OPINION: What Americans and Puerto Ricans Need to Know About a Compact of Free Association

Jun 7, 2021
4:12 PM

(AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

There is a current deadlock facing the Puerto Rican decolonization process due to the unknown status of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act from Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act from Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González and Rep. Darren Soto.

As a result, it is opening up a new conversation within the Democratic and Republican Party—a conversation that might represent a game-changer in years to come for this important and paramount situation for the American and Puerto Rican public.

While Puerto Rican pro-sovereignty organizations continue to lobby Congressional offices to explain the formula of Free Association, this political option is getting the attention of U.S.-based and Puerto Rican newspapers, sparking debates in Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.

Despite Free Association being the only political option experiencing the largest electoral growth margin since 1998, there are misconceptions that serve as propaganda for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and for some in the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) that are not based on scholarly data nor on United States’ experience with the Pacific Freely Associated States—namely Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. The following statements and talking points are the most common fallacies promoted by the PNP and PPD. I will proceed to demystify each of these talking points:

1. Free Association is independence. (False)

Free Association is a distinct and separated political status from independence, especially in reference to foreign relations and defense. It was created by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1541, establishing that integration, independence and free association are decolonization options. The resolution does not establish that Free Association is independence or a type of independence. Free Association and independence are two types of sovereignty that any nation can aspire to. Simply explained, independent nations such as Spain, Colombia, Nigeria or Pakistan would never cede to the U.S. important aspects of their national sovereignty, such as national defense and national security.

2. Free Association will end Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship. (Partially true, but privileges will remain.)

Those who are U.S. citizens at the moment of the proclamation of the Compact of Free Association will remain U.S. citizens and their children will be entitled to U.S. citizenship by blood. In regards to future generations, it is a matter of negotiation as Free Association is not a model, but a process of negotiation according to the particular juncture of the moment. Every person born in Puerto Rico after the advent of Free Association will be a Puerto Rican citizen. What Puerto Ricans ultimately cherish —the free transit to the U.S. and the freedom to work, study, enjoy federal programs, and stay without limitations— will continue under Free Association as this is the “habitual resident” migration framework that exists between the U.S. and the Pacific Freely Associated States.

3. Free Association will end federal funds to Puerto Rico. (False)

The scope and size of federal programs are a matter of negotiation, but U.S. federal assistance will continue to guarantee a successful transition towards sovereignty. Why would the U.S. maintain such assistance? To give Puerto Ricans time to forge, establish, and build a productive national economy. Ideally, in the future, Puerto Rico will need less U.S. economic assistance. According to the compacts of Free Association between the U.S, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia, federal aid on various issues will continue even if one of the countries proposes to change key aspects of the compact.

4. Puerto Rico needs to be independent first before signing the Free Association compact. (False)

Puerto Rico can make the transition from the current territorial status to Free Association in the compact, without the need to be independent first. During the negotiations between the U.S., the Marshall Islands, and Palau, some of the islands requested to become independent before negotiating Free Association. The U.S. didn’t allow such an option as it challenged U.S. national interests on the matter.

5. The U.S. can end the relation unilaterally in Free Association. (True)

Also, Puerto Rico can end the relation unilaterally as well. That is how Free Association works. It is made this way to protect Puerto Rico and show the world that is a genuine and voluntary sovereign relationship, not an imposition. Even if a unilateral withdrawal happens after a free and open referendum, the compacts of Free Association with the Pacific Freely Associated States clearly says that federal aid and assistance will continue. Unilateral withdrawal is highly unlikely as the United States’ geopolitical motivation to establish Free Association compacts will remain unchanged and have always been renewed.


Dr. Julio Ortiz-Luquis is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University (NJ), where he teaches courses on International Relations and Political Science, and at the Borough of Manhattan Community College where he offers seminars on Caribbean and Latin American Studies. Twitter: @JulioLuquis.