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Nuclear Legacy Week and the Freely Associated States

Ever since the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) was introduced in Congress, people have been trying to figure out what Free Association is.

The PRSA, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022 and is currently pending again in both the House and the Senate, seeks to hold a new plebiscite in Puerto Rico that offers voters three choices for Puerto Rico’s permanent relationship with the United States:  (1) statehood, (2) independence, or (3) sovereignty with a compact of free association.

There are 50 examples of statehood, roughly 200 recognized independent countries, but only three sovereign nations that have signed compacts of free association with the U.S., so it’s natural that observers are a little fuzzy on what exactly free association is.

The Three Freely Associated States

The nations of Palau, the Federated states of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands are all real-world examples of nations in free association with the United States.

Their experience is very different from what many PRSA observers perceive as a possible future for Puerto Rico under free association.

Supporters of free association for Puerto Rico correctly claim that a compact of free association (COFA) — a treaty between the United States and another independent nation — must be negotiated between the two nations. Both countries have a say in the terms, and the details can be different for each compact, but none of the three current COFAs provide for U.S. citizenship.

The state of New Jersey posted a description of the free association option in the Puerto Rico Status Act that hints at ambiguity: “For free association, there would be a similar process to independence. There would be a period to draft and adopt a constitution. Then a bilateral negotiating commission made up of PR representatives and US representatives would meet to negotiate Articles of Free Association between the US and Puerto Rico, which would determine what the nature of the two nations’ relationship would be. The voters of Puerto Rico would have to approve the Articles, as would Congress. If the voters of Puerto Rico fail to adopt the negotiated Articles of Free Association, the negotiation process would be repeated. It is unclear what would happen if the Articles of Free Association are rejected after they are submitted to the voters for a second time, or if the Government of the United States fails to ratify them.”

One good way to get a sense of what might happen for Puerto Rico as a possible future Freely Associated State (FAS) is to look at what actually has happened with the three current FAS. Nuclear Legacy Week is a good time to look at the experiences of the current FAS, and in particular at the experiences of the Marshall Islands.

History of the Marshall Islands

In 1944, the United Nations took control of the Marshall Islands, which were at that time occupied by Japan. This area and the surrounding Micronesia region became known as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI).  It was administered by the United States without any meaningful oversight.

In 1946, the U.S. began nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. The testing continued until 1958. A total of 67 nuclear weapons were detonated on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls during this time. Radioactive fallout blanketed inhabited islands in RMI. Inhabitants were not aware of the dangers and radiation sickness was not immediately recognized. In fact, US Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss reported in 1954 that “[t]he 236 natives appeared to me to be well and happy.”

In fact, a 21st century study by the National Cancer Institute determined that 20 of the tests exposed local people to measurable radiation and that up to 55% of cancers developed in the Marshall Islands in the 20th century resulted from this exposure. The rates depended on geographical location and ages of the victims. Birth defects were also recognized. Continued contamination was identified in the 1980s, but the official U.S. position is that radiation in the Marshall Islands is no longer a source of danger to health.

In addition to the direct effects of radiation, inhabitants were affected by the need to leave their homes, enormous changes in food sources, and both birth defects and spontaneous abortions. The combination of all these issues has resulted in abnormally high levels of diabetes and heart disease among Marshallese people today.

The Marshall Islands chose to sign a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the United States in 1986. This compact expired in 2023. Although the Marshall Island and the United States renegotiated the terms and agreed to renew the relationship, Congress has not yet renewed the agreement or provided the promised funding for RMI.

The question of reparations or even a basic apology for nuclear testing has been a point of contention from the beginning of the relationship, when Marshallese news sources report that their negotiators were “forced to sign” the agreements. The issue was still contentious when the renegotiations were completed last year.

Nuclear Legacy Week

The Marshallese Educational Initiative is holding a conference for Nuclear Legacy Week, which runs from February 26 through March 3, 2024. This observance centers on Nuclear Remembrance Day on March 1. The nonprofit points out that, even though the nuclear testing has had such severe consequences for the Marshallese and such important benefits for the United States, it is not generally taught in U.S. classrooms and many Americans are not even aware of it.

The conference will take place in Springdale, Arkansas, home to the largest Marshallese population in the United States, from February 29 through March 2. Programs will examine the health consequences and the environmental effects of the testing, as well as the cultural changes experienced by the Marshall Islands. Film screenings are part of the schedule, along with panel discussions and receptions.

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