Human Rights in the Americas. Review of 2019 - Puerto Rico [AMR 01/1353/2020]

Two years after hurricane Maria, tens of thousands of people remained living under blue tarpaulin sheets. The authorities tried to limit freedom of expression and association through excessive use of force. Civil society organizations were forced to litigate to access public information. Activists mobilized around the climate crisis and around bills which, if passed, stood to undermine lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights. Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of national alert due to the high levels of gender-based violence.


In July, Ricardo Rosselló resigned as governor following days of mass protests. The protests, prompted by the leak of a Telegram chat between the governor and members of his inner circle, included, among other things, homophobic and sexist slurs and dismissive comments about those who had died during hurricane Maria.

Freedom of expression and association

During the two weeks of protests which led to Governor Rosselló’s resignation, 20 people were injured and 17 arrested, according to the NGO Kilómetro 0. The New York Times verified video footage which showed that the Puerto Rican police had used tear gas on crowds in confined streets, fired rubber bullets at close range and beaten protesters not posing a threat, in circumstances that amounted to unnecessary or excessive use of force.

Lack of accountability

Throughout the year, civil society organizations were forced to litigate to access public information, adding additional obstacles to their work.

In June, Kilómetro 0 won its case to access police reports which registered the use of force by agents.

In August, following widespread criticism, a disaster plan – setting out how the government and other actors would respond in the event of another catastrophic hurricane or earthquake – was also finally made public. This was only after litigation in 2018 by the Centre for Investigative Journalism, which had forced the authorities to release a partial, unfinalized plan.

Climate crisis

A 2018 US Global Change Research Program report to the US Congress indicated that Puerto Rico’s coasts stand to be seriously affected by rising sea levels caused by climate change, including because the island’s dependence on imports makes it more vulnerable to climate-related impacts.

In October, civil society organizations held a public forum to discuss action on climate change, rising sea levels and their impact on communities at greatest risk of the impacts of climate change, entitled, “The sea is rising, and so are we”.

Right to housing

Two years after hurricane Maria, tens of thousands of people continued to live under blue tarpaulin sheets, initially provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a temporary emergency solution for families who had lost their homes during the hurricane.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI)

In May, Governor Rosselló presented Senate Bills 1254 and 1253. The first sought to prohibit health professionals from offering so-called “conversion therapies”, which falsely allege they can change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the Bill failed to explicitly prohibit the provision of such therapies by religious organizations.

The second Bill sought to protect the right to act, or to abstain from acting, based on an individual’s religious beliefs and, like similar “religious freedom” bills introduced in the USA, could have allowed the notion of so-called “religious freedom” to be used to discriminate against LGBTI people.

In April, more than 30 civil society organizations expressed concern over both bills.

In June, Governor Rosselló retracted the bills after widespread public debate and controversy.

Violence against women and girls

In the first six months of the year, the police received 3,880 reports of domestic violence and by August nine women had been killed in contexts of domestic violence, according to the Women's Advocate Office.

According to news reports, in September, the Department of Forensic Science had a backlog of at least 2,000 unprocessed rape kits.

In September, following repeated demands by civil society organizations to implement a state of emergency due to the high number of cases of gender-based violence, Governor Vázquez declared a state of national alert. While the measure fell short of the demands made by women’s organizations, the move was an important step which recognized the extent of gender-based violence on the island.