A debate is heating up on the US territory of Guam about its political future. The Pacific island’s attorney general has filed an appeal to a federal court ruling that struck down a planned referendum on its political status. The ruling revolves around Arnold Davis, a long-time resident of the island who sued the Guam Elections Commission for not allowing him to vote because he is white. According to the law in Guam, only native residents are allowed to vote in the non-binding referendum.
Now, that question will go before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States. The island’s official status is as a non-self-governing territory. Guam has no official representation in the federal government, and its people are not full citizens of the country. If the referendum hadn’t been delayed, native Chamorro people and their descendants would have been voting on three options for the future of Guam: statehood, free association, or independence from the US.
Independence advocates want total political autonomy from the US. They want a greater say over decisions that the military makes on the island. They object to unilateral land seizures like the recent decision to convert a culturally important area into a firing range. Michael Bevacqua, Assistant Professor of Chamorro Studies at the University of Guam, calls it a “once in a lifetime vote, and it is tied to righting a historical wrong. A decolonisation plebiscite is not supposed to be open to everyone, it’s supposed to be reserved for those who have been denied the right to determine their own destiny.”
Supporters of statehood say that Guam needs the United States in order to live the life they are accustomed to. There would be too much uncertainty over the economy, the standard of living, and perhaps most worrying of all, the island of 161,700 people would no longer receive around $1.5 billion in federal aid and government programs.
Guam has a long history of colonization, beginning with centuries of Spanish rule, occupation by Japan in World War II for a three-year period, and has been “owned” by the US since 1899. The US military now occupies about 28 percent of Guam’s land. Its air and naval bases are among the most critical in the world, allowing access to the Straits of Taiwan and the South China Sea. Guam was the major launching pad for both the Vietnam and Korean wars. Recently, the military announced a massive expansion on the island. It intends to move around 4,000 troops plus their families from the Japanese island of Okinawa to Guam, after mass demonstrations against the US presence there.
The military is an important part of the economy and culture in Guam. One in eight people living on the island are veterans, and residents serve at a rate that's three times higher than anywhere else in the United States. During the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, four of the Army’s top recruiters were from Guam, and enlistment on the island doubled while it was falling almost everywhere else in the nation, according to a PBS documentary.
While the plebiscite itself does not have any legal impact on the status of Guam, it would send an important message to the mainland on what direction the people of Guam wish to go, and clarify the future role of the military on the island.
The Stream discusses Guam’s options and how its choices could affect its relationship with the military.
On this episode of The Stream, we speak with:
Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero
Co-Chair, Independence for Guåhan Task Force
Chair, Free Association Task Force
Robert Underwood @PresidentUOG
President, University of Guam
Supporter of statehood for Guam