For decades, some leaders in Puerto Rico have claimed that Puerto Rico could become an “enhanced commonwealth.” Sometimes called “perfected commonwealth” or “developed commonwealth,” this idea includes cherry-picking among federal laws in their application to Puerto Rico and creating a completely new relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States that grants Puerto Rico the rights of both a U.S. state and a foreign country.
All three branches of the federal government and both major U.S. political parties have rejected this option.
As it has become clear that “enhanced commonwealth” is a non-starter, some of its supporters started suggesting that Puerto Rico can have that brand new relationship under “Free Association.”
This idea got a boost in 2016, when Supreme Court decisions and the enactment a U.S. law (PROMESA ) creating a U.S. financial control board to deal with Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy made it clear that Puerto Rico lacks power in its relationship with the United States. Commonwealth supporters increasingly gravitated to the idea of Puerto Rico becoming a Freely Associated State as, essentially, a way to continue to push “commonwealth” under a new label.
In 2017, the Department of Justice (DOJ) expressed concern that voters might confuse the two options. In rejecting the text of a proposed plebiscite ballot, the DOJ made sure Puerto Rican voters understood that “Free Association” is an agreement between two sovereign nations.
Is it possible to repackage a rejected “enhanced commonwealth” status as “free association”? As the curtain has been pulled back on the viability of a “commonwealth” status for Puerto Rico, some “commonwealth” proponents appear to be trying to do so.
As Rafael Cox Alomar, a 2012 candidate for Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico , wrote in wrote in 2019: “[I]n Puerto Rico there is a robust proportion of the eligible voters who would reject statehood if faced with the options of either an enhanced Commonwealth or a well-rounded free association arrangement.”
As Puerto Rico moves forward, it’s essential that voters and lawmakers alike understand what a Freely Associated State is and how that status would affect residents of Puerto Rico.
Updated September 4, 2023