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Independence and Sovereign Free Association: What’s the Difference?

The Puerto Rico Status Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December of 2022, listed three options for voters in a future referendum to end Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory: statehood, independence, and sovereignty in free association with the United States.

Statehood would be the same for Puerto Rico as the current 50 states since all states are admitted on “equal footing” under the U.S. Constitution.

Independence, too, is a term with many existing examples, including the Philippines, which was a territory of the United States before declaring independence.

Sovereign free association is a little less clear because the terms of this arrangement must be negotiated between the two countries that are in free association. There are, however, three examples of nations in free association with the United States:

  • The Republic of the Marshall Islands
  • The Republic of Palau
  • The Federated States of Micronesia

Is Sovereign Free Association Also Independence?

All three of the freely associated states (FAS) are listed as “independent states” by the U.S. Department of State. Each is identified on that list as having “diplomatic relations with the United States” and as being a member of the United Nations.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services describes the FAS as “independent nations,” each with a “special relationship” with the U.S.

The U.S. Department of the Interior says that “[u]pon independence in 1994, Palau entered into a 50-year Compact of Free Association with the United States.”

The three FAS are viewed as independent nations by a variety of official sources within the U.S. government.

A Distinction Without A Difference?

In their free association relationships with the United States, the FAS commit to refrain from actions that could compromise U.S. national security. Admiral John Aquilino, U.S. Navy Commander, explained this to Congress in 2022:

“Under the [Compacts of Free Association], the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in and relating to each of these three countries, including special and extensive access to operate in these territories and the ability to deny access to these three countries by any third country militaries. Our agreements with FAS allow us to sustain a forward combat credible presence. [The United States Indo-Pacific Command] engages in military construction projects throughout the FAS[.]”

As Admiral Aquilino notes, the U.S. has “full authority” over military matters in three sovereign countries, which is essentially the basis of their appeal to the U.S.

Critics may say that by loaning a part of their sovereignty to the U.S., a larger country with a military, the FAS are not entirely “independent.”  It can also be said, however, that the arrangement makes the FAS not entirely “sovereign.” Regardless of the word choice, the three sovereign freely associated states have seats in the United Nations and are often described as “independent” in federal sources.

US Military Presence in the Freely Associated States

Vieques Under Free Association

The Vieques protests of 1999-2003, which led to the U.S. Navy’s departure from Puerto Rico, could have played out very differently under a free association relationship.  Perhaps the Navy’s departure would have led to an unraveling of the “special and unique” free association relationship, or maybe the protests would have been forced to end under more explicit U.S. military authority. What is apparent today is that a U.S. freely associated state could not expect to keep its status after forcing the U.S. Navy out.

Free Association Abroad

The Cook Islands and Niue are formally considered self-governing freely associated states of New Zealand. They are not members of the United Nations; New Zealand has made it clear that residents of Cook Islands and Niue will lose their right to New Zealand citizenship if they attempt to become members of the U.N., though New Zealand has not objected to their doing so.

Free Association as A New Enhanced Commonwealth?

The United States Department of Justice has expressed concern that voters might be under the false impression that a vote for free association would be tantamount to a vote for another option represented on past Puerto Rico plebiscite ballots that has since been discredited: “enhanced commonwealth.”

In a 2017 letter to Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, the Justice Department clarified that “[t]he Department and [President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status] have rejected as unconstitutional previous ‘enhanced Commonwealth’ proposals that would have given Puerto Rico a status outside of the territory clause but short of full independence.”

“[A] vote for ‘Free Association’ is a vote for complete and unencumbered independence,” Department of Justice Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente explained in his letter.

Last updated March 7, 2023


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