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US Compacts of Free Association: What Next?

Now that it is well established that “enhanced commonwealth” is off the table as a political status for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, the term “free association” has grown in prominence as a way of describing a similar option to end Puerto Rico’s colonial status.  It is convenient timing to note that the three existing “free association” relationships the U.S. has with other nations will expire in 2023 or 2024.  These upcoming expirations provide openings for Puerto Rican voters to get a sense of what would be involved should they pursue a similar compact of free association with the U.S.

The Free Associated States

There are three nations in free association with the United States: the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. All three are independent nations whose citizens are not citizens of the United States. Each has a Compact of Free Association (COFA), a bilateral agreement negotiated between the United States government and the government of the other nation.

The COFAs of these three nations are set to expire, the one with Palau in 2024 and the others in 2023. All three nations have reached out to the federal government of the United States in efforts to renegotiate the COFAs, but no progress has been made. The Marshall Islands has not had a meeting on the subject since 2020, according to The Diplomat, which lays out the strategic importance of the relationships for the United States.

COFAs are not permanent

The Compact of Free Association for each nation is a bilateral agreement with a specific endpoint.

All three Pacific nations allow the United States unlimited access to their land and waters for military and national security purposes. In return, the citizens of these nations can live and work in the United States as non-citizens, and the U.S. provides limited financial support to the sovereign entities.

COFA residents of the States had access to the same federal benefits as U.S. citizens in terms of Medicaid, SSI, and nutritional assistance, until 1996, when they were stripped of these benefits through a legislative drafting oversight.  Although Medicaid benefits are currently being reinstated, after 25 years of effort to do so, the other benefits remain elusive. Access to all of these benefits for COFA migrants living in the U.S.was part of the original Compacts of Free Association.

The population of the Marshall Islands has decreased over the years as residents affected by climate change and the nuclear history of the islands relocate to the States. COVDI-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on Marshallese people in the United States.

The Marshall Islands’ and Micronesia’s COFAs were created in 1983 and renegotiated in 2003. The COFA of Palau was initially agreed to in 1986, approved by Congress in 1994 and then extended by Congress in 2018. It will expire in 2024.

Renewal is not guaranteed

As a free association, the relationship between the United States and the FSAs is open to change or termination by either party at any time. The COFAs say that “it is the understanding of Congress” that financial contributions may continue into the future after the expiration of the treaties, but there is no binding agreement.

The COFAs present self-sufficiency as the ultimate goal of the financial support provided, meaning that financial assistance from the U.S. is expected to end eventually. Trust funds and financial oversight committees were added in the 20th century to cushion the impact of lost funding, but none of the FAS could be described as self-sufficient, or likely to reach that status before the current expiration of the COFAs.

As recently reported by Reuters, current COFA negotiations have ground to a halt.  Washington has not appointed a negotiator empowered by President Joe Biden to discuss issues of importance to the small island nations, including remuneration for the legacy of massive U.S. nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands, the presence of U.S. military bases, and climate-change mitigation.

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