We keep seeing suggestions about free association as a political status option for Puerto Rico. It is a viable option…but it doesn’t mean what a lot of its proponents think it means.

This was brought home by expert testimony at a hearing earlier this week. Keone Nakoa, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior, testified, “FAS are sovereign nations with full rights of democratic self-determination and self-government. Accordingly, consistent with U.N. Resolution 2625 (XXV), October 24, 1970, and under the Compacts, both the United States and the FAS individually retain the right to full independence. That includes the unencumbered ability to terminate the free association status defined by the Compacts. Termination may be done by mutual agreement, or each nation may do so unilaterally or by mutual agreement, subject to the transitional terms and provisions set forth in the Compact.”

Confirmation of earlier expert testimony

This is not just one person’s opinion. Testimony in an earlier Congressional hearing included another example, a document called “Understanding Free Association as a Form of Separate Sovereignty and Political Independence in the Case of Decolonization of Puerto Rico,” by Fred Zeder, who was at the time Ambassador for Micronesia, one of the three nations that currently have Compacts of Free Association with the United States.

“Relations between the U.S. and a nation which is independent or in free association are conducted on the basis of international law. Thus, independence and free association are status options which would remove Puerto Rico from its present existence within the sphere of sovereignty of the United States and establish a separate Puerto Rican sovereignty outside the political union and federal constitutional system of the United States,” Zeder wrote, “In other words, the process of gradual integration which began in 1898, and which was advanced by statutory U.S. citizenship in 1917 and establishment of constitutional arrangements approved by the people in 1952, would be terminated in favor of either independence or free association.”

He went on to explain that the specific terms of a Compact of Free Association could be negotiated, but they could only be negotiated by two separate sovereigns.

“Free association is essentially a transitional status for peoples who do not seek full integration, but rather seek to maintain close political, economic and security relations with another nation during the period after separate sovereignty is achieved,” he explained. “Thus, the international practice regarding free association actually is best understood as a method of facilitating the decolonization process leading to simple and absolute independence. Essentially, it allows new nations not prepared economically, socially or strategically for emergence into conventional independence to achieve separate nationhood in cooperation with a former colonial power or another existing nation.”

Just so, the relationships between the United States and the three existing Freely Associated States are officially intended to result in self-sufficiency for the three nations, not continued dependence.

Free association is not enhanced commonwealth

It’s clear from the way commonwealth party leaders talk about free association that they are in many cases hoping to finesse “enhanced commonwealth” in as free association. Zeder dealt with this point very directly.

“Specifically, free association is not intended to create a new form of territorial status or quasi-sovereignty. It is not a ‘nation-within-a-nation’ relationship or a form of irrevocable permanent union, but is, again, a sovereign-to-sovereign treaty-based relationship which is either of limited duration or terminable at will by either party acting unilaterally,” Zeder said. “In other words, both parties have a sovereign right to terminate the relationship at any time. The free association treaty may provide for the terms and measures which will apply in the event of unilateral termination, but the ability of either party to do so can not be conditioned or encumbered in such a manner that the exercise of the right to terminate the relationship effectively is impaired or precluded.”

The idea that the United States could have a free association deal with Puerto Rico which neither side could change without agreement is impossible. This fact is not something made up by statehood supporters. Zeder and the numerous constitutional scholars who have publicly said this are not working for statehood. They’re simply telling the truth.

“Separate and distinct sovereignty and nationality must be established at the time of decolonization and preserved under the relationship or the ability of either party to terminate will be impaired,” Zeder went on. “Thus, the major power may grant to people of the free associated nation special rights normally associated with the major power’s own citizenship classifications, such as open immigration and residence rights. However, these arrangements are subject to the same terminability as the overall relationship, and thus may be either for a limited duration or subject to unilateral termination by either party at any time.”

Zeder concluded with an opinion on the question of citizenship. Again, commonwealth party leaders have misrepresented this issue, implying that U.S. citizenship would continue to be available to Puerto Ricans and their descendants regardless of political status. Zeder disagrees.

“Consequently, there can be no permanent mass dual nationality because this would be inconsistent with the preservation of the underlying separate sovereignty,” he pointed out. “Any special rights or classifications of the major power extended to the people of a free associated nation are more in the nature of residency rights and do not prevent either nation from exercising separate sovereignty with respect to the nationality its own population.”

Action is needed

It’s worth educating friends and family — and your elected representatives, and total strangers for that matter — about these points. There is widespread confusion on the subject of Puerto Rico’s political status that goes beyond mere differences of opinion. Reach out to someone today.



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