Veteran readers of my column over the years will be forgiven
if they skim through the first couple of paragraphs here
today, them move on elsewhere in the STAR, perhaps saying to
themselves, "but he's said all of this before". They
would be right. I have said all of this before. Alas, it all
bears repeating one last time (I hope), and is prompted by
the current debate which asks that "free association" be
included as a fourth alternative in Gov. Rosselló's
proposed criollo referendum (not plebiscite) in December.
As I understand it, this fourth option to statehood,
commonwealth and independence would essentially turn Puerto
Rico into a sovereign entity, but not quite independent;
one that would allow Puerto Rico to exist in free
association with the United States. You could make be case
that free association would be "culminated commonwealth";
to use be ubiquitous buzz word of a generation ago;
that even the culmination gurus never expected to
get from Washington.
And they would be right. Look, I can also make the case that
free association would be the ideal political status for
Puerto Rico; it is an imaginative, flexible, visionary
and conceptually daring, on that the international community
would recognize and perhaps even encourage. Indeed, if any
society of people fits the bill for free association with a
metropolitan power, it is Puerto Rico, in my estimation.
But there's only one problem. As the U.S. Constitution
is now written, free association; that is, one
smaller but somewhat sovereign nation; is just not
possible. Maybe the U.S. Constitution could be amended to
accommodate just such an arrangement, but that is laborious
and very lengthy process at best. Perhaps the arrangement
that the Native American or Indian tribal "nations" have
with Washington is analogous, but that goes way back to
Nonetheless, the free associationists in Puerto Rico usually
reply. "Aha! And what about the Trust Territories of the
Pacific, such as Micronesia, that worked out a free
association arrangement with the United States?"
Well, what about it? Because, as I have written in
this space many time since the mid-1980s, it is
apples and oranges to compare Puerto Rico's political
status situation with that of the Trust Territories of the
Pacific. For starters the United States acquired Puerto Rico
after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and immediately
assumed sovereignty over the island. But in the case of the
Trust Territories of the Pacific, the United States never,
and this is important, acquired those
islands, nor did it assume sovereignty over them; in short,
the United States never "owned" them.
Neither did the residents of the Trust Territories ever
acquire U.S. citizenship. Simply put, those islands were
assigned to the U.S. by the U.N. Trusteeship Council after
World War II, as many other areas worldwide, held by
Japan or Germany, were assigned to other nations
after the war.
Having been assigned to the United States for stewardship,
the Trust Territories of the Pacific (and all the other
trust territories in the world) were automatically set on a
path of future political status action by the United Nations
that would ultimately result in those resident voting freely
among several U.N. - recognized options, of which free
association was one.
Now, this is the important thing to remember: The United
States, a signatory to the U.N. charter, could do nothing to
prevent that political status process from taking place.
Why? Because the Trust Territories of the Pacific were never
U.S. territories to begin with. They were simply on loan
from the U.N. Trusteeship Council to the United States (and
to the other victorious power after the war). The islanders
thus became "U.S. nationals", not U.S. citizens.
Eventually, some of those small, very remote islands in the
Pacific voted for "free association" with the United States.
That status was granted by Washington. It really had no
choice in the matter. The United States was merely
fulfilling its ultimate obligation that was mandated
mandated by the United Nations. End of story.
But, Puerto Rico, being Puerto Rico, that, of course, is not
the end of the story. The free associationists simply go
into full-scale denial and continue to say, "Well, if
Washington can do it for some little island way out in the
Pacific Ocean, why can't it simply do the same for
much larger Puerto Rico, where the stakes are higher?"
Why? indeed. But that's just not the way things are
done when you have the U.S. Constitution standing in the way
(and U.N. laws for non-Trust Territories do not supersede
the U.S. Constitution). In the case for the Trust
Territories, full constitutional guarantees never applied to
them. The ultimate irony, of course, is that had Puerto Rico
somehow been know as the Trust Territory of Puerto Rico, the
story could have been a whole lot different. Alas, there was
no United Nations, much less a League of Nations, around at
the time when Puerto Rico could have been "lent" to the
United States for administrative purposes until a final
political status, including free association,
would have been voted on by Puerto Ricans in a real
plebiscite, whole parameters would have been set not by
Washington but by a (hypothetical) international
But that didn't happen in Puerto Rico's case. As
such, Washington's hands are really tied as to what it
can offer Puerto Rico other than statehood, independence or
commonwealth (perhaps a slightly improved commonwealth). A
constitutional amendment, or perhaps a special treaty
of some kind, could rectify all of that as far as a
free association concept is concerned, but it's very
difficult to do so.
Will someone prove me wrong on all of the above? But if I am
not wrong, why are some people raising expectations about a
status formula; free association; that
can't be met?