Former US Ambassador on What ‘Free Association’ Would Mean for Puerto Rico

Jun 27, 2022
3:57 PM

The flags of the United States and Puerto Rico (Public Domain)

On Friday, June 24, 90 members of the Puerto Rico statehood movement, representing various organizations and led by George Laws García of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, sent a letter to Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee that oversees Puerto Rican affairs, and Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-AR) proposing a number of revisions to the Puerto Rico Status Act, which seeks a resolution to the islands’ nearly 124-year status question.

Introduced in May after weeks of negotiations between two camps —one favoring the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act sponsored by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) and co-sponsored by Puerto Rico’s Republican non-voting member of Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, along with 80 others, and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act sponsored by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and co-sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and 75 others— the bill calls for a binding plebiscite that would ask the Puerto Rican people to decide between three decolonization options: Statehood, Free Association, or Independence.

The U.S. Congress, which is the supreme authority in the U.S.-owned territory of Puerto Rico, would then be forced to act on whichever option the citizens of Puerto Rico choose.

The letter sent to Grijalva and Westerman proposes four changes, the crux of which is to make clear that the “Free Association” and “Independence” options are really one and the same.

“Use of the word ‘Sovereignty’ as the main descriptor for the option of ‘Free Association’ is insufficient to ensure that voters understand that for constitutional purposes this option is a form of independence [emphasis theirs] outside the protection of the U.S. Constitution,” the authors explain.

To shed light on the matter, Latino Rebels reached out to Peter R. Rosenblatt, who from 1977 to 1981 served as President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the negotiations on the future political status of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which established the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. government and the former UN-controlled, U.S.-administered territories of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The Compact is the only example of Free Associaton in U.S. history.

“No,” Ambassador Rosenblatt said plainly when asked if “Free Association” and “Independence” were the same.

“Independence and FA [Free Association] are alternative, internationally recognized political statuses, not simply alternative names for independence,” explained Rosenblatt, a member of the Washington international law firm of Heller & Rosenblatt. “FA is distinguished from independence when the smaller associated state relinquishes to the larger state powers which are normally considered indispensable to full independence such as national defense or foreign relations. The U.S. FA states [Palau, etc.] moved directly from UN-governed, U.S.-administered territories to FA states and were not independent, and their status is subject to the Compact only, not to a treaty.

“They are nonetheless full members of the United Nations,” he added.

Rosenblatt explained that Free Association is a political status adopted by the United Nations in its 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, known simply as “Resolution 1514,” in which the assembly “proclaim[ed] the necessity of bringing to a speedy and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.”

The UN lists Free Association as one of the three legitimate forms of decolonization that a former colony may take, the others being full independence and full integration (i.e. statehood, Puerto Rico’s case).

There is no single definition of Free Association, “since the apportionment of state powers between the larger and smaller state is individual to each FA agreement,” Rosenblatt said.

In the letter to Grijalva, Laws García and the other statehooders suggest making clear that, should either Congress or the Puerto Rican government fail to approve an Articles of Free Association between the two, “the bill must specify that Puerto Rico’s political status shall revert to ‘Independence.'”

But that is not how the process would work, according to Rosenblatt.

“If for some reason Free Association is chosen and fails to pass Congress, the status of Puerto Rico remains unchanged,” he said.

As to whether termination of a Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments would “result in Puerto Rico’s full and complete independence,” as Friday’s letter from the statehood movement suggests, Ambassador Rosenblatt disagrees.

“I think that’s nonsense,” he said. “First of all, they’re two entirely different statuses. Secondly, nothing happens automatically.”

The same holds true, Rosenblatt explained, if the compact is “terminated by either party acting unilaterally or simply expires,” which according to the letter would result in a full and independent Puerto Rico.

Asked if there is a trap door to Puerto Rican independence under the Free Association option —whether something could trigger independence should Free Association fail or be rejected— Ambassador Rosenblatt stressed the distinction between the two statuses.

“They’re two different statuses. Nothing is automatic,” he reiterated. “Congress has to approve whatever status it wishes to approve. And if it fails to approve one status, it doesn’t automatically go to another one. It simply goes back to what it is now.”

The ambassador named a number of other instances of Free Association, the most recognizable being that of Greenland, an autonomous island nation and a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark. In Greenland’s case, the Greenlandic government controls everything except citizenship (Greenlanders have Danish citizenship), monetary policy, and international affairs including defense.

In the case of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, their citizens have access to certain U.S. federal programs under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Pell Grants, and enjoy duty-free imports.

Though not U.S. citizens themselves, they are also able to travel to the United States and live and work there outside the norms of U.S. immigration law that apply to the citizens of other countries.

Rosenblatt believes Free Association is a viable alternative for Puerto Rico and could offer a win-win situation for the U.S. government and the people of Puerto Rico, “depending on the extent to which the terms of the agreement meet the basic objectives of each party.”

“Any agreement must, of course, be approved by Congress,” he added. “Congressional committees are now trying to define some of the terms in advance of negotiations.”

Rosenblatt also thinks Puerto Rico’s transition to Free Association would be similar to the one experienced by Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, but “with one very major exception: U.S. citizenship.”

“The Trust Territory was not a U.S. territory and its people did not possess U.S. citizenship then nor did they seek it under FA,” Rosenblatt explained. “U.S. citizenship carries obligations towards the U.S. government as well as privileges and powers which may be asserted by the U.S. government. [Citizenship under a Compact of Free Association] does not fit neatly into the governmental scheme of the U.S. constitution and would require expert negotiation by constitutional experts.”

Still, Rosenblatt believes Free Association might be a better option for the people of Puerto Rico in terms of preserving Puerto Rico’s national identity.

“That question depends on how the people of P.R. define their national identity,” he explained.

“The people of P.R. and the U.S. possess identities that are similar in many important respects stemming from a European cultural heritage and a century and a quarter of exposure to one another,” he continued. But “there are other obvious differences beginning with language. We seem to have been able to bridge the differences to some extent since 1898, and there can be no doubt that statehood would accentuate the differences while FA, by reducing U.S. authority and day-to-day control over P.R., would reinforce the separate P.R. identity.”

In the end, Rosenblatt thinks Free Association is a real, viable, and beneficial option for Puerto Rico—“provided that the U.S. citizenship issue can be dealt with.”


Hector Luis Alamo is the Senior Editor at Latino Rebels and hosts the Latin[ish] podcast. Twitter: @HectorLuisAlamo