In a congressional hearing yesterday on recent U.S. agreements with the three Freely Associated States, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon turned the discussion towards Puerto Rico.
Roughly an hour and 20 minutes into the hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, Gonzalez-Colon asked Joseph Yun, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations, to help clarify some fundamental points.
“I’d like to begin with basic questions just to help our constituents better understand our relationship with the Freely Associated States,” said Rep. Gonzalez-Colon. “In an April 2023 interview at the Hudson Institute you explained that the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia have signed Compacts of Free Association and also enjoy today, in your words, ‘complete independence.'”
“You also noted that the relations are handled through the Department of State because the Freely Associated States are foreign and completely sovereign countries,” she continued. “Just to confirm, the Free Associated States are three independent nations and they are each their own country, each a sovereign republic, is that correct?”
“Correct,” Special Envoy Yun confirmed off camera.
The Resident Commissioner continued, asking “are people born in the Freely Associated States…U.S. citizens or nationals?” Yun explained that they were neither, but are citizens of their own nations.
“Under the terms of the free association agreements, compact citizens can migrate and work in the United States, but they are not U.S. citizens or nationals.” Gonzalez-Colon further clarified.
“Right,” Special Envy Yun affirmed.
“Can the Compacts of Free Association be terminated either by mutual agreement or unilaterally?” the Resident Commissioner asked. Special Presidential Envoy Yun again agreed with the Resident Commissioner that the bilateral agreement could be ended by either country individually or both of them in a joint decision.
“In fact,” the Resident Commissioner continued, “in March of … last year, the Department of Interior testified before the Senate that ‘under the Compacts both the United States and the FAS individually retain their right to full independence, and that includes an 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.'”
“If free association agreements are terminated,” Gonzalez-Colon proceeded in her questioning, “will Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia remain independent, sovereign nations? They do not go back to being a U.N. trust territory administered by the U.S., correct?”
“Correct,” Special Envoy Yun again confirmed.
Gonzalez-Colon concluded by explaining that the purpose behind her line of questioning was “to highlight the reality that, at the end of the day, despite our compact agreement, the freely associated states are independent nations.”
Message for Puerto Rico
U.S. Special Presidential Envoy Yun, whose 33-year diplomatic career included an ambassadorship in Malaysia and a role as the top U.S. negotiator with North Korea, now serves as the nation’s top official on free association relationships with the United States. His remarks at the House committee hearing yesterday make it clear that the FAS are independent nations, and that the end of a COFA or free association agreement, which could happen at the behest of either party, would not change that.
Some Puerto Rico leaders, particularly those who have supported the discredited “enhanced commonwealth” arrangement, have tried to portray free association as a completely new sort of relationship, one that confers U.S. citizenship and U.S. financial support to a new Republic of Puerto Rico while leaving the U.S. helpless to define the relationship differently or change its mind. In real life, this has never been the case.
Citizens of freely associated states do not have U.S. citizenship. The agreements are not permanent. A sovereign Puerto Rico could not strongarm the U.S. Congress into doing something it may not want to do.
Read the Department of Interior Testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on March 29, 2022 here.