If Puerto Rico chose independence, its strategic importance in light of tensions with China could motivate the United States to negotiate a COFA with Puerto Rico. Such an agreement could help the United States to avoid losing the strategic benefits of the current relationship with Puerto Rico.
What would it do for Puerto Rico?
Those who advocate free association for Puerto Rico make extravagant claims for the benefits the Island could reap from a compact of free association with the United States. It is likely that the U.S. would give more financial support to a Republic of Puerto Rico with a free association agreement than to a Republic of Puerto Rico without one. However, those who favor this status often claim that the United States would allow citizens of such a nation to keep U.S. citizenship and pass it on to their children, that Puerto Ricans would continue to receive all the benefits of the current relationship and possibly more, and that this status would allow a permanent relationship between the two nations.
“Under a free association compact, the United States would continue its financial assistance to Puerto Rico and assist the island in developing a productive economy,” one supporter stated. “It would offer the people of Puerto Rico a new opportunity to build a truly democratic country, create the productive economy they so desperately need, and eventually become a self-sufficient society.”
This sounds nice, but the United States could not be compelled to continue the current level of financial support or to provide greater assistance in building that productive economy than it currently does. None of the nations currently in free association with the U.S. has yet become a self-sufficeint society, though that is the stated goal in each case, and the article where we found this claim doesn’t offer any blueprint for Puerto Rico to get to that point, either.
What kind of negotiation?
Supporters of free association recognize that a compact of free association (COFA) will require negotiation. They use this information to imply that the sky is the limit — certainly, the U.S. Constitution is not.
“Despite the statehooders’ best efforts at convincing otherwise, the U.S. citizenship of Puerto Ricans under the status of Free Association would be negotiated between the United States and Puerto Rico—not decided by the likes of Ros-Lehtinen,” one snippy essay claims. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the person they’re sniping at, and the phrase “the likes of” is as insulting here as it always is. In fact, the congressional representative pointed out that citizenship is not a real option for foreign countries under the U.S. Constitution.
In spite of the argument ad hominem in that essay, there is no real evidence that the United States would ever negotiate contrary to the terms of the Constitution.
What are COFA negotiations really like? We can’t see transcripts of the negotiations currently taking place to renew the COFA agreements for the three current freely associated states, but we can see the testimony in the hearings held on the subject.
One interesting document is the testimony of Jack Ading, the Minster of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an independent nation in free association with the United States.
“Six plus months ago,” Ading said, “the RMI was presented with a dilemma: The negotiations had progressed to provide some benefits, but not all of the requests that the RMI had made were adequately addressed. At the same time, the RMI faced a deadline for inclusion of the funding in your President’s Budget for the coming fiscal year. The Memorandum of Understanding was signed without the consent of the President’s Compact Negotiations Committee and the Cabinet. The Government of the Marshall Islands was not satisfied with the MOU…Since the MOU was signed, the Marshall Islands has repeatedly requested the Administration to further negotiate the MOU because of the complexity of the issues but has received unfavorable responses.”
Ading went on to remind his listeners of the history of the Marshall Islands. “Americans are an exceedingly decent and generous people,” he said. “I am certain that most would be shocked and embarrassed if they were to learn about the history and legacy of the nuclear testing program while we were governed by the U.S.”
“The nuclear detonations in the Marshall Islands had an explosive yield equivalent to roughly 1.7 Hiroshima-sized bombs per day over the entire 12 years of testing. In terms of radioactive iodine alone, 6.3 billion curies of iodine-131 were released during the U.S. nuclear testing program—42 times greater than in all of the atmospheric testing in Nevada, 150 times greater than released by the Chernobyl breach, and 8,500 times greater than released from Atomic Energy Commission operations at Hanford, Washington.
“Preparing for a 1954 test at Bikini Atoll—one that would result in the largest U.S. nuclear detonation ever—U.S. military officials learned that a change in wind patterns threatened to bring fallout to inhabited atolls that had not been evacuated. They went ahead with the test anyway without warning the islanders, who were blanketed in radioactive fallout and had no idea what it was or that it was dangerous,” he went on. “Almost 70 percent of the children on Rongelap Atoll who were under 10 years old at the time of the blast eventually developed thyroid tumors. And many women from several atolls, Utrik for example, later gave birth to babies who resembled jellyfish and peeled grapes, incidents similar to mothers in Utah who were downwind from the Nevada test site. Some died at birth or after a few hours of life. Many other women had miscarriages.”
Read the entire explanation.
“The U.S. has not come close to properly compensating the Marshallese people for the damage caused by the U.S. nuclear testing program,” Ading continued. “The Compact of Free Association, through its agreement under Section 177, in Article IV established a Nuclear Claims Tribunal to adjudicate and pay substantiated and warranted claims. But the Tribunal was only able to pay a small fraction of the damages it awarded before it ran out of funds. In current dollars, the total amount of unpaid damage awards issued by the tribunal is more than $3 billion…The ‘full settlement’ of nuclear claims agreed to by the Marshallese and the U.S. in 1986 was the result of a lopsided negotiation between a superpower and an impoverished island community. Besides holding an overwhelming advantage in bargaining power, the U.S. was the only party capable of assessing the risks that were being allocated from its own nuclear program. The U.S. clearly took advantage of this imbalance in power and information at a time when it was acting as the Marshall Islands’ trustee and held a fiduciary responsibility, supposedly our protector and the guardian of our welfare.”
Did the United States agree to provide further assistance for the Marshall Islands? No. Chief Negotiator Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands told reporters that the Marshall Islands had no more flexibility for negotiations. “Basically, the boat had left the dock…Our friends in Congress urged us to get on board and take what you have.”
What about Puerto Rico?
Free association supporters, many of them just repackaging their old “enhanced commonwealth” fantasies as “free association,” have some very optimistic dreams about how Puerto Rico will negotiate an association with the United States. New York Congresswoman Nadia Velazquez claims that free association, which she supports, would include a permanent right to citizenship. Puerto Ricans currently have statutory citizenship. Congress could rescind it at any time with a majority vote.
We don’t expect this to happen. We also don’t expect the United States to upgrade Puerto Rico to constitutional citizenship after the Island rejects U.S. sovereignty, as Ambassador Zeder pointed out.
Just as the Marshall Islands now bemoans the agreement they ended up with in “a lopsided negotiation between a superpower and an impoverished island community,” Puerto Rico will have less power than the United States in a negotiation between a nation of Puerto Rico and the United States. Those who favor free association often claim that the United States will not admit Puerto Rico as a state, yet also claim that the same United States will give in to all of Puerto Rico’s demands in negotiations for a compact of free association.
The United States is not a villain in this relationship. Neither is it a fairy godmother. Under statehood, Puerto Rico will have the equality and rights of a state under the U.S. Constitution. Under free association — it’s anybody’s guess.