A leading Russian political analyst has suggested that his country establish a relationship with Crimea, the part of Ukraine it invaded this week, similar to the U.S. relationship with Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, he completely misunderstood the U.S. relationship with Puerto Rico.
Georgiy Bovt wrote that the U.S. has a nation-to-nation agreement with Puerto Rico. “Puerto Rico has wide autonomy on many issues, but is de facto under U.S. jurisdiction,” he told readers, asking, “Why wouldn’t this be acceptable for Crimea?”
Bovt confused Puerto Rico’s status with that of a freely associated state. In free association, two nations — one typically much smaller than the other — share governing responsibilities on the condition that either can unilaterally withdraw from the relationship.
The U.S. is in free association with three former territory areas in the Pacific — the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republics of the Marshall Islands and Palau. The islands are totally self-governing nations but the U.S. has military authority as if they were U.S. territory.
The U.S. has also continued selected Federal social programs in the states that operated when they were under U.S. territorial administration. And it heavily subsidizes the insular governments.
Citizens of the islands have free access to the U.S. but are citizens of their nations only.
By contrast, the U.S. makes and enforces all of Puerto Rico’s national laws. It has permitted Puerto Rico to operate an insular government but retains ultimate governing authority over local matters as well.
Most Federal programs apply in Puerto Rico, although the Commonwealth is treated worse than the States in some major programs.
And Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
Bovt was probably misled by the locally determined official name of Puerto Rico’s insular government. It is words that literally translate as “Associated Free State.” The name was included in Puerto Rico’s locally drafted territorial constitution.
Because Puerto Rico is not a freely associated state, the territory’s constitutional convention substituted the word “Commonwealth” for “Associated Free State” in the English version of the constitution so that the constitution could obtain U.S. Government approval.
The word “Commonwealth’ does not refer to a political status. Four U.S. States use the word in their official names. One other U.S. territory in addition to Puerto Rico does too.
Bovt also noted that, “In a 2012 referendum, Puerto Ricans voted for incorporation [into the U.S.] as the 51st U.S. State.”
He told readers that statehood is now “up to the U.S. Congress.” That is always technically true but the situation is a little more complex.
Because Puerto Ricans very narrowly elected a governor and majorities in each house of the territory’s legislature who reject their people’s self-determination decision in the elections held at the time of the 2012 plebiscite, the Federal government has enacted a law for another plebiscite.
This one would be limited to one or more of the options of statehood, independence, and nationhood in a free association with the U.S. Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission would determine which of these options would be on the plebiscite ballot.
The current territory status, which is also known as “Commonwealth” and was flatly rejected in the 2012 plebiscite, could not be an option. This is because territory status cannot be Puerto Rico’s ultimate status. It cannot provide a democratic form of government at the national government level.
In addition, 130 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and two members of the U.S. Senate have introduced bills that would require the President to propose legislation to transition Puerto Rico to statehood if Puerto Ricans vote for the status again. The bills also pledge that the Congress would approve a statehood transition plan for the territory.