The Puerto Rico Status Act calls for a vote in Puerto Rico choosing among three political status options: statehood, independence, or free association. The vote will be preceded by a federally-funded educational effort to make sure everyone understands what they are voting for. If the bills pass in the House and Senate and are signed by the president (who has said that he will sign them), Puerto Rico will no longer be a territory. It will be either a state of the Union, or a sovereign nation.
Amilcar Hernandez, a city council member in Hartford, Connecticut, recently said, “I think that the people of Puerto Rico should have access to understand very clearly what each of these options really mean. What does independence really mean? What does statehood mean? What does sovereignty with free association really mean?”
We can help.
What does independence really mean?
Independence means separate nationhood. An independent nation of Puerto Rico would not be under the sovereignty of the United States. It would not belong to the United States, as the territory of Puerto Rico does. It would not be bound by the U.S. Constitution or by U.S. federal laws. It would have its own government and would have no say in U.S. laws. There would be no Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in Congress and in fact no representation in Congress at all. Puerto Rico would be a foreign country from the United States.
There are nearly 200 independent nations in the world today and all of them provide examples of what independence is like. The Philippines is an example of an independent nation that used to be a territory of the United States, so that might be a good example to look at.
But we can look at Ireland, Iran, or Nepal and see what independence is like, too. We could look at our neighbors: the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba. Independence would be a complete separation from the United States and would require significant changes. Some separatists imagine independence with continued U.S. citizenship and financial support from the United States, but neither of those things could be guaranteed. The United States would not be likely to offer Puerto Rico a better deal once U.S. sovereignty is rejected than it has offered so far.
The bill defines independence thoroughly, beginning with this statement: “Puerto Rico is a sovereign nation that has full authority and responsibility over its territory and population under a constitution of its own adoption which shall be the supreme law of the nation.”
What does statehood mean?
Hernandez lives in a state, so this seems like a disingenuous question. There are 50 states, and the Constitution requires that all states be on an equal footing. We can see that the current states are geographically and culturally varied, subject to the same federal laws, and that they make their own decisions about anything that is not covered by the U.S. Constitution.
Each state makes its own decisions about language, education, Daylight Savings Time, and taxes. This is guaranteed by the 10th amendment. Congress can decide many things — in fact, the laws says that Congress makes all the rules — for territories. States make their own decisions on most matters. States are, in fact, sovereign. They have rights and responsibilities.
Here is the bill’s definition of statehood:
The State of Puerto Rico is admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the other States in all respects whatever and is a part of the permanent union of the United States of America, subject to the United States Constitution, with powers not prohibited by the Constitution to the States and reserved to the State of Puerto Rico or to its residents.
The residents of Puerto Rico are fully self-governing with their rights secured under the United States Constitution, which shall be fully applicable in Puerto Rico and which, with the laws and treaties of the United States, is the supreme law and has the same force and effect in Puerto Rico as in the other States of the Union.
United States citizenship of those born in Puerto Rico is recognized, protected, and secured under the United States Constitution in the same way such citizenship is for all United States citizens born in the other States.
Puerto Rico will no longer be a possession of the United States for purposes of the Internal Revenue Code. Instead, the State of Puerto Rico will become a State on equal footing with each of the current 50 States in the United States of America. Individuals and businesses resident in the State of Puerto Rico will be subject to United States Federal tax laws as well as applicable State tax laws.
What does sovereignty with free association really mean?
This one is a little tougher. There are three nations with Compacts of Free Association with the United States: The Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. All three are independent nations. They used to be Trust Territories administered by the United States, but if the compacts of free association ended, they would not go back to being Trust Territories. They would continue to be, as they currently are, independent nations.
The bill defines “sovereign free association” like this: “Puerto Rico is a sovereign nation that has full authority and responsibility over its territory and population under a constitution of its own adoption which shall be the supreme law of the nation.”
It says that U.S. citizenship will continue for Puerto Ricans and their descendants. It then goes on to say that everything else will be sorted out in the Articles of Free Association. These articles will not be negotiated before a vote. That means that anyone voting for the free association option will simply be hoping for a particular outcome. If this option wins the vote, the negotiations will then begin. Under the terms of the bill, those negotiations will continue until both sides agree. The goal is to have such an agreement in two years, but if that doesn’t happen, the procedure outlined in the bill “will be repeated.”
Supporters of the free association option have very optimistic ideas about the Articles of Free Association. Javier Hernandez, author of Prexit, is one of the most vocal supporters. He claims that free association would provide continued U.S. citizenship and continued federal financial support at current levels. Once again, it is unlikely that the U.S. government will offer a better deal to a sovereign Puerto Rico that has rejected the United States. Those favoring free association have not advanced any reasons for their belief that the U.S. will give Puerto Rico special favor. Javier Hernandez proposes that the U.S. will offer continued financial support at the current levels because “a poor Puerto Rico is a dangerous and unstable Puerto Rico,” which is not a convincing argument.
The bill also says, “The Articles of Free Association between the United States and Puerto Rico may be terminated at will by either party at any time.” These articles of free association will therefore be temporary, not permanent, and not guaranteed. If the free association deal breaks down, Puerto Rico will simply be independent. It cannot go back to being a territory or decide to become a state.
The definition of free association with the United States is not really uncertain. The current freely associated states are independent nations which receive defense and financial support from the United States in exchange for military rights. This is the most likely scenario for Puerto Rico as well. However, the details of the Articles of Free Association will not be known to voters before they must vote for or against this option. They will not exist until long after that vote is taken. A vote for free association is therefore unavoidably a vote for uncertainty.
“The people of Puerto Rico need to get this information,” Amilcar Hernandez said, “neutral, unbiased information.” We agree. That is also part of the Puerto Rico Status Act.
We believe that those who suggest that the options are not clear enough are trying to delay the decision. The options are clear and it is long past time — after more than a century of territorial status — to make the decision. Please reach out to your legislators and ask them to cosponsor the bills.