After decades of confusion, it is now well established that there is not and has never been a Compact of Free Association between the United States and Puerto Rico. Given increased recognition of Puerto Rico’s territorial – and colonial – status, there is increased interest in Puerto Rico becoming independent and then starting a new chapter of the US-Puerto Rico relationship by entering into a new Compact of Free Association with the U.S.
As people begin to consider such an option, it is valuable to take a look at existing U.S. Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with other sovereign countries. This is a small sample size. The U.S. has agreed to sign such Compacts with only three other countries: the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. These three nations have a combined population of less than 200,000.
Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI)
The RMI is well known as the site of U.S. nuclear testing for 12 years following WWII. The cumulative extent of radiation the U.S. dropped on the RMI is the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs being dropped on the islands for every day of the 12 year period. Extensive nuclear waste remains on some of RMI’s islands.
The RMI-US Compact dealt with the nuclear legacy issue, although not in a way that left the RMI satisfied. RMI’s subsequent claims against the US ended with the Supreme Court declining to hear the RMI’s case in 2010.
Letter from Congressional Committee and Subcommittee Chairs
The issue of U.S. obligation to RMI for US nuclear waste left on the islands remains contentious. On January 25, House Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Katie Porter (D-CA) and Committee Chair Raul Grijalva (D-CA) wrote to the United States Department of State requesting related documents. Their letter notes discrepancies among Compact requirements, related laws, and the U.S. perception of its legal and moral obligations dealing with the nuclear legacy, as well as U.S. commitments on education for the Marshallese.
In their letter, Chairs Porter and Grijalva point out that the United States Department of State claims that “because certain monitoring programs under COFA agreements have lapsed, the US no longer bears any responsibility for [nuclear waste in] Runit Dome, neglecting to address concurrent responsibility under other U.S. laws” and that the State Department refuses to consult with the RMI on “extension of these lapsed monitoring programs, as required by our bilateral agreements and U.S. law.”
The letter also cites a December 14, 2021 briefing at which State Department officials “asserted that the United States is proposing to maintain its current level of economic aid to RMI under a new COFA when in fact the U.S. plans to discontinue postal services and allow education programs to lapse.”
In addition, the letter questions the State Department’s claim that the security provisions of Compact of Free Association continue “‘in perpetuity’ even if economic provision expire,” which they explain is “a statement directly contradicted by Title IV of COFA itself.”
The Committee and Subcommittee Chairs also requested certain documents from the U.S. Department of State by Feb. 25. These requested documents represent not only US obligations on its nuclear legacy issue but also with respect to Pell Grants, IDEA Grants and other education funding for the RMI. There is no indication that the State has responded.
Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)
Although the U.S. nuclear legacy issues in the Marshall Islands may be the most high-profile area of contention surrounding the United States’ commitment to the terms of its COFAs, the other Free Associated States have also faced challenges in dealing with the U.S.
Palau, for example, reached a COFA agreement in 2010, but related funds were not disbursed until 2018.
The FSM’s COFA will expire in 2023, and some experts are alarmed that renegotiation has not yet taken place for this treaty, either. Rep. Kai Kahele (D-HI) expressed concern that “There are many injustices that need to be resolved.” The FSM government has written of its “difficult experience” in getting education money from the U.S. government that was promised in the Compact but then not delivered, noting a $45.1 million shortfall over the life of the Compact.