The small U.S. territory island of Guam, which houses significant U.S. military bases, is also home to an independence movement that is growing gradually because of the lack of self-rule. We speak to one of the movement’s leaders, Michael Lujan Bevacqua.

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington.

A recently published book titled How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr makes the argument that the United States is not only an empire in the loose sense of the term of exerting power around the world, but also in the strict sense of the term of actually controlling territories outside of its own national borders. That is, throughout its history, the United States constituted what Immerwahr calls a pointillist empire; meaning that rather than taking on large land masses the way the British and Spanish empires did in their heyday, the United States has taken over only small specks of land where it establishes military bases.

One of these relatively small points is the territory of Guam. It is an island in the Western Pacific Ocean and is part of the Micronesia chain of islands. Guam has a population of only about 167,000 inhabitants. It is the Western-most territory of the United States and has been under almost continuous U.S. rule since the end of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Guam houses several U.S. military bases which take up nearly one third of the island’s land. Since the 1970s, there have been several efforts by Guam’s indigenous population for the decolonization and independence of Guam.

Joining me now to discuss Guam’s current political status is Michael Lujan Bevacqua. He is an Assistant Professor of Chamorro Studies at the University of Guam and the cochair for the organization Independent Guahan. He is joining us today from a restaurant in Guam, which is why you might hear strange noises in the background. Thanks for joining us today, Michael.

MICHAEL LUJAN BEVACQUA: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

GREG WILPERT: I started out by calling Guam a colony of the United States. But technically it is a U.S. territory, just as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands are. Now, tell us what this data specifically means for Guam in terms of its ability to govern itself.

MICHAEL LUJAN BEVACQUA: So Guam is technically an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States. That’s a fancy way of saying that it is sometimes considered a part of the United States and sometimes not considered a part of the United States. So for example, in terms of the U.S. defense posture, its ability to project force into Asia, Guam is both part of the United States… It’s considered sovereign U.S. territory, but it’s also considered to be outside of the United States, meaning that it doesn’t exist within sort of the framework of a lot of federal regulations or a lot of sort of norms in terms of U.S. policies and so on.

Guam gives the U.S. a lot of benefits by being on the other side of the world, but also not having a local government which can sort of provide a check on it and a foreign government that can provide a check on its presence here. People in Guam do not get to vote for the President of the United States. They have no electoral college votes. And in Guam, we elect one non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress, similar to other territories. So in Guam, like other territories, there is sort of the pretense of American democracy. But in truth, all federal laws and mandates are applied to Guam, but we don’t even have the ability to have a say or participate in that discussion over what those mandates, what those rules are.

GREG WILPERT: Now, in Guam, there have been several efforts for Guam to join the United States as a state, as well as for independence. Give us a brief history of these efforts and where things stand now in terms of the movement for an independent Guam.

MICHAEL LUJAN BEVACQUA: In the 1960s and 70s, Guam saw that all around it in the Pacific and elsewhere in the world places were decolonizing. Now, because of Guam’s strategic value to the United States, the U.S. never allowed Guam to engage in that discussion officially. Our islands around us in the CNMI–the Marshall Islands, Palau, FSM–all got to sit at a table and negotiate with the U.S. over what happens next. Guam was never allowed that. And so the U.S. had a… In the late ’70s, they allowed Guam to pass a constitution, but the people of Guam rejected that because they said that we have to determine a political status first, picking if we want to become independent, a state, free associated, before we do a constitution. And in the decades since then, there has been strong pushes and also sort of periods of apathy and lack of interest by government officials. Part of the big problem is that the U.S. itself doesn’t seem to feel like they have an obligation to assist Guam in any new status change.

One thing that has sort of snagged the process recently is that Guam law provided for a non-binding plebiscite of the indigenous people, where it wouldn’t necessarily sort of… It wouldn’t necessarily go into effect, as its non-binding, but that the indigenous people would be allowed to express what they wanted for the future, if they wanted to try to become a state of the U.S., an independent country, or in free association. And the U.S. federal court system has blocked that vote. They have ruled that it’s unconstitutional on behalf of a white Air Force veteran who has lived in Guam for many years, who felt that he, as somebody who lives on Guam, should be able to participate in that vote. And the federal court and the federal appeals court sided with him.

So for almost 10 years now, this has been something that has kind of blocked this conversation, is that if you’re trying to engage in decolonization, if the colonizer insists that you play by their rules, then it’s almost certainly not going to be decolonization. It’s going to be an extension of colonization. So this is why this process has sputtered and been stunted a lot of times, is that the U.S. simply refuses to genuinely engage on the issue with Guam.

GREG WILPERT: What is the situation at the moment in terms of a movement on the ground in favor of independence? Talk to us a little bit about that. I mean, is there a movement, and how strong is it and how much popular support does it have?

