If the Puerto Rico Status Act becomes law, Puerto Rico will no longer be a territory of the United States. It will be the 51st state, or the Republic of Puerto Rico, or perhaps the Freely Associated State of Puerto Rico.
Statehood is a clear and certain status; the U.S. Constitution requires that new states enter the union on “an equal footing” with existing states. The Constitution will apply fully to Puerto Rico and everyone born in Puerto Rico, as it does in every state. Any rules not settled in the Constitution will be up to the state of Puerto Rico, which will have the rights and responsibilities of a state.
The Puerto Rico Status Act is clear that under statehood, U.S. citizenship is “recognized, protected, and secured under the United States Constitution in the same way such citizenship is for all United States Citizens.”
Anyone wondering what it might be like for Puerto Rico to be a state can look at Kentucky, Alaska, Texas, or Delaware and see that states have regional and cultural differences but that they have a lot in common. No territory has been worse off economically after becoming a state. None has lost rights and privileges. None has seen any serious negative consequences.
Independence is also a clear and certain status. The Philippines provides an example of a former territory that is now independent, and there are nearly 200 other independent nations to examine to get a sense of what independence will mean for Puerto Rico. The U.S. Constitution will not apply, and the United States will have no more control over the Republic of Puerto Rico than any other nation.
Likewise, the current territory of Puerto Rico can be expected to lose influence in D.C. if it exchanges its current Resident Commissioner in Congress and instead seeks real estate to house a new embassy.
It is not possible to see the future, but countries smaller than a sovereign independent Puerto Rico exist in the world, and Puerto Rico would make its own decisions.
A Freely Associated State of Puerto Rico
The third option in The Puerto Rico Status Act is free association. If Puerto Rico were to choose to become a freely associated state — that is, a nation in free association with the United States — the consequences are much less clear.
First, there is no agreement on the terms of this association, and it cannot be decided before the vote proposed in The Puerto Rico Statehood Act. While there are three free associated states in existence and the federal government has made many clear statements about this type of relationship, the various political parties of Puerto Rico are not on the same page when they discuss this option.
Here are a few examples:
- Manuel Roman wrote to Congress in 1990 saying that “The Associated Republic is the culmination of Enhanced Commonwealth.” He listed the characteristics of the associated republic as including “American citizenship, common market, currency, security, defense, permanent union, U.S. military bases, U.S. presidential vote, transfer of the sovereignty power and Federal Relations Act to the people of Puerto Rico.”
- Puerto Rico USA has this statement about the associated republic option on their website: “Under any name, an Associated Republic or Bilateral Pact, the status is the same. The sovereignty of the United States would be lost. Puerto Rico would exist as an independent territory. The only difference being that there would be a treaty or ‘agreement’ to grant some favors, as for example unrestricted travel between Puerto Rico and the mainland, common currency, the payment of rent for some military bases, and whatever both sides agree to. Under the Associated Republic, American citizenship is not allowed, and at least in the best of cases subject to negotiation, not guaranteed to all. Under the Associated Republic, United States sovereignty would be lost. The attachment to the United States would be through a treaty- a treaty that could be altered, modified or eliminated by either Puerto Rico or at congress full will leaving only a sole independent territory.”
- The International Socialist Review says, “the option of independence has two sub-options: a republic and a ‘free associated’ republic.”
- An article by Rashid C.J. Marcano-Rivera in the Journal of Political Inquiry identifies “soberanista leaders like Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto” as advocates for “Sovereign Free Associated State, which is basically free association or associated republic.” “Sovereign Free Associated State” is the term used in The Puerto Rico Status Act, and it is defined in almost identical terms as independence, except for expanded rights and privileges including U.S. citizenship and financial support.
- Harry Franqui-Rivera tweeted an “open letter” to Rep. Nydia Velazquez on March of 2021 saying, “What you propose is not new. It is what happened in 1950-52 with Public Law 600 culminating with the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado. An Associated Republic would be the same as the ELA with as fresh coat of colonial paint.”
- The Alliance for Sovereign Free Association said in a statement, “At this moment, after this historic milestone, Puerto Rico is finally beginning the path that will lead the country to achieve its sovereignty, maintaining, at the same time, a worthy political association with the United States. It is important to underline that the management of ALAS in the defense of the sovereign commonwealth in the 2012 plebiscite pays great dividends today when this bill is approved, with the support of prominent citizens, including members of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) who visualize in This project is the culmination of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (ELA).”
Is an associated republic independence, “commonwealth,” or some other, undefined status? Without a clear answer, an informed vote is impossible.
Change is possible
A negotiated relationship of this kind is always vulnerable to change. The Puerto Rico Status Act admits this clearly, saying that the articles of free association “shall be terminable at will by either the United States or Puerto Rico at any time.”
Could Puerto Rico, if the COFA were terminated, then ask for statehood or return to territory status? It seems unlikely. At that point, Puerto Rico could find itself to be a sovereign nation, no longer covered by the U.S. Constitution.
Latino Rebels claims that Peter Rosenblatt, President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the negotiations on the existing COFAs, said that “nothing happens automatically.” U.S. citizenship would not be automatic, and it is not “recognized, protected, and secured” under the United States Constitution.” Freedom to work and travel in the U.S. would not be automatic. Return to territory status would not be automatic.
Risk is inevitable.