Freedom in the World
In September 2011, a U.S. Justice Department report accused the Puerto Rican police force of systematic patterns of civil rights violations, as well as attacks on civilians and journalists. In November, Governor Luis Fortuño announced that a referendum would be held in 2012 for voters to decide whether Puerto Rico would remain a commonwealth, pursue U.S. statehood, or opt for independence.
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. Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá of the PPD won the 2004 gubernatorial election, defeating his PNP opponent by a razor-thin margin. He was indicted on corruption charges by a U.S. grand jury in March 2008, but refused to withdraw his candidacy ahead of the November 2008 elections. The result was a major shift in Puerto Rican politics. PNP gubernatorial candidate Luis Fortuño, 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 chambers of the legislature.
Fortuño moved to raise taxes and cut 30,000 workers from the public payroll in order to combat a fiscal crisis that was exacerbated by the global economic downturn; the initiatives triggered a series of protests from trade unions in 2009. Layoffs continued in 2010, with an additional 17,000 public jobs cut, leading to further protests. From April to June 2010, students mounted a strike at the University of Puerto Rico, closing down 10 of the system’s 11 campuses to protest tuition increases and cuts in public spending for higher education. Some violence broke out at the largest campus after police intervened in an effort to halt the protests.
In September 2011, the U.S. Justice Department published a report accusing the Puerto Rico Police Department of “profound” and “longstanding” patterns of civil rights violations and other illegal practices that have left it in a state of “institutional dysfunction.” The report accused the police of attacking nonviolent protesters and journalists in a manner that compromised their constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and assembly, as well as using unnecessary or gratuitous force, especially in low-income and Dominican communities. The report also stated that unwarranted searches and seizures were common.
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.
Puerto Rico is represented in the U.S. Congress by a single delegate, who is allowed to vote on floor amendments to legislation, but not on the final passage of bills.
The major political parties are the pro-commonwealth PPD, the pro-statehood PNP, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). For years, Puerto Ricans have been nearly equally divided between those who support the continuation of commonwealth status and those who favor full U.S. statehood. A third option, independence, has little popular support; the PIP candidate for governor received just 2 percent of the popular vote in 2008.
In December 2011, Governor Luis Fortuño approved a referendum on Puerto Rico’s status to be held in November 2012. The referendum will consist of two questions, both asked on the same day. The first will ask voters if they want Puerto Rico to maintain its current status as a commonwealth, and the second will ask if voters would prefer Puerto Rico to pursue statehood, independence, or sovereign free association. Critics argued that, due to the wording of the questions, asking them both at the same time was an attempt from Puerto Rican leaders to manipulate voters into choosing for statehood.
Corruption is an endemic problem in Puerto Rican politics. A number of leading political figures have been indicted in recent years on various corruption charges. Puerto Rico was ranked 39 out of 183 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Puerto Rico’s tradition of varied and vigorous news media has been under strain due to a decline in newspapers stemming from the economic crisis and other factors.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in this predominantly Roman Catholic territory. 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 protests 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 the island’s Supreme Court heads an independent judiciary. However, concerns about politicization at the Supreme Court emerged in November 2010, when the four justices appointed by Fortuño approved a resolution asking the legislature to expand the court from seven to nine members, ostensibly to deal with a heavy caseload. The three-justice minority dissented, arguing that the expansion had been unnecessary and approved without sufficient debate. The legislature quickly passed the measure, and Fortuño was appointed the two new justices in 2011, giving his picks an overwhelming majority on the court, potentially for many years to come.
Crime is a growing problem. By late December 2011, there had been 1,130 homicides in Puerto Rico—147 more than in the previous year—with a large proportion being drug-related. 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.
In recent years, there has been an upsurge in attempts by illegal migrants from various Caribbean countries to reach Puerto Rico; many are brought to the island by smugglers. There is evidence that Puerto Rico law enforcement officers have routinely discriminated against Dominicans living in the island.
Although women enjoy equal rights under the law, the September 2011 Justice Department report cited evidence that police officers failed to investigate incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence, including spousal abuse by fellow officers.