The End of Commonwealth?

In a previous post, the Puerto Rico Report reported that a defining point of the discussion draft bill – The Puerto Rico Status Act –  that seeks to end Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory is the proposal’s clear rejection of the often confusing “commonwealth” label that has been used to describe Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S.

Some supporters of a “commonwealth” status in Puerto Rico continue to demand a “commonwealth” option on the ballot for any future referendum.

Other former “commonwealth” proponents are now turning to sovereign free association as a possible plebiscite ballot option that would promise to enhance the rights of Puerto Ricans in a new sovereign nation while still enabling Puerto Ricans to keep U.S. citizenship — even though U.S. citizenship is “recognized, protected, and secured” only under the statehood option of the draft bill.

Although the bill envisions U.S. citizenship to continue under free association, there are no related laws on the books that would support this aspirational goal.  Current citizens of the freely associated states – Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia – are not U.S. citizens. No free association negotiations have begun that appear poised to make this change.  Promises of U.S. citizenship under free association are, at this time, just promises.  There is no guarantee.

The late Constitutional law scholar Walter Dellinger succinctly explained to Congress that the “for many decades, advocates of ‘commonwealth’ status argued that it was non-territorial. They argued that when Puerto Rico made the transition to commonwealth status in 1952, it ceased to be a U.S. territory, became a separate sovereign, and entered into a mutually binding compact with the United States. But they were wrong.”

“Commonwealth” proponents used to speak about Puerto Rico as having the best of both worlds – U.S. citizenship and sovereign rights.  But Puerto Rico does not have sovereign rights. Puerto Rico is a territory.

“Free Association” proponents now claim Puerto Ricans can continue to have U.S. citizenship while gaining sovereign rights. In the wise words of Walter Dellinger, they are also wrong.

 

Enhanced Commonwealth and Free Association

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