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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 Rico chose to become a Free Associated State.

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.”

Here are some issues that could be expected to arise:

  • Puerto Rico would have less say in its military defense and border protection.  The United States would have sovereignty over such matters in Puerto Rico.
  • If the US decided to provide military protection to Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico would have little say 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. Passports would be required.  Tourism would likely decline.
  • Puerto Ricans living in states may be discriminated against under U.S. federal programs.
  • 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 would continue to have the option of volunteering as full participants in the U.S. military, but veterans healthcare services would be unavailable in Puerto Rico.
  • Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance, WIC, Head Start, higher education grants, highway funding and all other federal social spending would be reevaluated and often 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 could be made in subsequent negotiations, but that is not realistic.

Updated September 4, 2023

2 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Free Association for Puerto Rico?”

  1. This discussion seems to presuppose that current US citizens living in Puerto Rico would have to give up their US citizenship if Puerto Rico became a free-association or independent country. What basis is there for such? I have retired in Puerto Rico and I am open-minded about how Puerto Rico charts its future — planning to stay regardless of what course may materialize. But I am retired and on social security, so I certainly would NOT want to relinquish citizenship.
    If PR becomes a Free Association, would the non-citizenship provision begin to apply only to new-borns and newly approved Puerto Rican immigrants? I would expect that those who currently have US citizenship will continue to have it.

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