The fundamental principle, both ethical and constitutional, of political life in modern states lies in the concept of the fundamental rights of human beings, or simply human rights. Human rights, often popularly referred to as civil rights, citizens’ rights or individual rights, are universally perceived in the modern world as inalienable and fixed in the framework of formal and informal relationships among citizens. Further, the legal and ethical principle establishes real limits on the power of the state and defines its areas of responsibility toward citizens.

The Constitution of Puerto Rico (1952), recognizing the centrality of human rights for political coexistence in a modern democratic system, established an extensive Bill of Rights in Article II, based on what it called “the dignity and equality of human beings.” In the first section of Article II, the Constitution says: “The dignity of human beings is inalienable. All people are equal before the law. There can be no discrimination based on race, color, gender, birth, origin or social condition, or for political or religious ideas. Both the laws and the system of public education will embody these principles of basic human equality.”

The Article proceeds to enumerate the human rights that are considered fundamental (see the description of the rights in Article II of the Constitution of Puerto Rico) but also establishes that rights will not be limited to those mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and that there should always be a liberal interpretation of human rights: “The enumeration of rights above is not intended to be restrictive and does not presume the exclusion of other rights belonging to the people in a democracy that are not specifically mentioned.” This paragraph shows that the predominant thinking in Puerto Rico at the time the Constitution was written was that human rights constitute the essence of liberty and democratic coexistence, and that political institutions and administrative practices should be organized around them.

Political science recognizes different categories of rights. The first is known as civil rights and consists of individual rights such as freedom of expression, worship, association, property and to be judged by the law, among others. This body of rights is called individual civil rights because they are codified in law and are directly linked to the state’s administration of justice.

A second category refers to political rights and includes, among others, universal suffrage (all citizens have the right to vote and all votes count equally) and the right to occupy public office. The responsibility for ensuring compliance with these rights lies mainly with the judicial branch, but also falls on the executive and legislative branches. There is also a social citizenship (social rights), which mainly includes social and economic rights such as security (social peace), education, health care, labor, housing, economic assistance and, in general terms, a certain level of social welfare and economic security. In summary, social rights consist of what modern political theory calls the rights of human beings to living conditions that enable their autonomy and self-realization.

In recent times, with the proliferation of hegemonic practices and economic depredation in the world (over the course of the 20th century, and intensifying in recent decades), there has been talk of another category: collective rights. The best known of these rights are:

1. The right of different social sectors to maintain their identities against the homogenizing pressures of the majority.

2. The right to free determination as an instrument of political liberation when colonial relationships have been present (in other words, the right of each political community to establish its own rules and social policies).

3. The protection of natural resources and the environment from the depredations of development (for the benefit of future generations), and

4. Social and economic equality.

Some labor rights are also included in human rights, at least in terms of the general norms that govern universal relationships of employment between businesses and workers (both in the private sector and the public sector). The purpose of these rules, codified into law, is to avoid exploitation of labor and to guarantee a reasonable reward for work done. The labor rights field also includes the general rules that govern labor union relationships, but do not include what are called the acquired rights that some workers obtain from their employers as a result of specific collective negotiations between unions and businesses. These rights acquired through union action are better called contractual rights and do not fall under the category of human rights. In other words, the source of their legitimacy is a particular contractual agreement and not the natural condition of a human being.

It is important to remember that human rights, by definition, are not granted by the state, but are the natural condition of humans. For the same reason, they are not the result of any civil condition or particular citizenship. The Puerto Rico Constitution’s Bill of Rights, like the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, does not grant or concede any rights, but rather it recognizes their moral standing and, at least legally, protects their inalienability. It is a mistake, therefore, to think that the law (in this case, the Constitution) grants rights. The law recognizes rights. Further, to recognize the rights in the law does not guarantee that the state will respect them, given its habit of creating exceptions to laws when considered necessary (convenient) and its monopoly on the use of force and violence. Cases of abuse of power, particularly by police agencies, are examples of this relativistic mentality toward respecting human rights. There are many cases of constitutional states that have systematically violated the human rights of their citizens and residents. The list of state violations in the world is long and Puerto Rico is no exception.

In Puerto Rican political culture, the concept of human rights is commonly confused with civil rights or individual rights, which are often thought to be tied to citizenship, specifically to our condition as U.S. citizens, which is commonly referred to as American citizenship (the correct term is U.S. citizenship). In other words, many think that civil rights are granted or ceded by the U.S. Constitution and laws and that these rules apply in Puerto Rico because we are U.S. citizens. The historical reason for this conceptual deformation in our political culture comes from our experience of four centuries of Spanish rule under an absolutist (autocratic) regime that offered only brief moments of liberal policies and whose actions were determined by an evident lack of confidence in the loyalty of the citizens, especially those born on the island. Thus the Spanish government always limited political participation by locals, whether directly or through administrative institutions of the state, and to the very end of its empire retained its authoritarian and anti-liberal approach. The imperial government’s image of authoritarianism, inequality and unresponsiveness to modern demands for political freedom contrasted with the image of the United Sates, which was a hemispheric leader in developing liberal institutions that were a source of economic prosperity and privileged freedom as a fundamental human condition. So when the United States invaded in 1898, Spain had lost the loyalty of the majority of the Puerto Rican population (both privileged and excluded sectors), which saw the former ruler as a backwards country, lacking the political capacity to create modern institutions and, more importantly, incapable of generating economic prosperity. On the other hand, the United States benefited from a good reputation, both politically and economically, which generated hope that a democratic government would put an end to the patterns of social inequality that Spain had created and would open the door to more productive and prosperous economic activity.

Also, when representatives of the United States arrived in Puerto Rico they offered to introduce democratic principles and liberal institutions under the new empire’s rule. This was not necessarily what happened, as can be seen in the course of U.S. administrations up to World War II. But the leit motif (the central idea) of Puerto Rican politics from 1900 (when the first civil government was formed under the Foraker Act) to the present is to view the United States, despite the defects of its colonial progress, as an engine for social progress and economic prosperity. As for civil rights, the United States has been seen as a source of, and guarantor of, individual rights for Puerto Ricans.

The development of human rights is one of the central themes in modern Western history. The creation of the United Nations after World War II and the parallel establishment of international organizations have given the issue of human rights a privileged spot on the contemporary political agenda, including the universal rejection of methods of censorship and the use of punitive, imposed measures. The result is that today there is more vigilance and world attention on the global status of human rights and it is ever more difficult for individual states to maintain oppressive and restrictive practices. The United States has been only one of the important actors in this historical development, but in recent times the imperial imperative (its situation as the most powerful empire of the 20th century) has made it one of the global powers most antagonistic to the proliferation of super-national institutions that guarantee political rights of humans, wherever they are.

The same has occurred in terms of the environment. The world today is paying ever more attention to protecting the environment from the damaging practices of economic development, seeking alternative methods of generating energy and writing international protocols that require compliance with environmental regulations. This concern is based on the principle of the right of future generations to enjoy natural resources and preventing unreasonable use of natural resources by economic interests of today, thus exhausting resources for future generations. But the United States and China, the two largest economic powers in the world today, have been reluctant to endorse effective control mechanisms for natural resources. This suggests the likelihood of a worldwide dispute about preservation and use of environments, or in other words, a global struggle for the collective rights of humankind.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.