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The Compact Theory

In an article in the Daily Princetonian, student Ignacio Arias takes issue with recent remarks made by Eduardo Bhatia, the former president of the Puerto Rico Senate. Bhatia, himself a Princeton graduate, is currently serving as a visiting professor at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.

In a lecture on April 11th, Bhatia spoke about Puerto Rico’s current status as a U.S. territory through a lens focused on civil rights. As U.S. citizens, he believes, people born in Puerto Rico should have the right to vote for the president and also should be represented in Congress. He also stressed, however, “the sensitivity of the politics of Puerto Rican identity and its many forms,” implying that they may impede further integration with the mainland.

Arias discounted the importance of the identity angle in recognition of past votes for statehood in Puerto Rico.  “[T]he cultural question,” he wrote, “is often overstated.”

He then concluded: “The question is not whether Puerto Ricans wish to be admitted into the Union. That was already answered in the affirmative in a 2020 referendum. The question is whether Congress will admit them, which has been long delayed by special interests and legal ambiguities. One of the barriers to entry is the so-called ‘compact theory,’ which posits the existence of a bilateral agreement, or ‘compact,’ between the United States and Puerto Rico, effectively suggesting that Puerto Rico became sovereign upon gaining Commonwealth status. This can present a hurdle to statehood, as it promotes the status quo as being a viable alternative.”

The Compact Theory

Arias is clear about where he stands on the notion that a “compact” currently guides the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship:

“[C]ompact theory is easily dismissed — and has been by the Supreme Court. Further, there’s low support for independence, and statehood won in the last referendum. All of this points to statehood being a question of “if,” not “when.” As we move beyond compact theory, politicians in both Washington and in San Juan should answer the call of statesmanship, reject identity and party politics, and admit Puerto Rico into the Union.”

“Indeed, the High Court has been repeatedly clear, then and since, that compact theory is no more than a myth,” Arias wrote. “In Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle (2016), the court found that Puerto Rico is not a sovereign… Justice Elena Kagan’s opinion for the Court completely debunked compact theory, affirming that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico only exists by the imprimatur of the US Congress…Christina D. Ponsa-Kraus noted, ‘Congress merely did what Congress has always had the power to do under the Territory Clause: it conferred upon Puerto Rico a significant degree of autonomy — greater autonomy than any territory before it — but it did not relinquish U.S. sovereignty under the Territory Clause, nor could it have.'”

Puerto Rico has never had a compact

So why do so many people believe that Puerto Rico has a compact with the United States which makes it something other than “a mere territory”?

Did Puerto Rico Ever Have a Compact of Free Association?

In 1952, Puerto Rico took on the official name “Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico.” This translates to “Free Associated State of Puerto Rico.” Confusion over this title reached the highest levels of government.  One Member of the House of Representatives claimed in a 1997 hearing that “there was a bilateral compact that was agreed upon by the people of Puerto Rico and this government.”

The truth is more nuanced. The term “compact” was used in the 20th century, including in a statement about the Puerto Rico Constitution by President Truman, who was equally clear in the same statement that “full authority and responsibility” only for local self-government would be vested in the people of Puerto Rico.  Congress still held the reins, however gently.

A report titled “Compact of Permanent Union between Puerto Rico and the United States” was sent to President Ford in 1975. The report described a proposal then-Governor of Puerto Rico Hernandez-Colon had sent to the president, describing that proposal as “highly objectionable to the Administration.”

“Our most serious objection,” said the report, “derives from various features of the proposed Compact that would create an equivocal relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States under which Puerto Rico would enjoy certain attributes normally associated with sovereign nations while retaining or expanding upon other rights and programs typically associated with a U. S. commonwealth or territory. At the same time, Puerto Rico would potentially benefit from programs that historically have been available only to the several States.”

This proposal was the familiar “enhanced commonwealth” idea which was rejected as unconstitutional then and many times since.

Why did people think there was a compact?

Arias answers that question: “As Professor Bhatia noted, the useful fiction benefited America on the world stage during the Cold War to argue that it had decolonized Puerto Rico. Also, the notion of a ‘special relationship’ between the US and Puerto Rico profited Governor Luis Muñoz Marín and his Popular Democratic Party, who were intent to both mollify and capitalize on nationalist sentiment — which, in the 1930s and 40s, had reached a fever pitch that has died down ever since.”

The idea of a compact became a matter of oral history, with leaders referring to the compact as though some type of formal treay between equals had existed. Before the internet, it could have seemed possible that such an agreement existed and that there was a document somewhere with signatures. “The rhetoric of a special relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. was always meant to disguise what Puerto Rico remains to this day: a territory,” says Arias.

Should there be a compact in the future?

Arias goes on to a call for action. “As many Princetonians flock to Washington for summer internships in Capitol Hill, they would do well to consider this national question for what it is: one of civil rights,” he suggested. “Compact theory’s rejection by the Supreme Court speaks to the inherent problems of territorial status. This experiment has been tried and found wanting, which leaves only two options: statehood or independence. Statehood is not the panacea to all of the island’s woes, but it will best equip Puerto Ricans to promote their interests and fully participate in national affairs. Statehood alone would redeem the full value of the precious grant of American citizenship and thus secure the blessings of liberty for three million Americans.”


Updated on May 15, 2023.

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