Free association is key to solving Puerto Rico’s problems
© Getty Images

Bullets and boots on the ground gave birth to the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. From 1898 until the 1940’s, this American territory was ‘the poorhouse of the Caribbean’. 

Postwar politics paved the way for the creation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. As recognized recently by the Supreme Court, “Congress in 1952 relinquished its control over [the Commonwealth’s] local affairs[,] grant[ing] Puerto Rico a measure of autonomy comparable to that possessed by the States.”


Fast forward six decades. The end of federal incentives for manufacturing in 2006 precipitated a severe economic depression. Hundreds of thousands emigrated. Years of mismanagement condemned future generations with a $70 billion debt, which led Congress to impose a powerful Financial Oversight and Management Board over the Commonwealth, a fact denounced by me on this blog.

After years of dissatisfaction, 54 percent of the voters rejected the current political relationship with the United States in a November 2012 referendum. Also, the PROMESA Act suspended essential elements of self-governance by allowing the Board to nullify local laws. 

Congress and the people of Puerto Rico need to negotiate a new relationship. Political authority is required to implement an economic development model that transcends the current depression.

In June 11, 2017, a referendum will be held to vote on a petition to become the 51st State, or local sovereignty in the form of free association or independence. The pro-statehood party promoted similar referenda in 1993, 1998 and 2012, manipulating the language on the ballot to help them claim an artificial win. 

Economic dependence and political persecution, such as the COINTELPRO operations,  decimated voters’ support for independence. Congress has failed to give statehood supporters more than lip-service. Also, the application of federal taxes to the island could motivate U.S. corporations with substantial amounts of income to relocate from Puerto Rico to foreign jurisdictions, further deepening the Island’s fiscal woes. 

​Enter free association. Since 1986, the U.S. government signed Compacts of Free Association with three Pacific nations. There are two large differences between those compacts and the Puerto Rican situation: first, these Pacific nations were never under the sovereignty of the Federal government. Also, the people of those countries have never been, and neither aspire to become, U.S. citizens.

International law considers free association as a distinct status from ‘integration,’  and ‘independence’. Free association is not a “type of independence’, as wrongfully declared on a 2011 White House report.  

Continued transmission of U.S. citizenship is an essential issue. There are no constitutional obstacles for Puerto Ricans born after free association to continue their century-old citizenship status. Political will is Congress’s sole barometer on this matter. 

Puerto Rico is at a crossroads. The near-impossible fiscal situation, a decade-old recession, and the possibility of a petition for statehood, are key policy challenges. Let’s start a discussion on how to create a mutually beneficial model of free association between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. 

Nieves, a member of the Popular Democratic Party, served in the Puerto Rico Senate from 2013-2017 as the senator for the District of San Juan, and chairman of the Energy and the Banking, Insurance and Telecommunications committees. Currently, Nieves is the managing member of RL Legal & Consulting Services, LLC, based in San Juan. 

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.