest in a string of prominent Puerto Rican politicians to face charges of official corruption. He was accused of soliciting thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in return for favors and government contracts. The indictment also named 12 of the governor’s associates in the alleged fundraising scheme. Puerto Rico was ranked 36 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index; by comparison, the United States was ranked 18.
Puerto Rico’s tradition of varied and vigorous news media was placed in jeopardy in 2008 by a decline in newspapers due to the economic crisis and other factors. During the year, the San Juan Star, the commonwealth’s principal English-language print outlet, closed its doors for financial reasons. Plans to launch a cooperatively owned English-language replacement were announced near the end of the year.
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. In February 2008, public school teachers throughout the commonwealth engaged in a strike that lasted 10 days and was punctuated by clashes between strikers and the police.
The legal system is based on U.S. law, and a supreme court heads an independent judiciary. Crime is a serious problem for the island. The murder rate is three times that of the United States, with a large proportion of drug-related homicides. 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 gangs. The enforcement of drug laws has been accompanied by an increase in police corruption.
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.
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.