Confusion about Free Association

Efraín Vázquez-Vera and Juan López-Bauzá have written an article for the GlobePost claiming that Free Association is “the political option that can save Puerto Rico.” Unfortunately, they have included some misinformation and excluded some important points.

They begin with a review of the three possible status options. Statehood, they correctly say, has been getting the most attention, presumably because it is the most popular choice among Puerto Ricans and Americans in general. Nonetheless, the authors declare that “given the political, economic, and cultural conditions, making Puerto Rico a state of the United States has absolutely no future.”

We disagree. An examination of the paths to statehood of the 32 territories which have already become states shows that statehood is a viable option for Puerto Rico, and one which has broad bilateral support. Tossing off “given the political, economic, and cultural conditions” without further examination is not support for any claim about Puerto Rico’s future status.

But we admit that we favor statehood. The authors go on to name the other options.

Independence has never received more than 5% of the votes in any status referendum, and an Independence Party governor has never been elected. While the authors admit that “popular support has been low,” they appear to explain this with a statement that “Independence has been scapegoated and demonized as the worst of the options available.”

“The commonwealth option,” the authors say, “faced with its dramatic failure and its electoral rejection by more than half of Puerto Rico’s population, cannot be a viable option either.”

Free Association

The article proposes a new idea: Free Association. This is not a new idea; it was one of the choices in the 2017 referendum. A Compact of Free Association can be negotiated between two sovereign nations. The United States has COFAs with several nations. They began as a single compact with three UN Trust territories, and over time have changed into separate agreements with each nation.

“Such a compact would entail the end of Puerto Rico’s territorial status and the birth of a new sovereign Caribbean country, fully integrated into the international community and the U.N. system,” say the authors.

Puerto Rico would certainly try to negotiate a COFA before declaring independence. As an independent nation, Puerto Rico could apply to be admitted into the United Nations. Palau, one of the nations with Free Association with the United States, was admitted to the U.N. several years after declaring independence. Presumably a Republic of Puerto Rico would also be admitted.

A compact of free association

“Under a free association compact,” the authors claim, “the United States would continue its financial assistance to Puerto Rico and assist the island in developing a productive economy. As a sovereign state, Puerto Rico would delegate specific responsibilities to the United States, such as matters related to defense and currency, while retaining sovereignty over all other matters not included or delegated in the compact.”

A COFA is negotiated between two sovereign nations. It can be changed or simply ended by either nation. The United States might agree to continue financial assistance to Puerto Rico. The federal government might accept delegation of responsibilities from the nation of Puerto Rico.

The U.S. doesn’t have to agree to anything. Neither does Puerto Rico.

Current FSAs

“The long term goal of United States’ Compact financial support,” the official Department of the Interior website states, “is to assist the freely associated states in their efforts to advance the economic self-sufficiency of their peoples.” The United States has not agreed to permanent financial support in any COFA so far.

The people living in the Freely Associated States are not citizens of the United States, either. Puerto Rico would not have any guarantee of continuing U.S. citizenship as an independent nation with a COFA.

The authors’ failure to mention these facts seems disingenuous. The same authors wrote an earlier piece for The Hill making the same argument. They know that Free Association is not a bold new concept leading to the birth of a “middle ground” nation supported by the United States.

It is, as the Department of Justice said in 2017, a form of independence, with an agreement which either side could alter or end at any time. That’s the “free” part of “free association.”

It is important to be honest about what Free Association means.

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