Free Association: the political option that can save Puerto Rico?

The political status of Puerto Rico is a long-standing problem that requires urgent action. The island, an unincorporated territory of the United States, is not a sovereign nation or state of the United States. This ambiguity must be addressed by both Americans and Puerto Ricans. The future well-being and prosperity of all Puerto Ricans depend on it.

The Puerto Rican economy has been in decline for decades, mainly because the political future of the island remains undetermined, with disastrous social, political, and economic consequences. This issue has been a dominant debate on the island, dividing and paralyzing Puerto Ricans for more than a century.

The absence of US leadership on this issue has encouraged and intensified Puerto Rico’s endless debate, declaring on several occasions that the future of the island will depend solely on the will of its people. This hands-off attitude has led to a political stalemate, which has led to an economic catastrophe.

Historically, the debate over Puerto Rico’s future has centered on three options: statehood, independence, and commonwealth (the status quo)

The Future of Puerto Rico

Of the three options, statehood has received the most media attention. However, given the political, economic and cultural conditions, making Puerto Rico a US state had absolutely no future.

This is a well-known fact to most, except for U.S. and Puerto Rican politicians, who have made a career out of promising that their concession is just around the corner. What kind of statehood can be granted to a territory that half the population neither wants nor feels American, while the other half favors it only as a guarantee of perpetual welfare assistance? (Nanny State)

As for independence, the second option, popular support has been low among the population of Puerto Rico during the last decades. Independence has been scapegoated and demonized as the worst of the available options.

The Commonwealth option, given its dramatic failure and its electoral rejection by more than half of the population of Puerto Rico, cannot be a viable option either.

I remember what my dad used to say. “If the elections were on a Friday night, La Independencia would win”

Free Association

This reality leads us to another status option that is not well understood in Puerto Rico, but is recognized by U.S. and international law

Such an agreement would imply the end of Puerto Rico’s territorial status and the birth of a new sovereign country in the Caribbean, fully integrated into the international community and the UN system. Under a free association pact, the United States would continue its financial assistance to Puerto Rico and help the island develop a productive economy. As a sovereign state, Puerto Rico would delegate specific responsibilities to the United States, such as defense and currency matters, while retaining sovereignty over all other matters not included or delegated in the pact.

Due to the Spanish term used to describe the current Commonwealth (Estado Libre Asociado or “estado asociado libre”), the formula of free association has been confused and sometimes misrepresented as identical to the current state.

However, genuine free association has the potential to become a state of consensus in which supporters of all alternatives can get what is most important to them, while considering U.S. national interests.

Free association is the only path available to Puerto Rico and the only way to foster its prosperity while maintaining a non-territorial relationship with the United States that can bring countries closer together.


The 1960 UN resolution that established free association as a decolonizing alternative did not combine free association with independence. Both must be understood as two different types of self-government.

The resolution did not establish any size or population requirements for a territory to achieve free association. It only requires that “it be the result of a free and voluntary choice of the peoples of the territory in question, expressed through informed and democratic processes.” The exact form of the partnership is left to the parties to negotiate. Free association is a state of “middle ground” whereby the interests of all parties can be reconciled, and each can become a winner.
The most important and relevant examples of the political status of free association are detailed in the Compact of Free Association, which has been in force between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. The pacts were implemented more than 30 years ago and have been renewed ever since.

The accords transferred complete internal self-government to the new nation states, as well as authority in foreign affairs that led to their membership in the United Nations. The Pact retains full authority in matters of defense and security in the United States and obliges Washington to provide economic assistance.

Road to Free Association

Negotiations to establish a free association agreement between Puerto Rico and the United States must be carried out by the Executive Branch of the United States government, with the active participation of Congress. Puerto Rican negotiators must be chosen from among the most capable defenders and non-partisans of the island’s interests.

Before negotiations begin, the principles for free association will be agreed as a general outline of the terms under negotiation. The final negotiated document must be approved by Congress and by the people of Puerto Rico through a democratic referendum.

A free association status for Puerto Rico concludes a seemingly endless, divisive, and sometimes vicious debate. It offered the people of Puerto Rico a new opportunity to build a truly democratic country, create a much-needed productive economy, and ultimately become a self-sufficient society.

Tell Congress that Puerto Ricans want nationhood, not statehood

For Puerto Ricans who support self-determination, it is truly mind-blowing that some Democrats have the audacity to offer statehood as a solution on the question of Puerto Rico’s political status. At a time when Congress cannot come to grips with its responsibility to decolonize Puerto Rico – let alone guarantee a process of negotiation – support for statehood becomes suspicious at best, seeming way too much like political opportunism. The disconnect between the Puerto Rican reality and pro-statehood declarations is dismaying. 

