A Page from History: Pres. Gerald Ford on Statehood and Free Association

In 1976, then-President Gerald Ford responded to recommendations made to him by an ad hoc advisory group on Puerto Rico with a statement favoring statehood.

The advisory group had been put together jointly by the Federal government and Puerto Rico’s local government and had come up with a new idea for Puerto Rico’s status. Then as now, Puerto Rico was a territory of the United States, with a limited local government subject to the plenary powers of Congress. The ad hoc group suggested a “Compact of Permanent Union between Puerto Rico and the United States.”

Such an agreement would be different from the current territorial status.  For starters, it would be permanent. The current territorial status can change at any time.  This is as true today as it was 45 years ago, when Gerald Ford was President. Puerto Rico can become a state or an independent country, or Congress could, in theory, cede Puerto Rico to another country just as Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States, though that is certainly unlikely.  The eventual position of Puerto Rico is as uncertain now as it was over one hundred years ago.

The advisory group, created by President Richard Nixon and Puerto Rico Governor Hernandez Colon, essentially created a plan that contemplated making Puerto Rico independent but with unusual features that some advocates today are suggesting could be part of a Free Association relationship even though there was no precedent for such arrangements at the time – or even today.  In the 1980’s, the U.S. launched free association arrangements with three sovereign nations in the Pacific Ocean – the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The Interior and Insular Affairs Subcommittee on Territorial and Insular Affairs in the House of Representatives held a series of hearings on the proposal from January 20 – February 9, 1976.

A hearing transcript notes that Puerto Rico had repeatedly expressed a desire for a permanent relationship with the United States, with people born in Puerto Rico having dual citizenship in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico. Citizens of the three U.S. Freely Associated States (FAS) do not have U.S. citizenship.

Understanding Free Association

 

In addition, under the proposal, Puerto Rico would be self-governing, but the U.S. would provide military protection.  Under current FAS arrangements, the U.S. retains sovereignty over other the defense and national security decisions of other nations.  For example, the U.S. has a military base in the Marshall Islands and controls the access of other nations to FAS water, land and air rights.

Further, the advisory group’s plan would have made the decisions of the Supreme Court binding on Puerto Rico. The U.S. Supreme Court has no authority in the current FAS, nor do any other U.S. courts.

President Ford did not support this proposal.

“The proposed Compact, significant and important though it is,” he said, “does not advance as rapidly as it might freedom and opportunity for the American citizens of Puerto Rico.”

After considering the unusual and highly suspect “Compact of Permanent Union” option, Ford concluded:

I believe that the appropriate status for Puerto Rico is statehood. I propose, therefore, that the people of Puerto Rico and the Congress of the United States begin now to take those steps which will result in statehood for Puerto Rico. I will recommend to the 95th Congress the enactment of legislation providing for the admission of Puerto Rico as a State of the Union.

The common bonds of friendship, tradition, dignity, and individual freedom have joined the people of the United States and the people of Puerto Rico. It is now time to make these bonds permanent through statehood in accordance with the concept of mutual acceptance which has historically governed the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.

Legislation Dies in the House

The “Compact of Permanent Union” was nonetheless introduced into Congress in 1975 as HR 11200 and HR 11201 by then Resident Commissioner Jaime Benítez, a member of the pro-commonwealth political party.  The bills – notably introduced “to approve the Compact of Permanent Union Between Puerto Rico and the United States” – explicitly call for a new Freely Associated State of Puerto Rico.

The bills were never voted on, and they died in Congress.

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