The San Juan Star, San Juan, Puerto Rico


By Ronald Walker

(08/16/98, Copyright © 1998 The San Juan Star)

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 individual treaties.

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 organization.

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?

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