In 2012, the following option was on the Puerto Rico plebiscite ballot:
(III) Sovereign Free Associated State: Puerto Rico should adopt a status outside of the Territory Clause of the Constitution of the United States that recognizes the sovereignty of the People of Puerto Rico. The Sovereign Free Associated State would be based on a free and voluntary political association, the specific terms of which shall be agreed upon between the United States and Puerto Rico as sovereign nations. Such agreement would provide the scope of the jurisdictional powers that the People of Puerto Rico agree to confer to the United States and retain all other jurisdictional powers and authorities.
The option received 33.34% of the vote. Independence received 5.49% of the vote. In light of the relatively wide margin in voting results but the similarity between the two options, some observers have questioned whether the ballot definitions in 2012 clearly described the two choices.
A vote for free association is, as a practical matter, a vote for independence, with a message to the U.S. that Puerto Rico hopes to negotiate an agreement as a Free Associated State. It does not and cannot place any requirements on the United States, because it is a free and voluntary association which either side can end at any time. This vote cannot enforce a requirement of mutual agreement. If this option wins, it will not force any action on the part of the United States.
There are several nations currently in FAS agreements with the United States, including the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Republic of Palau.
The citizens of these nations now can apply to travel to or live in the United States as non-immigrants, but they are not guaranteed admission. They must have a passport to travel. They are not eligible for green cards (Permanent Resident status), and they can be deported. They can serve in the U.S. military, but can’t bring children into the U.S. for adoption. They are allowed to work in the United States and to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces if they choose to.
The Freely Associated States can use the services of the U.S. post office and they use the U.S. dollar for currency. They receive funds from the United States, but these funds are not guaranteed. In Micronesia, for example, federal grants have been refused repeatedly, and will end entirely in 2024. The FSM economy is described as “fragile” because it continues to rely on the United States, but the U.S. has not been providing sufficient funds. FSM discussed ending the Free Association compact in 2018, but has not yet done so. FSM has 22% unemployment and a per capita GDP of $7,200, making it one of the poorest nations in the world.
The Marshall Islands will also see the end of their federal funds in 2024, and they are also among the poorest nations of the world, with 36% unemployment and a per capita GDP of $3,300.
Palau‘s agreement with the U.S. has a 50-year term but in 2010, the federal government reviewed and revised the agreement, decreasing the country’s financial aid from the U.S. and making other changes. Congress must approve this agreement, but the process of doing so has come to a halt. In 2016, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) urged her colleagues to pass a bill (S. 2610) that would approve the 2010 agreement.
“Despite this national security imperative and broad bipartisan support, this committee has been unable to move the bill forward for five years because of a failure to find a viable offset for the mandatory cost of the agreement – $149 million over eight years,” Sen. Cantwell said. “I hope this year we will do better.” Congress did not pass the bill.
The United States can have a free and voluntary association with another nation, as could a Republic of Puerto Rico. The specific terms of such an association would be agreed upon by the two nations just as any two nations can make an agreement. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Association, is an example of such an agreement. It has been in place for 23 years, and President Trump is now planning to renegotiate it or leave the association. Just so, any Free Associated State agreement can be renegotiated at any time, and either side can decide to leave it at any time. That is the free and voluntary nature of such an association.
Unlike statehood, which is a permanent relationship with rights defined in the U.S. Constitution, or independence, a permanent relationship with sovereignty, Compacts of Free Association are temporary and not binding. They can be changed by either side at any time. The lessons of the 2010 agreement with Palau demonstrate that even if leaders of the two countries can come to an agreement, Congress still has to approve funding. A vote for Free Association is a vote for independence, with the hope of negotiating an advantageous deal for Puerto Rico with no guarantees.