The Indo-Pacific Task Force of the House of Representatives held a hearing on the compacts of the freely associated states. These are the three nations that have Compacts of Free Association with the United States. The U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, were also included in the subject matter of the hearing, but the compacts of free association were the central topic. These agreements between the United States and the sovereign nations of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau are set to expire in 2023 and 2024 and are being renegotiated for the future.
The video below includes the entire hearing.
All about China
The subject of the hearing was actually the People’s Republic of China. You’ve probably noticed that the United States and China are in competition for world power nowadays, and the FAS (the freely associates states listed above) are strategically important to that competition, for both sides. Two of the FAS recognize Taiwan, which is not acceptable to the PRC. The PRC is working to develop greater influence in those nations, and also in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Rep. Raul Grijalva took the opportunity of the hearing to point out that the relationships between the United States and its territories, as well as the FAS, are two-way streets. The United States provides economic support and defense, but also receives strategic advantages and the support of the thousands of military men and women from the FAS and the territories — especially Puerto Rico.
The strategic importance of these relationships was the main focus of the hearing.
Also about free association
There was something else going on alongside that central focus, however — something Puerto Rico would do well to watch and learn from.
“The Compacts are essential to America’s security posture in the Western Pacific but, we must remember the Compact nations—Palau, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia—have a choice. They can choose to renew or not. And after 35 years of free association with the U.S. these nations are still in the bottom of all nations when it comes to economic prosperity,” said Rep. Gregorio Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands, another territory of the United States. “So, Congress has to offer a good deal and the U.S. must do more technical follow-up to ensure the next 20 years of free association truly result in better lives for our family and friends in the freely associated states.”
This was just one of the reminders of the nature of free association.
The freely associated states (FAS) are independent nations which have made agreements with the United States, agreements which can be terminated by either side at any time. The compact nations, as Sablan said, have a choice. So does the United States. That’s the “free” part of “free association.”
Witnesses emphasized the sovereignty of the FAS as well as the influence of the United States in their written testimonies.
Col. Albert Short, one of the original negotiators of the compacts, made the same point, saying, “The Micronesian States are sovereign. They conduct their own foreign affairs and domestic activities and govern themselves with the one exception that the United States is totally responsible for their security and defense. They are members of the United Nations and in that context have been very helpful to the United States interests in the UN and elsewhere.”
Cleo Pascal said, “Through the COFAs, the three FAS have voluntarily granted the United States uniquely extensive defense and security access in their sovereign territories…This includes control over key aspects of strategic decision-making, such as the prerogative for the United States to set up and operate U.S. military bases in the countries and a veto over other countries’ military access to the region.”
“The Freely Associated States are sovereign, United Nations-member states that through bilateral Compacts of Free Association with the United States receive U.S. economic assistance and security guarantees and grant the United States the prerogatives to operate military bases on their soil and make decisions that affect U.S. and FAS security,” said Dr. Thomas Lum of the Congressional Research Service.
Col. Grant Newsham said, “[T]he COFA agreements can be terminated. Additionally, even if the United States has the sole legal right to conduct military operations in the COFA states – and even set up military bases if it wants to do so, local popular and political support is nonetheless necessary…Each of the FAS is only an election away from dropping out of America’s defense architecture –leaving a gaping hole and betraying generations on both side who sacrificed so much to keep it strong.”
What does this mean for Puerto Rico?
The Puerto Rico Status Act includes a description of “sovereignty in free association” which has some serious problems.
For example, it includes details about the constitution of the new Republic of Puerto Rico which it proposes. But the constitution of Puerto Rico would not be under the control of the U.S. Congress if Puerto Rico became a sovereign nation.
It provides that the President of the United States shall “withdraw and surrender all rights of possession, supervision, jurisdiction, control, or sovereignty then existing and exercised by the United States over the territory and residents of Puerto Rico” yet also claims that this is a separate status from independence.
It says that “the provision of citizenship by the laws of Puerto Rico shall not constitute or otherwise serve as the basis of loss, or relinquishment of United States citizenship.” It further claims that “During the implementation of the first Articles of Free Association, an individual born in Puerto Rico to at least one parent who is a citizen of the United States shall be a United States citizen at birth.” These statements suggest that people who are U.S. citizens by virtue of being born in the territory of Puerto Rico can maintain their citizenship and pass it along to their children under free association.
At the same time, the bill acknowledges that the United States cannot be bound by those claims, saying, “Nothing in this section shall limit the power and authority of the United States to change policy requirements for United States citizenship.” In addition, and quite correctly, the bill states that “The Articles of Free Association between the United States and Puerto Rico may be terminated at will by either party at any time.”
The very definition of free association in the bill is self-contradictory. It appears to provide lasting U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans and their children while at the same time admitting that it can’t guarantee that. And it appears to describe something different from independence while also announcing that Puerto Rico would no longer be under the sovereignty of the United States.
The truth about a FAS of Puerto Rico would be the same as the truth about the current FAS: such a Republic of Puerto Rico would be independent, separate from the United States, with no assurance of U.S. citizenship and no protection under the U.S. Constitution.
If this truth is not acknowledged, a political status vote under the Puerto Rico Status Act would not be self-determination. It would be a trick, misleading the voters of Puerto Rico into thinking they would be getting some form of “enhanced commonwealth.”