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U.S. Military Presence in Palau – A Model for Puerto Rico?

As the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) has shined a spotlight on the unusual Free Association arrangements that the U.S. has with several Pacific Island nations, Puerto Rican observers have been evaluating whether a related relationship would work between the U.S. and a sovereign Puerto Rico.

One key aspect of U.S. relationships with the three current U.S. Freely Associated States is U.S. military presence on those islands.  This issue is particularly salient in Puerto Rico in light of the protests by Puerto Ricans against the U.S. Navy in Veiques in the 1990’s, which ended  with the U.S. Navy leaving.

With this historical backdrop, it is notable that Joel Ehrendreich, the U.S. Ambassador to Palau, recently assured an audience in Palau of the value of U.S. military presence. Palau, which has a Compact of Free Association with the United States, gives the United States significant military power in its land, waters and airspace.

The conversation reported in Tia Belau News, a Palau-based publication, stated that the U.S. ambassador  “addressed concerns about the growing US military presence in Palau.” These concerns included fear that the U.S. military installation could cause Palau to be seen as “a target.”

Benefits of U.S. military presence in free associated state

Ehrendreich described the relationship between the U.,S. and Palau in glowing terms. The military presence, he said, “fosters a partnership that safeguards vital sea lanes, promotes regional security, and creates a stable environment for economic prosperity.”

He also listed some specific economic benefits. For example, the military presence brought an additional $43 million to Palau in the past year, including costs for housing military personnel and the amount they spend in the area. They have also repaired roads and a baseball field.

Palau, a nation of less than 20,000 Palauan citizens, has no military of its own.

Divided opinions

Last month, Radio New Zealand reported that the government of Palau, which is an independent, sovereign nation, was divided on the question of expanded military presence in their nation. While the U.S. military has made significant investments in infrastructure, including telecommunications, some members of the government are hesitant to encourage military buildup.

At the time of the report, a resolution had been introduced in the Palau government. “The resolution encourages the President to work with the United States government to establish a United States military base in Palau,” RNZ reported. “And it also gives the President permission to go ahead and start a formal discussion with the United States to establish military bases in Palau, even though Palau has a compact of association with United States defense and security.”

The United States has military access to Palau, but does not currently have permanent bases there. In 2020, the then-President of Palau invited the United States to build military bases on the island.

What about Puerto Rico?

The Puerto Rico Status Act, currently under consideration in both the U.S. House and Senate, offers Puerto Rico voters three options for Puerto Rico’s political status.  One is “sovereign free association,” which is the arrangement Palau has with the United States. All three independent nations in free association with the United States accept U.S. military presence for defense and security. Would Puerto Rico be willing to do the same?

U.S. Navy presence on Vieques prompted violent protests. From 1940 to 2003, the Navy used Vieques as a site for training bomber pilots. The death of a civilian guard in 1999 set off actions which led to the complete closure of the naval base. On the day set for the Navy’s withdrawal, violent protests took place. There are still environmental concerns about the toxic substances left on Vieques by the bomb testing, though the Navy does not agree that there is still clean to be done.

In a press conference in 2000, a reporter asked President Clinton about controversy in Vieques, “[D]o you believe in your heart that Puerto Rico’s colonial status is the root of this problem or is related to Puerto Ricans’ ambivalence to issues of national security?”

The President responded,  “I think the root of the problem is twofold. One is, as the Pentagon has acknowledged that the 1983 agreement was not followed in letter and spirit. They have acknowledged that. That left a bad taste in the mouths of the people of Vieques and of all Puerto Rico. Problem two is the unwillingness of the Congress to give a legislatively sanctioned vote to the people to let them determine the status of Puerto Rico. Now, I think those are the roots of the problem.”

Given Puerto Rico’s past responses to U.S. military presence, it is essential for voters to recognize that continued military presence would be a part of the Compact of Free Association if the United States and Puerto Rico decided to establish this type of bilateral agreement between the two nations.

The post U.S. Military Presence in Palau – A Model for Puerto Rico? appeared first on PUERTO RICO REPORT.

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