Puerto Rico * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Puerto Rico *

Freedom in the World 2016
Freedom Status: 
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 

Quick Facts

San Juan
Press Freedom Status: 
Net Freedom Status: 

Ratings Change:

Puerto Rico’s civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to a pattern in which demonstrations and protests have been held without government interference in recent years.


In June 2015, Puerto Rican governor Alejandro García Padilla announced that Puerto Rico’s debt was not payable, and in August the commonwealth missed a debt payment for the first time in history, worth $58 million. Since taking office in 2012 the García Padilla government has implemented massive austerity measures, and submitted a budget in May calling for further spending cuts—a move that prompted street protests. Both the U.S. Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama have proposed legislative changes to allow for Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring.

Unemployment on the island was more than double than in the mainland United States in mid-2015, and overall socioeconomic conditions on the island remain dire. Economic problems have led to increased migration to the mainland United States.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 37 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico exercises approximately the same control over its internal affairs as do the 50 states. The commonwealth constitution, modeled after that of the United States, provides for a governor elected for four-year terms and a bicameral legislature. The 27-member Senate and the 51-member House of Representatives are also elected for four-year terms. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens guaranteed all civil liberties granted in the United States, though they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. Puerto Ricans can participate in the primary and caucus process, however. 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. Pedro Pierluisi of the opposition New Progressive Party (PNP) was reelected to this post in 2012 by a narrow margin. In the 2012 gubernatorial election, García Padilla, then a senator with the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) received 48 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating incumbent governor Luis Fortuño of the PNP, who captured 47 percent. Four other candidates received less than 3 percent each. In legislative elections held the same day, the PPD won 18 Senate seats to the PNP’s 8; the Puerto Rican Independence Party won 1 seat. Three smaller parties won no seats. In the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, the PPD won 28 seats and the PNP won the remaining 23.

A two-part, nonbinding referendum on Puerto Rico’s territorial status was held the same day as the 2012 elections. The first question, asking whether voters 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. Governor García Padilla subsequently made it clear that he did not support statehood.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

Power has alternated between the pro-commonwealth PPD and the pro-statehood PNP for several decades. Unlike U.S. state legislatures, Puerto Rico elects a number of at-large proportional seats in addition to those won in the first-past-the-post electoral districts. In addition, extra seats are granted to opposition parties if required to limit a party’s legislative control in either house to two thirds.

Puerto Ricans have consistently been nearly equally divided between support for commonwealth status and full U.S. statehood, while the option of independence enjoys little popular support.


C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12

Corruption is common in Puerto Rico. A number of leading political figures have been indicted in recent years on various corruption charges. In 2014, a Superior Court judge was charged with accepting bribes from a defendant in a criminal case. In January 2015, the judge was convicted and subsequently sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.


Civil Liberties: 53 / 60 (+1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16

Puerto Rico’s tradition of varied and vigorous news media has been challenged by a decline in newspapers stemming from the ongoing economic crisis, among other factors. While internet access in Puerto Rico is slower and more expensive than in mainland United States, access is not restricted.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in this largely Roman Catholic territory. A substantial number of Evangelical churches have been established in recent years. Academic freedom and open and free discussion are generally respected.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12 (+1)

Freedom of assembly is protected by law, and Puerto Ricans frequently protest local or federal government policies. The police approach to demonstrations has improved since the violent response to 2011 student protests. Numerous demonstrations took place throughout 2015 in protest of austerity measures put in place in response to the debt crisis. In November, thousands took to the streets in San Juan to protest unequal federal funding for healthcare on the island, compared to the mainland. Civil society is robust, with numerous nongovernmental organizations representing special interests. The government respects the rights of trade unions, which are generally free to organize and strike.


F. Rule of Law: 12 / 16

The legal system is based on U.S. law, and the island’s Supreme Court heads an independent judiciary, which is generally free of political interference. Access to justice is difficult for those who lack resources to pay legal fees. All federal court proceedings are conducted in English, sometimes making access to justice difficult for the large percentage of Puerto Rican residents who do not speak English as their primary language.

Crime remains a serious problem. 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 cartels. Authorities have increased actions targeting narcotics trafficking. In fiscal year 2015, more than 22,000 kilograms (48,500 pounds) of cocaine were seized by security forces—a significant increase compared to the 11,000 kilograms (24,250 pounds) seized during the previous fiscal year. In June 2015, federal indictments were handed down for 105 members of a San Juan drug syndicate. Experts have voiced concerns that the increase in antinarcotics activity may be an indication of traffickers increasingly bypassing surrounding islands to move drugs through Puerto Rico, as more lenient customs requirements make it easier to transport packages from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States.

Following criticism from the U.S. Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for patterns of police violence and suppression of freedoms of speech and assembly, Puerto Rico in 2013 formally agreed to a police reform plan to be overseen by Justice Department authorities; the plan included more police training and increased federal oversight. A number of investigations into police corruption and abuse have been opened since then. In one high-profile case, 10 members of the antidrug unit of the San Juan police force, including a lieutenant and a sergeant, were arrested in a 2015 corruption sting; they were accused of accepting brides and stealing drugs and cash during both legal and illegal raids. However, budget issues have also frustrated police reform efforts.

In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department announced a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico Police for sustained racial and sexual discrimination against a female officer In August 2015, the Justice Department accepted a consent agreement with the police department resolving the case, which provided compensation to the officer and required the department to revise its antidiscrimination policies.

Hate crimes against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people—including violent attacks and cases of murder—remain a problem. In July, a federal court ruled Puerto Rico’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples nationwide.

Dominicans that have migrated to the island make up a distinct minority that faces racism and xenophobia. Despite large, vibrant communities, Dominicans in Puerto Rico lack strong representative organizations to advocate for their civil rights. Due to stereotyping and racial profiling, authorities often arrest black Puerto Ricans without identification, assuming they are undocumented Dominican migrants.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 14 / 16

Puerto Ricans enjoy freedom of travel and choice of residence. As Lawful Permanent Residents of the United States, Puerto Ricans can travel freely within United States territory without restriction. There are no limitations on rights to enter institutions of higher education or choose one’s place of employment. Despite the prominence of organized crime, the rights to own property or operate a private business are generally not inhibited.

Although women enjoy equal rights under the law, a 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. The trafficking of men, women, and children for forced labor or sex work takes place in Puerto Rico, though authorities have successfully prosecuted some trafficking cases in recent years.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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