Ill-informed support for statehood is based on several myths: 

Puerto Ricans are Americans: False. The Puerto Rican national identity remains an ethnic identification of peoples without a national citizenship of their own who live in a territory they call “their country.” This does not obscure the reality that Puerto Rico constitutes a nation, which has had a colonial relation with the United States since 1898. Ambiguities were created by Public Law 600and by the portrayal in 1953 at the United Nations of the Commonwealth as “a compact” between both nations. As the Harvard Law Review clearly stated in 2017: “Puerto Rico’s heart is not American. It is Puerto Rican.” 

Puerto Ricans in the U.S. have struggled for civil rights, but the political, societal and constitutional reality of Puerto Rico is altogether another issue. You cannot erase a nationhood by overlooking its existence and assume that “Puerto Ricans are Americans.” Such statements constitute a classic strategy of assimilation that negates Puerto Rico’s right to exist.

Most Puerto Ricans support statehood: False. Puerto Ricans have rejected statehood in five plebiscites held since 1968. The 2017 plebiscite was boycotted by all anti-statehood Puerto Rican parties, resulting in statehood receiving 97 percent support, with only 23 percent of registered voters’ participation. The 2012 plebiscite, so far the only one held the same day as local elections, was boycotted by one of the major political parties, resulting in an avalanche of blank votes, pro-independence and pro-Free Association, which outnumbered pro-statehood votes. Statehood persistently has lost support since the 1993 plebiscite (788,296 votes in 1993728,157 votes in 1998834,191 in 2012, and 502,801 in 2017). 

While in power, pro-statehood administrations have corrupted the Puerto Rican government to the point of its collapse, making this faction incapable of leading any future political project. In summer 2019, the pro-statehood governor Ricardo Rossello was ousted

Civil rights in the U.S. are not being addressed by making Puerto Rico a state. As an unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico has a different constitutional reality, and its urgency is not related to civil rights but rather to our human right to decolonization. Since 1998, the only political option gaining support is Free Association, a negotiated compact in which both countries become freely associated. 

Puerto Rico is not a country: False. The Foraker Act, the first law passed in Congress concerning Puerto Rico, stated that Puerto Ricans “shall be deemed and held to be citizens of Porto (sic) Rico.” Fifty years later, Public Law 600 recognized Puerto Ricans as “peoples.” In 1953, in a push to get international recognition for the Commonwealth as a pact between the U.S. and Puerto Rico “forming a political association, which respects the individuality and the cultural characteristics of Puerto Rico [and] maintains the spiritual bonds between Puerto Rico and Latin America,” the United States pursued Resolution 748 at the U.N. General Assembly, allowing the U.S. to cease delivering annual reports on Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Our nationhood has withstood all attempts to be assimilated. Puerto Ricans refer to Puerto Rico as “el País” (the country). Puerto Ricans are a nation, and its people are in Puerto Rico and in its global diaspora. We are not American expats living in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a domestic issue: Partially true. Puerto Rico is a domestic issue as much as it is an international issue. The U.S. took over Puerto Rico through invasion, bilateral negotiation, and a peace protocol, normalizing the relationship through Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases. The U.S. scored a diplomatic victory with U.N. approval of Resolution 748. Even though Puerto Ricans at the time already were U.S. citizens, and even if the country’s political fate was thought to have been sealed, Puerto Rico today again faces the important issue of sovereignty.

Furthermore, the persistent federal mismanagement of the humanitarian crisis following the 2017 hurricanes will continue to be an international issue, as economic, political and social conditions deteriorate. Puerto Rico is a pending international issue with multilateral repercussions.

Puerto Rico has no option but statehood: False. Puerto Rico’s status question can be resolved with strong bipartisan commitment. Inspired by its anti-colonial foundational spirit, guided by its experience with the freely associated republics in the Pacific, and in compliance with international law, the United States has available political options that Puerto Ricans would be ready to discuss. In fact, many Puerto Rican professionals agree that negotiating a compact of Free Association with the United States is the correct mechanism for finding a reasonable political solution to this issue.

Congress will serve the cause of Puerto Rico and the United States by understanding and accepting that Puerto Rico needs decolonization, through a process of dialogue and negotiation. Statehood goes against U.S. political and economic interests, and actually never has been on the negotiating table. Sovereignty serves the interests of both countries, and currently is Puerto Rico’s only feasible solution for decolonization and economic development.

Libre Asociación : la opción política que puede salvar a Puerto Rico ?

  El estado político de Puerto Rico es un problema de larga data que requiere una acción urgente. La isla, un territorio no incorporado de los Estados Unidos, no es una nación soberana ni un estado de los Estados Unidos. Esta ambigüedad debe ser abordada tanto por los estadounidenses como por los puertorriqueños. El bienestar futuro y la prosperidad de todos los puertorriqueños dependen de ello.

