A bill filed this month by U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez takes a step toward resolving Puerto Rico's ambiguous political status by mandating a referendum in which one of the choices would be a little-known form of independence called "free association."
Under the free-association form of government, Puerto Rico would be an independent nation that would relinquish some sovereign powers to the U.S. in exchange for benefits. The specifics of that arrangement would be bilaterally negotiated.
Voters also could choose the current commonwealth status, statehood or complete independence.
Critics of Martinez's bill point out that it doesn't compel Congress to act on the outcome of the referendum, which could render it little more than an opinion survey.
But through spokeswoman Jessica Garcia, Martinez, R-Fla., said Congress would act regardless.
"Congress will be morally and politically bound to act on a Puerto Rican status choice if Congress authorized the choice," Garcia said after consulting staff. "[Martinez] will fight to implement the choice of the Puerto Rican people."
The senator said he will seek a public hearing on the bill early next year.
The proposed legislation is being hailed as a victory by the island's autonomist-movement leaders, who have long said it is possible for Puerto Rico to be a sovereign nation without divorcing the U.S.
"We have been working for years to achieve recognition of the free-association formula as viable for all of the parties involved," said Nestor Duprey, spokesman for the Social Democratic Autonomist Movement. "It gives Puerto Rico the political powers it needs to solve its problems, and it helps the U.S. in the sense that Puerto Rico would stop being a financial burden for its treasury.
"At the same time, it preserves the political and economic relationship between the two countries."
Free association is the type of relationship that the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau have with the United States. Each nation negotiated the terms of that association but yielded some of their sovereign powers to the U.S. in areas such as national defense and security. In exchange, the U.S. treats these nations uniquely by allowing access to domestic programs, including disaster response under the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
So, now we have the possibility of Statehood, Commonwealth, Free Association, or Independence. You all know what I support. I am unsure whether or not the Free Association Option is such a hot one, really. It is interesting that this is a way to get around the constitutional issues that have been raised already. The question becomes though whether or not the Pacific Islands had a similar status in constitutionally as PR does now.
Doug? Care to way in? You probably know more than I do. For that matter Carlos and Noel do too.