Many current supporters of free association for Puerto Rico are former supporters of Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” or “enhanced commonwealth” status. After the enactment of PROMESA and Supreme Court holdings in Vaello-Madero and Sanchez Valle, the myth of “commonwealth” as a special relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has been left in tatters.
With “commonwealth” clearly not a credible option for even its most hopeful supporters, some “commonwealth” supporters have attempted to repackage the old concept under a new label of free association.
“Enhanced commonwealth” is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. Every branch of the federal government has already rejected the possibility. Yet former supporters of “commonwealth” are exploring how to put this old wine into the relatively new bottle of free association to make the concept more palatable for voters.
Puerto Ricans are unwilling to give up their U.S. citizenship — a Puerto Rico Herald poll in Puerto Rico found that 91% of respondents considered keeping U.S. citizenship important. U.S. citizenship cannot be universally guaranteed in a foreign country, but it would be political suicide for supporters to say so.
In fact, citizenship is guaranteed and protected under the 14th amendment of the constitution, but the people of Puerto Rico enjoy U.S. citizenship by virtue of a federal law, not the constitution.
Free Association proponents in Puerto Rico are adamant that this special and unique relationship is separate and distinct from independence. Perhaps there is a legal theorist in an ivy tower somewhere who can make this esoteric case, but among straight talkers, free association is independence. This has been clearly stated by many parts of the federal government:
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“The Compact of Free Association (COFA) Act of 1985…established the FSM and the RMI as independent nations and established a special relationship between the United States and these nations.”
- U.S. Dept. of the Interior (“Upon independence in 1994, Palau entered into a 50-year Compact of Free Association (U.S. Public Law 99-658) with the United States…”)
- U.S. Dept. of Justice (“[i]ndependence is a general term that refers to the possibilities both of full independence from the United States and of a compact of free association, in which Puerto Rico would become a sovereign nation but would continue to have close ties to the United States under the terms of a mutually agreed-upon compact.”)
- The Congressional Research Service (“Typically, the two major perspectives other than the status quo, statehood, or independence are (1) ‘enhanced commonwealth’ and (2) ‘free association.’ The former arguably signals a semiautonomous status whereas the latter suggests independence with closer ties to the United States than a more traditional independence option.”)
- President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico (“[A]nother possible model of independence is that of the ‘freely associated states’ of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.”
Were Puerto Rico to become a freely associated state in the future, it would certainly cease to be a U.S. territory. What would it then become? Puerto Rico would become an independent country in every common sense understanding of the term.
Why do proponents of free association for Puerto Rico avoid this truth? Once again, the answer can be found in the polls. Puerto Rico has had six plebiscites in which voters had the choice to vote for independence. Independence has never received more than 5% of the vote — less than the Libertarian Party in U.S. presidential elections.
Nor has Puerto Rico ever voted for a governor or a resident commissioner from the Independence Party. It is clear that Puerto Rico does not want independence.
Admitting that free association is a form of independence that would probably not provide U.S. citizenship for citizens of Puerto Rico would be a sure path to losing any election. Maintaining a pretense of a “free association” indistinguishable from “enhanced commonwealth” may allow the dream of the commonwealth to linger.
It may be a slower death, but like “enhanced commonwealth,” this new free association concept will eventually die.