What’s a Freely Associated State?

Historically, there have been three political parties in Puerto Rico, each one associated with a political status: commonwealth, independence, and statehood. One core belief of the commonwealth party has been that Puerto Rico possesses power independent of Congress.

With recent Supreme Court decisions and the imposition of the PROMESA board making it completely clear that Puerto Rico has no inherent sovereignty, some in the commonwealth party are now supporting the idea of Puerto Rico’s becoming a Freely Associated State.

A Freely Associated State (FAS) is an independent nation that has signed a comprehensive agreement with the United States called a Compact of Free Association (COFA) that governs diplomatic, economic, and military relations with the United States.

There are currently three FAS: the Republic the Marshall Islands (RMI), Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Under the Compacts, the FAS are sovereign nations that conduct their own foreign policy.  Their citizens are not U.S. citizens.  The nations receive very limited financial aid from the U.S. and its citizens do not qualify for public benefits such as Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security.

The United States is obligated to defend the Freely Associated States militarily and may overrule FAS government policies that it considers inconsistent with its defense the FAS, including denying access to the FAS by third countries.  Under these terms, the U.S. exercises a great deal of control over the waterways of the FAS nations.

The United States may establish military bases in the FAS, and the Marshall Islands is home to a premier U.S. military facility, the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which is located on Kwajalein atoll.  The U.S. has complete control over the Kwajalein Missile Range, where it regularly conducts intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing and space surveillance activities.

The COFA agreements between the U.S. and the Freely Associated States are not permanent, and current COFA agreement expire starting in 2023.  The current compact between the U.S. and RMI extends U.S. base rights at Kwajalein Atoll through 2066 with an option to continue the arrangement for an additional 20 years. Other aspects of the agreements, including financial support, must be renegotiated.

A Free Associated State cannot unilaterally set the terms of the agreement or make them permanent. Like all international agreements, either nation can unilaterally terminate the association.

In order to become a Free Associated State, Puerto Rico would first have to become independent and then negotiate the terms of its relationship with the U.S. An independent Puerto Rico would have to have this negotiation without the benefit of a Resident Commissioner.

As is the case with the current FAS, continued permanent U.S. citizenship could not be guaranteed, existing levels of federal financial support would  likely decrease substantially, a new court system would have to be created, and continued national security protection would come with strings that Puerto Rico would be unable to control.

If Puerto Rico were unable to negotiate acceptable terms with the U.S., its only recourse would be to refuse the FAS relationship and become completely independent. Statehood would no longer be an option.