The administration of President Donald Trump, in the uncertain road map it is carving for the United States, serves as a "wake-up call" to lingering political status issues hovering over the island, according to Michael Bevacqua, a University of Guam assistant professor and member of the Independence for Guam Task Force.
Bevacqua spoke to members of the Rotary Club of Tumon Bay yesterday on the island's prospects under the Trump administration. The rhetoric from the White House and the direction from Congressional Republicans has led to concerns about the continuation of federal support to Guam and the nation, as well as severe reductions in tax collections. But as the island remains an unincorporated territory, there is little recourse to levy the interest of its residents, Bevacqua said.
Instrumentality of the United States
As an unincorporated territory, Guam remains an instrumentality of the United States. This allows privileges to residents, but not rights, Bevacqua said. Congress has ultimate oversight over Guam and, at the moment, can decide what supports the island receives.
Regardless, it is possible for Guam to be granted a status change under the Trump administration, Bevacqua added. Trump has spoken favorably in the past for certain political actions that could benefit Guam, such as the repeal of the Jones Act, which places restrictions on maritime commerce for non-contiguous parts of the continental U.S.
If Trump were asked about possibly championing a status change to Guam, he would likely speak positively about it, Bevacqua said. But Trump has also proven himself ignorant of certain policies, he added.
Moreover, the president's affinity for military spending and the island's reputation as "the tip of the spear" with regard to military affairs in the Pacific, meant change under Trump was unlikely, Bevacqua said.
For years, Guam had been pushing for a plebiscite to determine Guam's preferred political status. Gov. Eddie Calvo has made it a matter of policy to hold a plebiscite prior to his leaving office. In his latest State of the Island address, the governor talked at length about the ongoing effort for a political status vote.
"The task forces on independence, free association, and statehood – all are active and preparing outreach for a vote of self-determination," he said. "Legal uncertainties, however, remain."
'The infamous 70 percent provision'
In order to conduct a plebiscite, the Guam Election Commission has stated that 70 percent of Guam's native inhabitants – those naturalized through the Organic Act or descendants of these individuals – need to be registered to vote. But determining this is difficult, and the governor has asked the attorney general to issue a legal opinion on this requirement.
"We do not yet have an opinion from the attorney general on the infamous 70 percent provision in the plebiscite law. But that may be because we’re still waiting on the federal court to rule on a case that challenges our ability to do this," the governor said in his address.
The legality of the plebiscite itself was challenged in the District Court of Guam by Arnold "Dave" Davis, an island resident who claims that the vote has racial implications. Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood heard arguments for the case in September 2016. A decision has yet to be issued.
The government's own representation in that case, in making his legal arguments related to election rights, stated that the plebiscite was "purely symbolic" in nature and would not have the same effects as those elections referred to in Constitutional amendments.
'The colonizer doesn't want to cooperate'
Bevacqua said the plebiscite was meant to form a guide for further action.
"The United States refuses to recognize that the plebiscite has any effect on it in the past ... that's part of the difficulty in this. If you look in the past, people had to fight for decolonization. Now, there's a process but it doesn't quite work if the colonizer doesn't want to cooperate," he added.
Even if the plebiscite proceeds, Congress may decide to sit on the results for years, Bevacqua said.
"It's not necessarily going to be easy, but it's something we should go through ... If we don't decide our status for us, then the U.S. will do it."