MICHAEL LUJAN BEVACQUA: In the past, independence was always an option that was considered that was not widely considered or supported. But in the past three years, part of which is due to the educational outreach of the group that I’m part of, Independent Guam, we’ve kind of changed the framework, changed the dynamic a little bit, where in the past those who supported independence had sort of wild ideas, crazy ideas. But for us, every month, every weekend, we’re in the community with general meetings, podcasts, teach-ins, and we try to break it down as much as possible and say, “Look, the way things are now, it’s because we’re a territory of the United States, but if we were to… Let’s look at another country in the world and how they protect their environment, how they run their educational system, how they weed out government corruption.” So by taking that approach and trying to expand our view of the world, we’ve actually gained a lot more support.

Last month, for example, we had a march, the Fanohge March for CHamoru Self-Determination. It was organized by a broad coalition, but at the core of it was people who want decolonization and many who want independence. For an island of 160,000 people, we got 2,000 people out into the streets to march for it. So it was a pretty big day, and it’s an indication that people are hungry for something more. One of the big reasons why there is sort of this desire is because the U.S. military, as you mentioned in your introduction, controls almost a third of the island. And as a territory, you don’t have the ability to tell the military no. Whether you support them, whether you don’t support them, whether if they want to increase their presence, as they’re planning to now by transferring U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, in the island, those of us who live there, we don’t have a say. We can’t tell them no. We can’t tell them, “You should bring in this many, or you should only do this type of training.”

So that lack of power, of powerlessness in that situation, where you see construction around the island as the U.S. tries to increase its presence… And you can’t say anything about it; you can’t do anything about it. You have a congressional delegate who doesn’t even have a vote in the Congress. That powerlessness is driving a lot of this momentum towards decolonization because if you have something… I mean, imagine if you were in a state in the U.S. and there was a corporation which controlled a third of the territory of the state, and the people there had no ability to affect it through regulations, through laws, or through anything like that. People might become upset. People might feel that it’s unfair. So this powerlessness is driving a lot of this energy towards getting to a status where we would have some basic control over what happens in the island.

GREG WILPERT: Now, Guam’s economy is heavily dependent on two main activities, tourism and, of course, the U.S. military, as we’ve already discussed. Now, what would independence mean for Guam’s economy? That is, how do you think or how would you propose that Guam would deal with the removal of the U.S. military bases there if that were to happen, if it became independent? Or is closing the military bases not necessarily part of the plan for independence?

MICHAEL LUJAN BEVACQUA: For Independent Guam, for my group, we take a position which looks at the world today, and the U.S. has many bases in foreign countries. And at least when there is a base, when the U.S. does have these foreign bases, there is often an agreement between the U.S. and the country and sometimes aid, foreign aid exchanged because of that. So for us, we take the position… because in those who push for independence, there are those who would not like the bases to be here. There are some who would like the bases to stay. So we take sort of the middle ground that says that if you were independent, at least the bases would be part of an agreement with the island. So this is one of the values that Guam offers to the U.S. as a territory, is commander after commander, admiral after admiral comes to Guam and says why do they like Guam. They say, “Because in Okinawa the Japanese have a say over the types of training that we can do. In Guam, we can do whatever type of training we want.”

In other countries, you have to deal with delicate diplomatic situations to expand your presence. When the U.S. made their plans to transfer Marines to Okinawa, they didn’t involve anyone in Guam in that discussion, and they just announced it. They sent out a press release saying thousands of Marines are going to come to Guam. So we take the position that if we became independent, it would improve the situation, either because the bases may close, and that would then lead to opening up the land for greater possibilities in terms of agriculture. Or if they do stay, at least it would be part of a more formalized relationship, which we would be able to negotiate sort of their presence to some extent.

In terms of other economic issues, one of the things that has really been holding Guam’s economy back is, as a territory, we don’t have control over the basic economic drivers on the island. And one thing is that we don’t have control over immigration, which means that, for example, one thing that people on Guam, leaders have looked to for generations, but never had any luck, is the outbound mainland Chinese tourist market. It’s one of the largest in the world. And a small sliver of that comes to Guam because it is very difficult for them to get visas to come to Guam.

So we have been pushing for a Guam waiver, where at least these mainland Chinese tourists can come to Guam without going through the arduous visa progress. And the U.S. for decades has denied it, saying that they have a strategic interest in protecting the island and that the economic interests of Guam is not their priority. So whenever people talk to me about that, I say, “Look, as an independent country, we would have that ability to form relationships with different countries, develop agreements with them, and the Chinese could be one of them. Or maybe we don’t want to sort of have friendly relations with the Chinese. But at present, we don’t have the ability to even talk to the Chinese directly, or talk to the Japanese directly, or talk to South Korea directly.”

GREG WILPERT: Okay, well that’s a very interesting point, but we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Assistant Professor of Chamorro Studies at the University of Guam. Thanks again, Michael, for having joined us today.

MICHAEL LUJAN BEVACQUA: You as well. Thank you very much.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining the Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert

Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.