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Report: Unreliable transportation to Vieques/Culebra is ‘human rights violation’

Decades of unreliable maritime transportation services between Puerto Rico and its island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra constitute a violation of international human rights law, a report released by the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at Santa Clara Law in California concluded.

The findings are the result of research and in-person interviews with residents of both island municipalities between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020, which confirmed that “the lack of a reliable maritime transportation system between Puerto Rico and the municipal islands of Culebra and Vieques violates international human rights law.”

As part of its research, the IHRC visited both island municipalities to conduct interviews with residents and take in the logistics of the maritime transportation system and impact on the lives of island residents. During their visits, they confirmed the ferry system’s problems — frequent and prolonged delays, cancellations, maintenance issues, and last-minute schedule changes.

“Puerto Rico has an obligation to protect, respect, and guarantee applicable international human rights law, including the right to access healthcare, the right to education, the right to employment and economic development, the right to live where you choose, and the right to access public transportation without discrimination,” the report concluded.

“By failing to provide an adequate maritime transportation system, Puerto Rico has violated its duty to respect, protect, and guarantee these human rights to the detriment of the people of Culebra and Vieques,” it added.

Transportation problems between the three islands have come to a head in recent weeks, when passenger and cargo ferries have broken down, leaving scores of residents stranded and without provisions, and prompting the government to turn to the Puerto Rico National Guard for backup. Two weeks ago, the executive director of the Maritime Transportation Authority, Mara Pérez, stepped down from her post and on Saturday was replaced by Jorge Droz.

The appointment came as residents of Vieques and Culebra staged protests at the piers, frustrated over the transportation problems that affect their daily lives. Among other challenges, the estimated 10,000 residents of the two islands often have problems getting to and from Puerto Rico for doctor’s appointments, education and work.

“The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental human right. However, the municipal islands of Puerto Rico lack adequate healthcare services and residents are often dependent on mainland healthcare providers for many of their medical needs. The unreliable and inadequate ferry system makes it burdensome or even impossible to arrive at a doctor’s appointment on the mainland in a timely manner,” the report released in January 2021 noted.

Aside from having a right to access reliable public transport and healthcare services, the IHRC outlined access to the right to work to develop the islands’ economies, saying “the economies of Culebra and Vieques are completely dependent on tourism, and the businesses on the islands rely on the ferry cargo system to deliver goods and food. The unreliable schedule of the passenger ferries limits the exchange of tourism between islands.”

The entity also mentioned the right to go to school, and the right to choose where to live on its list of human rights.

“Culebra and Vieques residents have a human right to choose the islands as their place of residence and to continue to reside there, and Puerto Rico must provide adequate transportation that ensures their enjoyment of this human right,” the entity stated in a separate document in which it frames the ferry problems as human right violations as talking points.

The report makes several recommendations to the government of Puerto Rico, including:

  • Maintain and enforce adequate schedules of passenger and cargo ferries that are adapted to the individual needs of each island;
  • Ensure adequate access to healthcare for island residents, including sufficient emergency medical transport and adequate health care centers;
  • Ensure access to public education for island residents, including access to special education for students with disabilities on the islands;
  • Adopt measures to assist in promoting the economic development of the islands; and,
  • Ensure that the use and management of the maritime transportation system adequately protects the islands’ residents from the health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, the government’s Public-Private Partnership Authority announced the selection of HMS Ferries as the company to operate the service in tandem with the Maritime Transportation Authority, as News is my Business reported.

As part of the 23-year agreement, HMS has begun transitioning the Vieques/Culebra ferry service, which it will expectedly take over in July. As part of its commitment, HMS said it will add three vessels to the Maritime Transportation Authority’s fleet.

The contract between the government and HMS is now under investigation at the Puerto Rico Senate, through Resolution 31.

Author Details
Author Details
Business reporter with 27 years of experience writing for weekly and daily newspapers, as well as trade publications in Puerto Rico. My list of former employers includes Caribbean Business, The San Juan Star, and the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, among others. My areas of expertise include telecommunications, technology, retail, agriculture, tourism, banking and most other segments of Puerto Rico’s economy.
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