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Accusations of police violations of civil rights, first reported by the U.S. Justice Department in 2011, were reinforced by similar findings from the American Civil Liberties Union in 2012. Alejandro García Padilla narrowly defeated incumbent Luis Fortuño in the November gubernatorial race. In a concurrent non-binding resolution on Puerto Rico’s territorial status, effectively fewer than half chose statehood.
Having been seized by U.S. forces during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico became a U.S. commonwealth 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.
Power has alternated between the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) for several decades. Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá of the PPD won the 2004 gubernatorial election, defeating his PNP opponent by a razor-thin margin. A U.S. grand jury indicted him on corruption charges in March 2008, but he refused to withdraw his candidacy before the November 2008 elections. The PNP gubernatorial candidate, Luis Fortuño, who had served as the island’s representative in the U.S. Congress, thus soundly defeated the incumbent, while the PNP secured overwhelming majorities in both legislative chambers.
Fortuño raised taxes and cut 30,000 public jobs in order to combat a fiscal crisis exacerbated by the global economic downturn, triggering protests from trade unions in 2009. An additional 17,000 public jobs were cut in 2010, leading to further protests. From April to June 2010, University of Puerto Rico students went on strike, closing down 10 of the system’s 11 campuses to protest tuition hikes and cuts in public spending for higher education. Police attempts to halt the protests resulted in some violence.
In September 2011, a U.S. Justice Department report accused the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) 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 their constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and assembly and use unnecessary or gratuitous force, especially in low-income and Dominican communities. The report also accused police of unwarranted searches and seizures. The police superintendent at the time, Emilio Díaz Colón, and the Puerto Rico Justice Department claimed the report was untrustworthy and lacked objectivity—a position which Héctor Pesquera, appointed superintendent in March 2012, apparently supported.
A June 2012 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report on Puerto Rico’s police force further corroborated the Justice Department findings. It charged that the PRPD’s “use of excessive or lethal force is routine, and civil and human rights violations are rampant,” and includes the targeting of poor, African-descent Puerto Ricans and Dominican immigrants.
In the November 6, 2012 gubernatorial election, Senator Alejandro García Padilla of the PPD received 47.7 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating incumbent Fortuño, who captured 47.1 percent. Four other candidates received less than 3 percent each.
A two-part, non-binding referendum on Puerto Rico’s territorial status was held on the same day as the election. The first question, which asked voters whether they 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.
The commonwealth constitution, modeled after that of the United States, provides for a governor elected for four-year terms and a bicameral legislature, 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, though they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. 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. For years, Puerto Ricans have been nearly equally divided between support for commonwealth status and full U.S. statehood, while a third option of independence enjoys little popular support.
Corruption is endemic in Puerto Rican politics. A number of leading political figures have been indicted in recent years on various corruption charges. Puerto Rico was ranked 33 out of 176 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Puerto Rico’s tradition of varied and vigorous news media has been challenged by a decline in newspapers stemming from the economic crisis and other factors.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in this largely Roman Catholic territory. A substantial number of Evangelical churches have also been established on the island in recent years. Academic freedom is guaranteed.
Freedom of assembly is protected by law, and Puerto Ricans frequently protest local or federal government policies. There is a robust civil society, with numerous nongovernmental organizations representing special interests. 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 the island’s Supreme Court heads an independent judiciary. However, concerns about politicization at the Supreme Court emerged in 2010, when the four justices Governor Luis Fortuño appointed approved a congressional resolution expanding the court from seven to nine members, ostensibly to deal with a heavy caseload, over the objections of the three-justice minority. Fortuño appointed the two new justices in 2011, giving his appointees an overwhelming majority on the court, potentially for many years to come.
Crime is a serious problem in Puerto Rico. 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. By October 2012, 759 people had been murdered, down 146 from the same date in 2011. Increasing numbers of homicides include hate violence against members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, of which at least 30 have been documented since 2002.
In recent years, illegal immigration from various Caribbean countries to Puerto Rico has increased. There is evidence that police officers routinely discriminate against Dominicans living 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.