GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico — The political status of Puerto Rico has been a long-standing issue left to rot that now requires urgent action from both Americans and Puerto Ricans to avoid a humanitarian and political crisis.
The absence of U.S. leadership has fueled Puerto Rico’s perennial political debate and exacerbated its economic downfall. Puerto Ricans are divided, incapable of deciding on a matter in which one of the concerned parties, the United States, has kept silent and indifferent. This has led to the current political deadlock.
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been in place for almost 70 years. It was born in another time, designed to respond to circumstances quite different from today. Having failed to adapt to globalization, it has now become evident that a political and economic transformation is most needed for this Caribbean nation.
Puerto Rico’s colossal bankruptcy is not only financial but also political, social, and moral. And the main responsibility for this colonial bankruptcy lies in its territorial political status, which is immoral, unfair, anti-democratic, discriminatory, and prevents Puerto Rico from recovering.
On the other hand, the idea of Puerto Rico becoming a state of the Union has always been a mirage, an illusion, a chimera used by some Puerto Rican politicians to organize themselves politically, become elected, and earn a living. The full annexation of Puerto Rico to the United States has never been a real option, never more than a far-fetched illusion, especially today.
There are many economists and U.S. entities, including the Government Accountability Office, who have clearly stated the harm that annexation would do to the Puerto Rican economy, forever destined to become the poorest and most marginalized state of the Union. Unfortunately, a great number of Puerto Ricans have been fooled by the mirage while, in government, pro-statehood politicians have squandered millions of dollars in futile plebiscites and lobbying for this lost cause.
As for independence, the third traditional status option, after being scapegoated and demonized for decades as the worst of the available options, has very much lagged in popular support. Since independence supporters have been persecuted and criminalized for their convictions, independence is typically understood among Puerto Ricans as a noble ideal but economically unfeasible.
The Free Association status option, the fourth way, is not well understood either in Puerto Rico or in the United States. It is a unique international agreement, essentially equal to a special treaty, created with the purpose of maintaining close and mutually beneficial ties.
Free Association is the only road available for Puerto Rico at this moment to foster its prosperity while establishing a non-territorial relationship with the United States. It is also the only status option capable of accommodating the main concerns expressed by the advocates of the three traditional status options.
The most important and certainly the most relevant example of this political status is spelled out in the Compacts of Free Association which is in effect between the United States and the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau, and which was implemented over 30 years ago and renewed since then. These agreements were intensively and creatively negotiated by two U.S. administrations from both parties —beginning under President Carter and concluding under President Reagan— and the last of the Compacts, the one with Palau, was finally implemented by the Clinton administration as a non-territorial association.
A RAND Corporation report recognized these three free-associated states as peaceful, stable democracies that regularly hold free and fair elections and maintain commendable human rights records. Palau, for instance, has developed into one of the most successful private-sector economies in the Pacific.
“The Compacts also allow the FAS [Free Associated States, as the countries are collectively known] to receive economic assistance from the United States,” the report reads. “Economic assistance has primarily taken the form of grants and contributions to Compact Trust Funds (individual trust funds set up for the countries of the FAS), federal services, as well as discretionary spending by federal agencies. For the FAS, economic assistance supports a variety of sectors, but tends to prioritize health-care, education, and infrastructure.”
It is important to note that United Nations resolution 1541 (XV), which established Free Association as a decolonizing alternative, did not conflate Free Association with Independence, making a distinction between these two forms of self-government. Free Association only requires that it “be the result of a free and voluntary choice by the peoples of the territory concerned, expressed through informed and democratic processes.” The exact form that a Free Association may take is left to the two parties to negotiate.
Negotiations to establish a Free Association compact between Puerto Rico and the United States must be conducted by the executive branch of the U.S. government with the active participation of Congress. Already, the Principles for the Free Association between the United States and Puerto Rico have been publicly distributed as a general outline of the terms under negotiation. The final negotiated document must be approved by Congress and the people of Puerto Rico through a democratic referendum.
How long can the U.S. avoid its responsibility to tackle the issue of Puerto Rico’s future political status? Time is running out, as it is certain that Puerto Rico’s crisis will go from bad to worse during the next years if left unattended.
Dr. Efraín Vázquez-Vera is the former chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao Campus, where he is currently a professor of international relations. He is also the former assistant secretary of state for foreign relations of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Twitter: @efvave