Why Puerto Ricans for Statehood Remain Hostile Toward the Free Association Option (OPINION)

Feb 23, 2023
3:50 PM

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The Miami Herald recently published an op-ed by former Cuban American Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) titled “As Puerto Ricans ponder their future, they’ll need to separate fact from fiction,” in which she argues forcefully against the Free Association option contained in the Puerto Rico Status Act passed by the House in December.

I must confess that reading her article left me astonished because, while her current profession as a lobbyist for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld is known, she has never presented herself before as an expert on issues of citizenship and the Free Association statusWhile the lobbying firm does represent the interests of certain countries in Free Association, Ros-Lehtinen also represents fellow Puerto Rican statehooders—who, as we know, are affiliated with dark money networks. So, it seems, while the Free Association status is good enough for the firm’s other clients, it’s a horrible idea for Puerto Rico.

Her article was malicious, politically motivated, promoted annexation, and solely aimed at discrediting the status option of Free Association. It had all the usual talking points used for decades by the corrupt Puerto Rico statehood movement—whose leaders are being investigated by the FBI in major corruption investigations.

One wonders why the supporters of statehood insist on attacking and discrediting Free Association, a growing and viable consensus status option for Puerto Rico that is recognized in American law and centered on Puerto Rican sovereignty. With it, Puerto Rico would become a free and sovereign nation, yet associated with the United States via a Compact of Free Association.

Leaders of Puerto Rico’s statehood movement fully understand that Free Association is a viable option that could gain the support of many Puerto Ricans, and it is for this reason that it poses the greatest threat to the pipe dream of annexation, a status option that the United States has repeatedly said it does not prefer.

Despite the statehooders’ best efforts at convincing otherwise, the U.S. citizenship of Puerto Ricans under the status of Free Association would be negotiated between the United States and Puerto Rico—not decided by the likes of Ros-Lehtinen.

The former congresswoman-turned-lobbyist also mistakenly believes that Free Association is a form of independence, when in reality it is a form of sovereignty. “One of the options on the table was something called ‘sovereignty in free association,'” she writes in her op-ed “It is a form of independence that a few other countries have chosen.”

Ros-Lehtinen does not understand that under international law, there are two different options for sovereignty: independence and Free Association. But what do the real experts say?

In June 2022, Latino Rebels spoke with Peter R. Rosenblatt, who served as President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador in 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 Micronesia. According to Rosenblatt, “independence and Free Association are alternative, internationally recognized political statuses, not simply alternative names for independence.”

Ros-Lehtinen correctly states that these three countries in Free Association with the United States are citizens of their countries and not U.S. citizens. Of course, as part of her strategy of misinformation, she conveniently omitts that as part of those Compacts of Free Association, citizens of these countries can travel to, work, study, and live in the United States without having to be U.S. citizens.

Ros-Lehtinen confuses the “dual-citizenship rights” enjoyed by millions with the “free transit” benefits available to countries in Free Association with the United States. This free transit would benefit families and help promote business and economic development, making Free Association not only feasible and beneficial to both Puerto Rico and the United States.

The reason that citizens of the three current associated countries are not U.S. citizens is that they did not want U.S. citizenship—they perferred their own national citizenship. In our case, since Puerto Ricans now have U.S. citizenship —by unilateral imposition by Congress in 1917, without the consent of Puerto Ricans— its permanence under a Compact of Free Association between Puerto Rico and the United States must be negotiated.

Unfortunately, the imposition of U.S. citizenship allowed the United States to conscript Puerto Ricans into the military, just in time for the First World War. That needs to be remembered: Puerto Ricans didn’t beg the United States to make Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens. The United States, as the administering power, did that all by itself based on its specific colonial interests at the time. 

While experts and others do know that it is possible and desirable to maintain U.S. citizenship in any sovereignty option, statehooders keep trying to misinform Puerto Ricans and policymakers in Washington. With Free Association, Puerto Ricans will be able to maintain their U.S. citizenship and also become Puerto Rican citizens—yes, we can be dual citizens. Puerto Ricans can choose to travel the world on either a U.S. passport or a Puerto Rican one. They would decide, not Ros-Lehtinen.

Today, thousands of Americans also have a second or even third citizenship. In a sovereign Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans that do not want U.S. citizenship will, for the first time, be allowed to renounce it and only be Puerto Rican citizens. Which citizenship you have would be a personal choice.

For this reason, it is essential that Free Association be properly defined and outlined by experts. To ensure this, the president of the United States should establish a working group to appropriately define the status option. It will be impossible for Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their right to self-determination without a full and proper understanding of all three options.


Javier A. Hernández is a Puerto Rican writer, linguist, small business owner, and pro-sovereignty activist. He is the author of PREXIT: Forging Puerto Rico’s Path to Sovereignty and Puerto Rico: The Economic Case for Sovereignty. He is also a collaborator of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora and other pro-sovereignty organizations in Puerto Rico. Twitter: @PRexitBook