Some Puerto Rico leaders are pushing for free association as a political status for Puerto Rico, including many who have long argued in favor of “enhanced commonwealth.” Even though the federal government has repeatedly said that statehood and independence (including sovereignty with free association) are the only non-territorial options, some continue to wish for a “best of both worlds” alternative.
Are they keeping up with the news about the three sovereign nations currently in free association relationships with the U.S.?
Real freely associated states
Paula, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands are three independent nations with compacts of free association with the U.S. They are fully independent nations without U.S. citizenship, and their circumstances should be considered a useful guide to what free association is really like. These three countries used to be trust territories administered by the United States. They chose independence with free association rather than choosing to continue as territories.
The United States provides defense and some financial support for these nations. Their citizens can work, study, live, and travel freely in the United States. The Unites States also has permanent military access over their countries, even if the financial support ends. This is very different from the fantasy of free association.
COFAs in 2024
The U.S. Congress last approved federal funding for the COFA nations in 2003, with a renewal date of September 2003 for the FSM and the Marshall Islands, and 2024 for Palau. The agreements expired for two of the nations in September and the expiration date is coming up for Palau.
In 2023, the federal government signed renewal agreements with all three of these nations. The one for the Marshall Islands was signed in October, after the expiration date of the old agreement, but all three new COFAs went to Congress for funding.
They are still waiting for Congress to appropriate the $7 billion in funds required to fulfill the terms of the COFAs. The agreements are in limbo while Congress struggles to keep the government functioning.
National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said in December that “if we don’t get it [COFA funding] you can expect that literally the next day Chinese diplomats — military and other folks — will be on the plane…trying to secure a better deal for China.”
“Micronesian President Wesley Simina also stated in late November that his country would be at a ‘fiscal cliff’ without US Congressional approval of COFA funding,” according to Critical Threats.
What about Puerto Rico?
As a freely associated nation, Puerto Rico would be in the same position: legally independent yet continuing to be dependent upon the United States, but in an impermanent status that could be terminated at any time by either side.
Statehood, on the other hand, will provide sovereignty for Puerto Rico, along with full protection under the U.S. Constitution. The relationship with the federal government will be permanent. Tell your legislators that you want statehood for Puerto Rico.