Free Association Not a “Way Out”

‘Free association’ is a way out of the Puerto Rican crisis.

“The territorial model is a serious threat to the survival of the Caribbean nation and its economy,” the authors say. After a quick reminder that Puerto Rico is in a bad position because it has been a territory of the United States for far too long, they continue, “Fortunately, the existence of the Puerto Rican nation is not up for debate.”

Is Puerto Rico a nation?

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. If you accept the Global Policy Forum’s definition of a “nation” as “a large group of people with strong bonds of identity,” then Puerto Rico is a nation in that sense. It is a group of people living in the same geographic area, with shared ties of language and culture.

But Puerto Rico is not a country. It has no sovereignty. It can’t make deals with other countries or print currency or issue passports.

The authors refer to statehood for Puerto Rico as “annexation,” which could make sense if Puerto Rico were a small country looking at becoming part of a bigger country like the United States. However, Puerto Rico already belongs to the United States. The U.S. would not gain the land of Puerto Rico by admitting the Island to the Union. The U.S. already owns Puerto Rico.

Is statehood impossible?

Having stated incorrectly that the nationhood of Puerto Rico is “not up for debate,” the authors go ahead and make some other unsupported claims.

They claim that U.S. citizens (a group which of course includes Puerto Ricans) will never accept statehood for Puerto Rico. In fact, two thirds of Americans favor statehood for Puerto Rico, according to a recent Gallup poll.

They say that statehood would put the 5 million Puerto Ricans currently living in the states in a bad economic position. “Many economists and U.S. entities have clearly expressed how harmful annexation would be to the Puerto Rican economy,” they state with no mention of who these entities may be, “doomed forever to become the poorest and most marginalized state.”

We don’t know what economists they have in mind, but we ca certainly see that the impoverished territories of Alaska and Hawaii have become prosperous states. In fact, every territory has become more prosperous after statehood, and this has often been a reason for statehood in the past.

As for the hardships statehood would create for Puerto Ricans living in states now, we can’t even imagine what the authors have in mind.

They then go on to say that there is evidence that Congress won’t support statehood. While there are many members of Congress who have expressed support for statehood, the authors ignore this. The “signs” they mention are the exclusion of Puerto Rico from the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and ObamaCare. We certainly agree that Puerto Rico is treated unequally by Congress — but this is the result of Puerto Rico’s territory status, not a sign that Congress wants that status.

Without the support and representation and rights of a state, Puerto Rico is in a weak position.

Free Association

The authors offer a solution: Free Association. A Freely Associated State is an independent nation which has a Compact of Free Association with another independent nation — in this case, those nations would be the United States and a newly independent Puerto Rico.

After Puerto Rico declared independence, they would be able to negotiate a deal with the United States. It’s important to notice that this is the order in which the events would happen. The Department of Justice made this point in 2017, when they asked for a change in definitions on the plebiscite ballot because they worried that voters would think “Free Association” was another name for “enhanced commonwealth.” Every branch of the government has rejected “enhanced commonwealth” and said that it is not a viable option.

Free Association involves a deal between two independent nations. Either side can withdraw from that deal or change it — that’s the free part of Free Association. The United States could decide, after Puerto Rico became independent, not to make any Compact of Free Association with the Island at all.

Puerto Rico could not at that point go back and ask for statehood or even to become a territory once again.

The authors mention the three Freely Associated Sates which are currently part of the United States: Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. The citizens of these nations are not citizens of the United States. They are not entitled to benefits like Social Security or Medicaid. They have limited financial support from the United States, and Congress votes every year on whether or not to continue providing that support.

The authors don’t mention any of these facts. They say instead that Puerto Rico and the United States “could jumpstart a similar process to discuss the terms of the trespassing of fiscal, economic and political powers to transcend this restrictive territorial condition.” They suggest that the two could “build a new non-territorial and sovereign relationship that gives birth to the United States’s strongest ally in the Caribbean and Latin America.”

These things sound good, but they have no real meaning. Want to trespass some political powers? That doesn’t make it clear that we’re talking about independence with the hope of agreeing on a relationship that could benefit Puerto Rico in some way. Talk of a new non-territorial relationship doesn’t acknowledge that it would probably end U.S. citizenship for the citizens of a new republic of Puerto Rico.

The reality

Free Association means independence, followed by an effort to negotiate a new relationship. Puerto Rico can’t make preconditions that would be binding on Congress, and the experiences of the current Freely Associated States make it clear that those relationships change frequently.

The authors seem to imagine that Congress won’t agree to statehood but will agree to a deal in which the United States loses the territory of Puerto Rico yet still agrees to a new relationship a lot like the “enhanced commonwealth” they have always refused. This is not a realistic idea. It’s the same old fantasy under a new name.

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