08 March 2017

Free association is key to solving Puerto Rico’s problems



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.

Pacific concern relayed at United Nations over West Papua abuses

Vanuatu has addressed a high level United Nations meeting over Pacific regional concerns about human rights abuses in Indonesia's Papua region, or West Papua.

The 34th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, was told that Indonesia has not curtailed or halted various widespread violations.


Vanuatu's Justice Minister Ronald Warsal was speaking on behalf of his country and six other Pacific nations: Tonga, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Solomon Islands

"We note that in the past 15 years, the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights has collected evidence of gross human rights violations by Indonesian security forces in three principle areas of West Papua: Wasior, Wamena and Paniai."

Warsal said the Commission described the sets of cases in the first two places as crimes against humanity, which are punishable under Indonesian and international laws.

He referenced reports of extrajudicial executions of activists and the arrests, beatings and fatal shootings of peaceful demonstrators, including high school students; as well as persistent violence against Papuan women.

The Vanuatu minister said Indonesia's government had not been able to deliver justice for the victims

"Nor has there been any noticeable action to address these violations by the Indonesian government, which has, of course, immediate responsibility and primary accountability," he said.

He also mentioned the marginalisation of West Papuans in the face of steady migration to the region by people from other parts of Indonesia.

"We want further to highlight another broad aspect of human rights violations - the Indonesian government policy over many decades and continuing until today of the migration of non-indigenous Papuans to West Papua, leading to a dramatic decline in the percentage of the indigenous Papuan population."

Indonesia's delegation to the UN mission in Geneva has issued a reply, saying it categorically rejects the allegations voiced by Vanuatu's Justice Minister.

It said Warsal's address does not reflect the real situation on the ground, accusing Vanuatu of "using human rights issues to justify its dubious support for the separatist movement in Papua".

In a statement, Indonesia said its record on the promotion and protection of human rights spoke for itself.

"This includes our co-operation with various UN Special Procedures and Mandate Holders, as well as various collaborative endeavours at bilateral, regional and multilateral level including within the Human Rights Council in strengthening human rights mechanisms as well as in the promotion and protection of various basic human rights."

"As a matter of fact, this year Indonesia will welcome the visits of two Special Rapporteurs, and present our third UPR report this coming May."

Earlier, Warsal referred to a series of recent pronouncements by mandate holders of the UN Council about serious Indonesian violations of the human rights of indigenous Papuans.

These included representations by UN Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the rights of indigenous peoples; the Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; and the Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Indonesia's government, however, said it had always endeavoured to address any allegation of human rights violation as well as taking preventative measure and delivering justice.

The Indonesian government again sent a message to Vanuatu that it should stay out of what it regards as its own domestic matters.

Jakarta said that Vanuatu's government should not divert its focus from addressing its various domestic human rights problem by politicising the issue of Papua for its domestic political purposes.

"In this regard, the Indonesian Government is prepared to work and co-operate with the Government of Vanuatu in their efforts to address various human rights violation and abuses against the people of Vanuatu" said the statement.

These abuses, according to Indonesia, included "violence against women, corporal punishment against minors, appalling prison condition, including torture of prisoners, and other challenges".

However, the seven Pacific nations have called on the UN Human Rights Council to request the High Commissioner for Human Rights to produce a consolidated report on "the actual situation in West Papua".

Among other provisions, Warsal said the report should also detail the various rights under the International Bill of Human Rights and the related conventions, including the right to self-determination.

"We believe that challenges of West Papua must be brought back to the agenda of the United Nations," said the Vanuatu minister on behalf of the Pacific countries.