Friday, December 28, 2018

What is the future of Guam?


Guam wants its own version of a Brexit vote, or the ability to decide its political future. The fundamental question is this: Should it remain part of the United States?

Guam became a U.S possession as a consequence of the Spanish-American war. It was a prize of war. The island’s native population, the Chamorros, have never had a say in their political status. Guam is an American colony. 


The American relationship to Guam has delivered citizenship and higher standard of living. The youth have more options. But it is still exploitative. Guam has no vote in Congress or vote for president. The island has almost no political power, and little control over how the U.S. uses it, which is a very big issue.

The military controls about 27% of the island’s 212 square miles. The military and tourism are Guam’s principal economic bedrocks. But the military buildup is adding significant stress to this relationship.

The U.S. plan to move 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam is worrisome for many on the island. 


A gentrification-like battle


The opposition to the buildup parallels urban gentrification battles. Gentrification increases housing costs, reduces income and ethnic diversity and creates conflicts over land use. Guam offers a twist to this problem.

Economic opportunities created by the buildup will increase immigration. This will reduce the percentage of the native population, which has been declining.

The Chamorro population, according ot 2010 census data, makes up about 37% of the island’s population. The balance represents other ethnic groups. Filipino 26%, white 7%, Chuukese 7%, Korean 2%, other Pacific Islander 2%, other Asian 2%, Chinese 1.6%, Palauan 1.6%, Japanese 1.5%, Pohnpeian 1.4%, mixed 9.4%, other 0.6%

The Chamorro population is cohesive and dominates island politics. But the Chamorros may have lost their hope of deciding the island’s ultimate political fate.

Guam wants a plebiscite vote on its status. Voters will decide to make Guam independent, or a “free association” with U.S., which is a form of independence. The third option is to seek statehood.

Guam’s intent was to limit voting eligibility to the native Chamorro population. But Arnold Davis, a non-native inhabitant of Guam, argued it was a form of discrimination. In 2017, the U.S. District Court of Guam agreed with Davis. Guam’s government is now appealing. 

The court's problem with the plebiscite


The court, in its ruling, made it clear why everyone on Guam should have a say in Guam’s plebiscite.

“This change will affect not just the ‘Native Inhabitants of Guam,’ but every single person residing on this island,” the court wrote.

The court is cognizant of the “history of colonization of the island and its people and the desire of those colonized to have their right to self-determination. However, the court must also recognize the right of others who have made Guam their home,” the court said.

Does the lower court ruling on the plebiscite end Guam’s decolonization effort? That's unknown, but it may be an opportunity for Guam to reconsider its approach.

Guam’s economic success is a consequence of its diversity. This immigration has given this small island a great depth in skills. It has allowed Guam to have a high degree of sophistication in services and technologies. Modern Guam will not exist without it. 

The risk of political tribalism 


This is not being blind to another truth. Increasing immigration diversity works to U.S. advantage, which has potential of diluting the Chamorro influence and relevance.

But a Chamorro-only plebiscite vote has consequences. It replaces one historical injustice with another injustice. This vote will marginalize Guam’s other ethnic groups. There is no way to sugar coat it with promises of equality post-plebiscite.

The U.S. is now tearing itself apart in political and cultural tribalism, as is much of the world. It's a terrible situation and it is giving rise to the worst impulses. Guam, for all its problems over status, can be a much better place than the U.S.

Guam’s success depends on the equal contribution of all its residents, no matter where they were born. This is Guam's reality and it’s too late to change it. This diversity is Guam's greatest strength and its future. 

Related points,  selected readings:


What are alternatives to independence, free association and statehood? Perhaps Guam should first consider the idea of reuniting the Mariana Islands, and seek to become a stronger political entity. They share similar problems. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island (CNMI), for instance, is under pressure from the U.S. to give up Pagan Island to the military for training. It's to the U.S. advantage to have a divided, fragmented Marianas. Perhaps the path to improved political status is unification. 

Statehood is not an option. Guam is too small, and giving Guam two U.S. Senators compounds the problem facing the mainland. The population is concentrating in a number of large states. This is giving outsize political power to smaller states. But Guam can make a easy case for a voting member in The House.

