HAGATNA, Guam — Guam has been frustrated by the indecision of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama over the stalled plan to relocate U.S. Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory as well as its limited political influence over the issue.
While businesspeople relying on economic windfalls from a military buildup yearn for clarity from Hatoyama regarding his promised reworking of the relocation plan, some Guam residents have become vocal about the situation in the face of the prospects of an additional base-hosting burden and the sense of being regarded as “two-thirds American.”
“Everything right now is dead,” Nick Captain, president of Captain Real Estate Group on Guam, said, referring to a 63 percent sales decline to $251 million in 2009 compared with 2007.
Guam’s economy, which had been improving through 2007, has lost steam because of two major negative factors, Captain said. One has been the global financial crisis that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the other the change in the Japanese government.
“A holy grail for the local economy and real estate market involves the transfer of marines from Okinawa to Guam,” he said.
Japan and the United States agreed to move some 8,000 marines and their family members from Okinawa to Guam by 2014.
Guam Gov. Felix Camacho and business leaders earlier welcomed the agreement, expecting the entire construction project, worth an estimated $12 billion, to help shore up the island’s economy, which had been hit by a slump in tourism.
This strong support for the buildup has not been felt recently. Hatoyama’s lack of decision over the relocation plan discouraged potential investors from plowing funds into infrastructure and construction on the island.
On top of that, many residents have become skeptical that hosting more military operations will benefit the civilian community.
Judith Won Pat, speaker of the Guam legislature, said residents in general realize the strategic significance of the island that the U.S. government describes as “a hub for security activities in the region” in the latest Quadrennial Defense Review report.
“The people are more accepting of the military,” which already controls nearly 30 percent of the land on Guam, Won Pat told Japanese reporters in February.
But a report, formally called the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, indicated that more civilian land could be appropriated for a firing range and a massive amount of coral reef could be destroyed by dredging for a naval port for aircraft carriers, according to Guam legislators.
“The people now are starting to question the benefits and to worry about what’s going to happen,” Won Pat said.
Insufficient infrastructure is another problem. Judith Guthertz, chief of the legislature’s committee on the buildup, urged the military to halve the number of incoming marines because the community cannot deal with an influx of population.
Nearly 80,000 additional residents, including temporary construction workers, are expected by 2014 on Guam, whose current population is around 170,000, according to the buildup plan.
On Feb. 11, the 15-seat legislature unanimously adopted a resolution demanding the military revise the buildup plan, branding it as “grossly flawed.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency meanwhile deemed the plan “environmentally unsatisfactory.”
Guthertz warned that if the military “steamrolls” opponents to the buildup, it would only alienate itself from the community on the island, whose size is less than half that of Okinawa Island.
In an apparent bid to buck the buildup, Camacho urged people not to forget the sacrifices Guam has made for American security. “We have seen our brave Guamanian sons and daughters fight abroad and die in battle under the United States flag,” he said in a policy speech in February.
Guam is also calling on Japan to help reform the buildup plan and make it more beneficial to civilians because islanders have little say regarding Japan-U.S. negotiations.
Guam residents can’t cast ballots in presidential elections and its representative in Congress does not have the right to vote. “These two big powerful countries (Japan and the United States) are making a decision for our future without us even being at the table,” Won Pat said.
On the day the resolution was adopted, two Diet members from the ruling bloc — Mikio Shimoji and Tomoko Abe — went to the Guam legislature. They squeezed the visit into a whirlwind fact-finding trip on the island as part of a governmental delegation over the transfer of marines from Okinawa.
“We’ll ponder what Japan can do so Guam’s history and culture will be conserved and its economy will grow. Let’s work together and have closer communications,” Shimoji, a lawmaker from Okinawa, said, getting a round of applause.
Meanwhile, a citizens’ group, We Are Guahan, has encouraged Guam residents to get more closely involved in the controversial buildup. The group announced in mid-March that it has collected more than 11,000 signatures from people calling for a meeting with President Barack Obama during a future trip to the territory.
The group is also busy updating people on the latest information about the buildup. “We’re committed to insisting that we have a voice and choice in our future,” said Cara Flores-Mays, a 28-year-old member.