Enhanced Commonwealth and Free Association

For many years, Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party (PDP) favored an “enhanced commonwealth” status. The party’s official statement about what that enhanced commonwealth might look like found a national platform in the “Puerto Rico-United States Bilateral Pact of Non-territorial Permanent Union and Guaranteed Citizenship Act,” a bill introduced by Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-CA) in the House in June, 2000 (HR4751).  The legislation stated:

Congress recognizes Puerto Rico as a nation legally and constitutionally, with a political status and relationship with the United States on the basis of the following governing provisions:

(1) The people of Puerto Rico, exercising their sovereignty, their natural right to govern themselves, and their free will as the ultimate source of their political power, may reaffirm, in accordance with this Act, the validity of the Commonwealth as established as an autonomous political body, neither colonial nor territorial, in permanent union with the United States of America under an agreement which may not be unilaterally nullified or changed, and may propose its further autonomous development. The relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States shall continue to be based on a common defense, market, and currency, and on the nonrevocability of United States citizenship, acquired by birth and protected by the Constitution of the United States.
(2) This relationship guarantees the autonomous development of Puerto Rico based on the democratic precept of government by consent of the governed and the recognition that Puerto Rico is a nation with its own history, national character, culture, and Spanish language.
(3) To achieve maximum economic progress and well-being, the people of Puerto Rico may propose to develop the Commonwealth in order to retain all powers not delegated to the
United States. In keeping with Puerto Rico’s fiscal autonomy, areas of economic development will be identified in which joint action will create jobs and other benefits for both parties,
including flexibility in the use of Federal funds.
(4) This Act shall not be construed to affect programs involving direct assistance to individuals.
(5) The Commonwealth may arrange commercial and tax agreements. as well as other agreements, with other countries and belong to regional and international organizations,
consistent with the common defense and security interests of the United States and Puerto Rico, in accordance with this Act and bilateral agreements entered into pursuant to this Act.
(6) After a petition for further development of Commonwealth has been approved by the people of Puerto Rico, a Constituent Assembly shall be convened to negotiate with the
Government of the United States the terms and conditions of an agreement to implement the proposals to further develop the Commonwealth, including a mechanism for consent to application and enforcement of laws approved by Congress.

This bill never became a law. It was sent to a committee, and there it died. The proposal contains several elements that are contrary to the Constitution, laws and policies of the United States, including the provision that its terms cannot be changed without mutual consent and the idea that Puerto Rico is “neither colonial or territorial.”

Commonwealth Status:  A History of Rejection by the U.S.

Members of the PDP have since that time tried to come up with a new definition of “enhanced commonwealth,” but many statements from the various branches of the federal government, including a summation following the most recent hearing on Puerto Rico’s status, have made it clear that “enhanced commonwealth” is simply not a viable option. Even if the voters of Puerto Rico voted for it (and indeed, when they have in the past voted for it), it will not be accepted by the U.S. government and is therefore not a realistic possibility.

Some members of the PDP have now spoken in favor of becoming an Associated Free State, like the nations of Palau and Micronesia. This is a viable option under the U.S. Constitution. In many cases, though, the description of the Free Association they envision is more like “enhanced commonwealth” than it is like the actual relationships between the United States and the current freely associated states. The United States government cannot be expected to accept the same idea under a new name. The notion that any agreement – including one regarding U.S. citizenship rights – could not be changed without agreement on both sides, for example, is still unconstitutional.

Because the official name of Puerto Rico in Spanish, “Estado Libre Asociado,” contains the phrase “free associated state” just as the official name in English contains the word “commonwealth,” there is plenty of potential for confusion.

A 2014 federal law was enacted with the goal of providing resources and structure for a plebiscite vote to take place in Puerto Rico with accurate, viable options that do not mislead voters. Under this law, Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission will be given $2.5 million for a plebiscite if its proposed status option or options would resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status and are found by the U.S. Department of Justice to not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.  Under the terms of the 2014 law, the Justice Department has received materials from Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission about the June 11 vote.

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