What’s Wrong with Free Association for Puerto Rico?

Free Association is once again being discussed as a possibility for Puerto Rico.

Much of the discussion has centered around abstract ideas of rights and responsibilities. There has also been discussion of the economic consequences of choosing statehood compared with remaining a territory.  We looked at the economic implications of the free associated state option with regard to personal income, and at the likely economic  benefits of statehood .

However, we haven’t seen much discussion of the practical consequences of what might happen if Puerto Ricans choose to become a Free Associated State. Here are some issues that would arise:

  • Military defense and border protection from the United States would no longer be assured.
  • If the US decided to provide military protection to Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico would have no control over where bases would be built and  training exercises would occur. This situation is reminiscent of Vieques and the resulting conflict when Puerto Ricans lacked control over U.S. military operations on the military base.
  • Puerto Rico would lose federal protection against drug smugglers transporting their goods from South America. The great majority of violent crimes in Puerto Rico are already associated with drug trafficking; without U.S. support, the escalation of crime could go unanswered.
  • The current ease of travel between the US and Puerto Rico would be lost. While the most obvious effects would be economic, with the reduction of tourism, this could also affect quality of life for Puerto Ricans with relatives on the mainland.
  • As citizens, Puerto Ricans now have the ability to live anywhere in the U.S, but federal immigration law limits the duration of visits by noncitizens. For example, family members who want to have an extended stay in the U.S. to help out with a new baby in the family may have to request a visa and would be able to stay only for the length of time specified by that visa.
  • Over time, limits on travel and duration of stays could impact family constellations, severing close ties. There could be the side of the family who made it to Florida before Sovereign ELA and the side that did not.
  • Job opportunities would be limited. Not only would U.S. companies lose some of the current benefits of doing business in Puerto Rico, but Puerto Ricans would also be required to have worker visas in order to work in the United States. Worker visas are restricted to people with special skills not available to a company in the local population.
  • Puerto Ricans would no longer have a sure option of moving to Florida or other states for a new job. The same type of immigration restrictions would apply to Puerto Ricans seeking education in the United States.
  • As the U.S. government leaves Puerto Rico, federal jobs will also end – law officers and courtroom personnel, engineers on federal construction projects, secretaries and office administrators…impacts could be felt across professions.
  • Young Puerto Ricans will no longer have the option of volunteering as full participants in the U.S. military. Military service not only represents a paycheck, but also an entry into a profession for many young people.
  • Puerto Rican veterans who fought on behalf of the United States in previous battles would not be guaranteed inclusion in the federal military healthcare system at a level equal to that of U.S. citizens.
  • Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance, WIC, Pell Grants, Head Start, higher education grants, highway funding and all other federal social spending would be reevaluated and cut. The Puerto Rican government would be responsible for entirely recreating these social programs from scratch on a local level without reliance on federal assistance.
  • Individual money already contributed to Social Security and Medicare through payroll taxes could be lost. Every working Puerto Rican has contributed payroll taxes into a system that they may never see again. With no standing in these federal programs, benefit cuts should be expected.

All of these issues must be considered seriously by anyone who is considering a vote for free association. Some supporters are minimizing these questions, assuring people that changes culd be made in subsequent negotiations, but that is not realistic.

As former Governor Hernández Colón has explained: “The sovereign free associated state [ELA Soberano] is the same as independence, except that once independent, Puerto Rico would negotiate the terms of its relationship with the U.S. The fruit of this negotiation would create what would be called the sovereign free associated state. The U.S. doesn’t have to accept this. The U.S. doesn’t have to accept anything. In practical terms, this is like renouncing things we already have, and then asking for them in a future negotiation. It’s absurd. These negotiations imply an independent Puerto Rico, and the negotiations would be to set the conditions under which Puerto Rico is independent. These negotiations could take years.”

That is a realistic point of view.

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