HAGATNA, GUAM – As Guam prepares to celebrate Liberation Day this week, political leaders on the Pacific island say it’s time to decide whether to remain a U.S. colony or become an independent nation.
Debate about independence has raged for decades but legal complications mean plans to take the issue to a vote have stalled several times.
Former Sen. Eddie Duenas said a self-rule plebiscite was long overdue and should be held alongside a gubernatorial election due next year.
“We have been driving but we don’t know where we’re driving to and how far we will go,” he told a recent meeting of Guam’s decolonization commission in the capital Hagatna.
“We just keep driving and driving. It’s annoying.”
Guam has been an unincorporated territory of the United States since 1898, meaning its 160,000 inhabitants are U.S. citizens but have limited rights.
They cannot participate in U.S. elections and Guam’s sole representative in the U.S. Congress does not get to vote on legislation.
The United Nations lists Guam as one of only 17 remaining colonies worldwide, a situation Gov. Eddie Calvo wants remedied.
Calvo has long campaigned for a referendum on self-determination that would give voters three options for the future — independence, becoming a U.S. state, or remaining in “free association” with Washington.
All options have their advocates and Calvo says whatever the outcome, at least voters would have had a say in their future.
“Anything is better than the status quo,” he said earlier this month.
“I would be happier if we became a state (but) if voters chose independence or free association I would be happier than I am right now.”
The independence question is complicated by Guam’s long and complex relationship with the United States since becoming Washington’s colony in the wake of the Spanish-American War.
It endured brutal Japanese occupation during World War II and was recaptured by U.S. marines after a bloody month-long battle on July 21, 1944, a date celebrated as Liberation Day on the island.
It still hosts one of the largest U.S. military contingents in the Asia-Pacific, often referred to as America’s “tip of the spear” in a region where tensions with China, North Korea and Russia are all too common.
In addition, many in Guam are heavily dependent on U.S. welfare, with about 44,900 individuals and 15,650 households receiving food stamps and public health care benefits.
Federal grants and taxes on U.S. service personnel in Guam also play a large role in meeting the island’s budget and infrastructure needs.
Marites Schwab, a resident of Agana Heights village, said she was concerned about whether Guam was politically mature enough to govern itself if it became a state.
“What would they do in terms of continuing the services currently provided by the federal government?” she asked.
“What are the concrete plans going forward? I need to see something practical and we can attain that by becoming a state.”
Adrian Cruz, an advocate for maintaining free association, said dependency on U.S. funds made changing the status quo a difficult proposition.
“The U.S. has got us into a Goldilocks zone where we don’t get too poor to revolt but we’re not too prosperous that we don’t need them any more,” he said.
The debate is academic anyhow, at least in the short-term, after the U.S. Federal Court in March struck down plans to hold a self-rule plebiscite.
It ruled that limiting the vote to the indigenous Chamorro population, which numbers about 65,000 in the multiethnic territory, was race-based and therefore unconstitutional.
The decision is under appeal and the government has asked the United Nations to take up its cause.
Michael Bevacqua, a Chamorro culture expert at the University of Guam, said indigenous people should have a vote on their future after being denied basic rights under generations of colonial rule.
“A process of decolonization that must follow the rules of the colonizer is not decolonization, it is an extension of colonization,” he said.