La economía puertorriqueña ha estado en declive durante décadas, principalmente porque el futuro politico de la isla permanece indeterminado, con desastrosas consecuencias sociales, políticas y económicas. Este tema ha sido un debate dominante en la isla, dividiendo y paralizando a los puertorriqueños durante más de un siglo.

La ausencia de liderazgo de los Estados Unidos en este asunto ha alentado e intensificado el debate interminable de Puerto Rico, declarando en varias ocasiones que el futuro de la isla dependerá únicamente de la voluntad de su gente. Esta actitud de no intervención ha llevado a un punto muerto políticamente hablando, que ha provocado una catástrofe económica.

Históricamente, el debate sobre el futuro de Puerto Rico se ha centrado en tres opciones: estadidad, independencia y estado libre asociado (el statu quo).

El futuro de Puerto Rico

De las tres opciones, la estadidad ha recibido la mayor atención de los medios. No obstante, dadas las condiciones políticas, económicas y culturales, hacer de Puerto Rico un estado de los Estados Unidos no tiene absolutamente ningún futuro.

Este es un hecho bien conocido para la mayoría, excepto para los políticos estadounidenses y puertorriqueños, que han hecho una carrera prometiendo que su concesión está a la vuelta de la esquina. ¿Qué tipo de estadidad se puede otorgar a un territorio que la mitad de la población no quiere ni se siente estadounidense, mientras que la otra mitad lo favorece solo como garantía de asistencia perpetua del bienestar? (Nanny State)

En cuanto a la independencia, la segunda opción, el apoyo popular ha sido bajo entre la población de Puerto Rico durante las últimas décadas. La independencia ha sido convertida en chivo expiatorio y demonizada como la peor de las opciones disponibles.

La opción del Estado Libre Asociado, ante su dramático fracaso y su rechazo electoral por más de la mitad de la población de Puerto Rico, tampoco puede ser una opción viable.

Recuerdo como decia mi papa. “Si las elecciones fueran un Viernes en la noche, La Independencia ganaria”

 Libre Asociación

Esta realidad nos lleva a otra opción de estatus que no se entiende bien en Puerto Rico, pero que está reconocido por las leyes internacionales y de los EE. UU.

Tal acuerdo implicaría el fin del estado territorial de Puerto Rico y el nacimiento de un nuevo país soberano del Caribe, totalmente integrado en la comunidad internacional y el sistema de la ONU. Bajo un pacto de asociación libre, Estados Unidos continuaría su asistencia financiera a Puerto Rico y ayudaría a la isla a desarrollar una economía productiva. Como estado soberano, Puerto Rico delegaría responsabilidades específicas a los Estados Unidos, tales como asuntos relacionados con la defensa y la moneda, al tiempo que conservaría la soberanía sobre todos los demás asuntos no incluidos o delegados en el pacto.

Debido al término español utilizado para describir el Estado Libre Asociado actual (Estado Libre Asociado o “estado asociado libre”), la fórmula de libre asociación  se ha confundido y a veces, se ha tergiversado como idéntica al estado actual.

Sin embargo, una asociación libre genuina tiene el potencial de convertirse en un estado de consenso en el que los partidarios de todas las alternativas puedan obtener lo que es más importante para ellos, al tiempo que consideran los intereses nacionales de los EE.UU.

La asociación libre es el único camino disponible para Puerto Rico y la única forma de fomentar su prosperidad mientras se mantiene una relación no territorial con los Estados Unidos que puede acercar a los países.

Punto Medio

La resolución de la ONU de 1960 que estableció la libre Asociacion como una alternativa descolonizante no combinaba la asociación libre con la independencia. Ambos deben entenderse como dos tipos distintos de autogobierno.

La resolución no estableció ningún requisito de tamaño o población para que un territorio logre la asociación libre. Solo requiere que “sea el resultado de una elección libre y voluntaria de los pueblos del territorio en cuestión, expresada a través de procesos informados y democráticos”. La forma exacta de la asociación se deja a las partes para negociar. La asociación libre es un estado de “punto medio” por el cual los intereses de todas las partes pueden conciliarse, y cada uno puede convertirse en un ganador.

Los ejemplos más importantes y relevantes del estatus político de la asociación libre se detallan en el Pacto de la Asociación Libre, que ha estado vigente entre los Estados Unidos y la República de las Islas Marshall, los Estados Federados de Micronesia y la República de Palau. Los pactos se implementaron hace más de 30 años y se renovaron desde entonces.

Los acuerdos transfirieron el autogobierno interno completo a los nuevos estados nacionales, así como la autoridad en asuntos exteriores que condujo a su membresía en las Naciones Unidas. El Pacto conserva plena autoridad en asuntos de defensa y seguridad en los Estados Unidos y obliga a Washington a proporcionar asistencia económica.

