It’s Biden’s move in the negotiations to grant Puerto Rico ‘free association’ status
Those who follow Puerto Rico’s status problem know the debate in Puerto Rican and American political circles has been controlled by traditional politics for decades. Political parties in Puerto Rico block each other’s advances, ultimately leading to nothing happening. Of course, for those who benefit politically and economically from the status quo, doing nothing to solve the centuries-long colonial problem of Puerto Rico is acceptable.
The traditional political parties in Puerto Rico — particularly the statehood (New Progressive) and commonwealth (Popular Democratic) parties — do not want to resolve the colonial debate; it’s their reason for existing since their main selling points are status ideals. These status-focused parties use the problem to stir emotions, generate support and win local elections, but can never deliver on their promises to resolve Puerto Rico’s status.
Sadly, they have demonstrated that they cannot offer any real short- or long-term solutions for Puerto Rico. They lack a realistic vision and national economic plan that doesn’t involve pleading to Congress for more fanciful tax incentives or American taxpayer funds to prop up the commonwealth and entrench more Puerto Ricans in generational dependency and poverty. At this point, it should be clear to all of us that the commonwealth has failed and the solution to Puerto Rico’s status problem will not come from its traditional parties.
Recognizing this, a group of Puerto Ricans from civil society organized the Puerto Rican Action Movement (the MAP in Spanish) to transcend the obsolete political structure and design a multifaceted decolonization strategy with a viable, pragmatic “vision of the future.” It’s a future where a sovereign Puerto Rico could join the world economy and community.
After two years of behind-the-scenes work and meetings in San Juan and Washington, the MAP’s message of decolonization and sovereignty for Puerto Rico helped open the doors with prominent American interlocutors. There are some within the U.S. government, including in Congress, who are ready to listen and work with us to help move forward the inevitable process of Puerto Rico’s decolonization and sovereignty.
A group of experts in free association and American territorial policy was organized in the United States, most of them former government officials with experience in such issues. After considering options, they determined that free association — a sovereign Puerto Rico with a Compact of Free Association with the United States — is the viable, legal and desirable status option to accommodate the interests of all political parties in Puerto Rico.
With free association, pro-statehood supporters could ensure that Puerto Rico maintains a positive, beneficial relationship with the United States and free transit between both nations. Pro-commonwealth supporters could enjoy the “culmination of the commonwealth” toward a more dignified sovereignty status that is outside the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Pro-independence supporters could ensure the establishment of a sovereign republic, recognized Puerto Rican citizenship, and our nation’s access to global markets.
The last three times the United States decolonized territories was through free association, having negotiated such relationships with Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands under Democratic (Clinton) and Republican (Reagan) administrations. Let’s put that experience to good use. Free association also is the status option with the largest growth margin of support in modern Puerto Rican politics — going from 0.29 percent of the vote in the 1998 plebiscite to 33.3 percent of the vote in the 2012 plebiscite.
Together, both sovereignty options (independence and free association) garnered almost 39 percent of the vote. Despite official results showing 54 percent in support of statehood, upon closer observation, only 27 percent from the total number of eligible voters actually went to the polls to support statehood in the 2020 plebiscite, suggesting that both Puerto Ricans and Americans should start having a serious dialogue on the status issue. Surprisingly, in the 2012 plebiscite, much of the support for free association came from the commonwealth party, yet sadly, this party continues to embrace the 1950s colonial model. In the 2020 elections, not only did the statehood party lose control of the legislature, but pro-sovereignty candidates across different parties won the most votes. Keep this trend in mind: As support for statehood decreases over time, support for sovereignty increases.
With this trend in Puerto Rico, the MAP organized a Puerto Rican delegation of subject matter experts (not politicians) in different policy areas as a counterpart to the American delegation in Washington, to talk about the prospects and issues of free association. Both delegations concluded that free association is the only viable status option to usher in a sovereign Puerto Rico in the international community, while maintaining Puerto Rico as a U.S. ally and strategic partner in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The talks resulted in a document entitled “The Principles of Free Association between the United States and Puerto Rico.” The work provides a clear vision of a viable future for Puerto Rico, with draft plans for economic development, democratization, education, judicial reform, security, defense, and more. The MAP — which has endorsed the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021 (HR 2070) — believes the principles can serve as a guide for future negotiations and the transition to sovereignty.
It should be noted that, before making the principles public, the MAP presented them to a representative group of Puerto Rican political leaders, community and religious leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, diplomats and legal scholars, and received a positive, supportive response. We are convinced that if the United States defined free association according to the principles, there would be a major realignment of political forces in favor of this option.
The principles have been presented to the White House and key Biden administration officials. We are hopeful they will seize the opportunity to take action. The absence of any action by the administration would be unquestionable proof that the United States is content to keep Puerto Rico in a colonial status forever — a stance that is unacceptable and infuriating to most Puerto Ricans. We believe, however, that the United States will “see the light” and begin the process of decolonization. Puerto Ricans have been waiting 123 years for this moment.
Javier A. Hernández is a Puerto Rican writer, small business owner and pro-sovereignty activist based in New Jersey and Puerto Rico. He is the author of “PREXIT: Forging Puerto Rico’s Path to Sovereignty.”
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