Puerto Rico 2017/2018

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Puerto Rico 2017/2018

Hurricane Maria caused deaths and widespread damage to infrastructure, housing and essential services. Protections for transgender people and of freedoms of expression and association suffered setbacks. Austerity measures put human rights at risk. Police used excessive force to quell protests on International Workers’ Day.


On 20 September, Hurricane Maria caused the largest natural disaster on the island in modern history. According to the authorities, at least 64 people died, but due to uncertainties regarding the actual number, the Governor announced that a new investigation would be carried out. The hurricane destroyed infrastructure and buildings, leaving many people without housing and access to potable water, food, and essential services including medical treatment and education. The slow response of the local and federal government resulted in a deepening of the humanitarian crisis caused by the hurricane. In October, UN human rights experts noted that the lack of an effective emergency response came in the context of an “existing dire situation caused by debt and austerity measures”. In December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern over the emergency and reconstruction efforts.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

In February, the Department of Education eliminated the curriculum for gender perspective in public schools, which was established by the previous administration to ensure equality between genders in education and in all Department of Education projects; the new curriculum would only have a binary conception of gender. The Department also removed guidelines allowing public-school students to wear school uniform according to their gender identity.

Protections for transgender people suffered a further setback when the President of the Senate signed an administrative order eliminating protective measures that previously allowed employees of the legislative branch to dress and use bathrooms according to their gender identity.

In July, Governor Rosselló signed an executive order for the creation of an LGBTI advisory council to promote and implement initiatives for LGBTI people across governmental departments and in collaboration with civil society.

Freedoms of expression and assembly

On 19 May, Governor Rosselló signed into law several amendments to the Criminal Code, making illegal certain conduct such as blocking entry to construction sites or educational institutions − tactics traditionally used by peaceful protesters − thus potentially undermining the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The amendments were rushed through Parliament with limited consultation with civil society and entered into force immediately after their approval, without the usual 90-day waiting period. The amendments appeared to be a direct attempt by the government to discourage peaceful protests.

Economic, social and cultural rights

Puerto Rico continued to face a serious financial crisis as a result of crippling external debt of more than USD70 billion, according to figures from the authorities.

The Financial Oversight and Management Board, established by US authorities in 2016, implemented several austerity measures during the year. These measures could have negative consequences on human rights, in particular access to health care, housing, education and work. On 9 January, the UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights publicly expressed concerns over the adverse effects that further austerity measures would have on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. The government of Puerto Rico continued to refuse to conduct a thorough audit of its debt despite calls from local civil society organizations.

In December, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights visited Puerto Rico. He expressed concern regarding the lack of consideration given to social protections in the projected austerity measures.

Excessive use of force

Excessive and unnecessary use of force by police was reported during protests related to the fiscal crisis. On 1 May, International Workers’ Day, the American Civil Liberties Union documented the indiscriminate use of tear gas against protesters without prior dispersal orders, contrary to international law and standards. Observers collected canisters which revealed that expired tear gas had been used. Additionally, video evidence showed the use of rubber bullets against largely peaceful protesters. Other concerns were raised concerning police officers not being properly identifiable during the protests, and undercover police infiltrating protests and making arrests without identifying themselves.

Death penalty

Although the death penalty was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1929, it can still be imposed for crimes under US federal law that are punishable by death penalty. In February, the Office of the US Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico announced that it would again seek the death penalty against Alexis Candelario-Santana at his retrial, due to begin on 1 August 2018. In 2013 he had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Get the Amnesty International Report 2017/18