Camino a la Libre Asociación

Las negociaciones para establecer un acuerdo de asociación libre entre Puerto Rico y los Estados Unidos deben ser realizadas por el Poder Ejecutivo del gobierno de los Estados Unidos, con la participación activa del Congreso. Los negociadores puertorriqueños deben ser elegidos entre los defensores más capaces y no partidarios de los intereses de la isla.

Antes de que comiencen las negociaciones, los principios para la libre asociación se acordarán como un esquema general de los términos bajo negociación. El documento final negociado debe ser aprobado por el Congreso y por el pueblo de Puerto Rico a través de un referéndum democrático.

free association status for Puerto Rico  concluye un debate aparentemente interminable, divisivo y a veces vicioso. Ofrecia al pueblo de Puerto Rico una nueva oportunidad para construir un pais verdaderamente democratico, crear la economia productiva que tanto necesitan y finalmente convertirse en una sociedad autosuficiente.

‘Free association’ is a way out of the Puerto Rican crisis

Recent events in Puerto Rico, in which the people rose up to challenge the political establishment, demonstrate the territorial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States has been one of missed opportunities in the name of untenable illusions. The territorial model is a serious threat to the survival of the Caribbean nation and its economy. The Puerto Rican political and socioeconomic model has collapsed, and the moral and economic bankruptcy of the territory has been finalized.
The American dream in Puerto Rico expired, died and has been reduced to an absurdity. The so-called Isla del encanto, or “Island of Enchantment,” was branded an “economic miracle” and a “showcase of democracy” but has become a bad cartoon of what it pretended to be. For more than half a century, Puerto Rico was full of optimism and confidence, but today Puerto Ricans are unable to face current and future challenges. 
Puerto Ricans still suffer the consequences of the Spanish-American War. Since the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, the United States has been the owner of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty – later declared by the Supreme Court a “non-incorporated territory” and, since 1952, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The creation of this commonwealth by Congress cosmetically modified the territorial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. After 60 years, this is a relationship that was born in a different era, one that fulfilled the American geopolitical interests of that time. After failing to adapt to economic globalization, it’s evident that political and economic changes are urgently needed to allow Puerto Ricans to respond to 21st century challenges by their own bootstraps. 
Fortunately, the existence of the Puerto Rican nation is not up for debate. For Puerto Ricans, every day is an opportunity to defend the island’s Caribbean and Latin-American nationhood and to construct a viable future. 
The annexation of Puerto Rico to the United States has never had sufficient support in either San Juan or Washington. Moreover, this electoral force has been steadily declining since 2012. The idea of statehood has been employed by some Puerto Rican politicians to organize themselves politically, with slogans such as “statehood is for the poor,” in order to be elected and profit from federal funding. It is today, more than ever, a far-fetched reality.
In other words, Puerto Rico is stuck in a colonial quagmire since annexation never will be considereda real option by U.S. citizens; they would not be willing to pay the economic and political cost of annexing Puerto Rico.

Annexation would further weaken the Puerto Rican nation within the United States, thus plunging Puerto Ricans in the U.S. into a lower socioeconomic standing. Many economists and U.S. entities have clearly expressed how harmful annexation would be to the Puerto Rican economy, doomed forever to become the poorest and most marginalized state. 
Recently, Congress has shown signs that it does not support statehood, by excluding Puerto Rico from the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and ObamaCare. Crises in the territory make  decolonization urgent, yet the federal government has not found a way to articulate the desired outcome. The reasonable solution is for Puerto Ricans to exert its sovereignty, push for a road map and take control of its own destiny through the viable solution: free association
In order to transcend the territorial status, it is essential to integrate Puerto Rico into the world. It is the only way to bring the peace Puerto Rico needs through social justice, democracy and economic growth and development. To end Puerto Rico’s territorial isolation, it will be essential to reform Puerto Rican governmental institutions to achieve competitiveness, transparency, agility and simplicity in the process of political and economic decision-making. 

Free association is a model of sovereign relations recognized by international law, and the U.S. has one of the most successful examples to date. Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands are free associated republics to the U.S., the result of negotiation and dialogue that outlived several Congresses and three presidents. Distinguished and patriotic Americans and Puerto Ricans, from all political affiliations, could jumpstart a similar process to discuss the terms of the trespassing of fiscal, economic and political powers to transcend this restrictive territorial condition.  
Today, facing a discriminatory and territorial relationship, Puerto Ricans and Americans must put an end to this shameful situation. We must build a new non-territorial and sovereign relationship that gives birth to the United States’s strongest ally in the Caribbean and Latin America.