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From Conquest to Consent: Puerto Rico and the Prospect of Genuine Free Association

19 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2014 Last revised: 17 Sep 2014

Chimène Keitner

University of California Hastings College of the Law

Date Written: August 20, 2014


This book chapter, prepared for a conference on “Reconsidering the Insular Cases” held at Harvard Law School on February 19, 2014, explores the conflict between the “conquest paradigm” embedded in interpretations of the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the “consent paradigm” in contemporary international law. International law recognizes three options for achieving a full measure of self-government: integration within an existing nation-state, free association with an existing nation-state, or independence as a separate nation-state. Puerto Rico’s current status as a “commonwealth” (estado libre asociado) does not fall into any of these categories.

This chapter traces the movement in international law from the conquest paradigm to the consent paradigm, which makes Puerto Rico’s status an ongoing subject of inclusive international concern. It highlights the disjunction between post-colonial aspirations and the reality of Puerto Rico’s status as a “commonwealth” that is nevertheless still a U.S. territory. Congress has recently allocated $2.5 million for a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status and tasked the State Elections Commission with proposing voter education materials and a plebiscite ballot. The chapter suggests possible elements of a genuine free association agreement between the United States and Puerto Rico that would remove Puerto Rico from the purview of the territorial clause. It also includes suggested language for a referendum that would clarify Puerto Rico’s status options, including the option of becoming a genuine freely associated state (estado libremente asociado).

Keywords: Puerto Rico, free association, plebiscite, status options, insular cases, micronesia

Suggested Citation

Keitner, Chimène, From Conquest to Consent: Puerto Rico and the Prospect of Genuine Free Association (August 20, 2014). UC Hastings Research Paper No. 111. Available at SSRN: or

Chimène Keitner (Contact Author)

University of California Hastings College of the Law ( email )

200 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States

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