A Chinese Casino Has Conquered a Piece of America
, Bloomberg Businessweek, Feb 15, 2018.  The rise of China's influence in the Marianas is worrisome.  CNMI is seeing a major increase in Chinese investment, and this is bringing new problems. If Guam has a plebiscite over status, a potential worry will be China attempting a Russia-like social media campaign to influence the vote. It's in China's interest to weaken the U.S. military presence in Micronesia. Although China tourism is seen as a potential boon for Guam, China is unreliable as an economic partner and is using its power to bully Palau. It has hurt tourism on Palau over its support of Taiwan.

Climate change is another concern that may impact political status. The Marshall Islands has a free association agreement with the U.S., but is an independent nation. It is also danger of being consumed by sea level rise. Palau has a similar problem. Guam has higher elevation but is not immune, and suffers from declining coral reefs. It's future as a tourism spot could be impacted by climate changes. The need for Micronesia residents to relocate to the U.S. is a long-term possibility. 

What Independence for Guam would mean, Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Pacific Daily News, Sept. 22, 2016. 

The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism, Amy Chua, New York Times, Feb. 20, 2018. 


UN General Assembly adopts news resolution on territories. The Guam Daily Post, Dec. 28, 2018. 

U.N. Resolution 73/104 Economic and other activities which affect the interests of the peoples of the Non-Self-Governing Territories. [The UN ruling makes clear that territories, such as Guam, should have control over the use of the island by the military. It's hard to understate the importance of this point. The island has little control over how the island is used by the defense department, and it had no say in the relocation of 5,000 Marines.]

Who are Guam's native inhabitants? The Davis vs. Guam case. 



The District Court in Davis vs. Guam ruled in March 8, 2017 that the “native inhabitants” restriction on the plebiscite question was illegal under the U.S. constitution.

Who are the  “native inhabitants” of Guam and eligible to vote in the plebiscite? People who were made U.S. citizens by the 1950 Organic Act and their descendants.

According to the 1950 Census, approximately 98.6% of those who gained U.S. citizenship in 1950 through the Organic Act (25,788 of 26,142 people) were Chamorro.

Arnold Davis, the plaintiff in the case challenging the voting restriction, does not meet the definition of Native Inhabitant of Guam, according to the complaint he filed. Davis argued the voting restriction “was designed to exclude most non-Chamorros, including most black, Korean, Chinese and Filipino citizens living on Guam.

The defendant, Guam, argues that Mr. Davis “is mistaken as to the legal consequences of the law he is challenging. The challenge statute does not say that its purpose is to hold a plebiscite ‘concerning Guam’s future relationship to the United States.’ Rather it is to ‘ascertain the intent of the Native Inhabitants of Guam as to their political relationship with the United States of America’ and that once their desire is determined, to transmit it to the President and Congress of the United States and the Secretary General of the United Nations. Notably, nowhere does the statute suggest that the results of the plebiscite will have the effect, immediate or otherwise, of actually altering Guam’s future political relationship with the United States, only that the desires of the Native Inhabitants of Guam … be transmitted.”

The court ruling argued that “Natives Inhabitants of Guam” is a race-based classification. “As Plaintiff correctly points out, even an adopted child of a descendant cannot vote in the Plebiscite,” the court wrote.

Guam’s efforts to downplay the significance of the plebiscite vote were also rejected by the lower court. It wrote: "It is also very likely that the government of Guam and its political leaders will use the Plebiscite result as the starting point in working towards achieving the 'Native Inhabitants of Guam’s” desired political relationship with the United States. The Ninth Circuit recognized the important implications of the Plebiscite and noted that “[i]f the plebiscite is held, this would make it more likely that Guam’s relationship to the United States would be altered to conform to that preferred outcome, rather than one of the other options presented in the plebiscite, or remaining a territory.”

The Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm in Washington, together with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and the Election Law Center, is representing Mr. Davis

The case is 1:11-cv-00035 Davis v. Guam et al

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