“Restorative justice for those who were colonized.” That’s how Executive Director Edward Alvarez explained the basic purpose of the Commission on Decolonization. Alvarez said Guam has been subject to colonial rule for hundreds of years, by the Spanish, the Americans, and very briefly, by the Japanese during World War II. “The taking of land, the dilution of culture and language, the restriction of movement,” are all wrongs that need to be made right, he explained. “It is a human right given to us through the United Nations charter that the U.S. signed off on in 1946.”
Congress established Guam’s current political status as an unincorporated territory in the 1950 Organic Act. In an essay for information website Guampedia, University of Guam President Robert Underwood wrote that while the Act “provided for a measure of limited self-government that continues today and has been enhanced by congressional amendments…the ultimate fate of the island has yet to be decided and it is not clear how it will be decided and by whom.” Alvarez said the Act “was supposed to be a temporary governance measure until we decolonized, but it’s been in effect now for 66 years.”
There have been previous efforts to move self-determination forward, including a 1976 Plebiscite in which “status quo with improvements” won with 51 percent of the vote, followed by statehood with 21 percent, but Underwood observed that the direction of the island was not any clearer, despite subsequent Congressional approval for Guam to draft its own constitution. “This was seen as a progressive step, but did not alter the political status of Guam. A constitutional convention was called, and after nearly two years of work, the electorate voted down the document in mid-1979. Many of its opponents argued that political status should come first, then the constitution,” Dr. Underwood wrote.
In 1980, the Guam Legislature enacted a new Commission on Self-Determination. “Immediately, the first issue that the Commission dealt with was deciding the ‘self’ in self-determination. The discussion was no longer limited to which political status was preferable, but rather who was going to participate,” Underwood said.
A series of referendums were held, and by the mid 1980’s voters had settled on commonwealth as the political status of choice. But Guam leaders’ pursuit of congressional approval proved unsuccessful. Underwood wrote, “Federal officials under the Bush and Clinton administrations were consistent in their opposition to Chamorro Self-Determination and mutual consent and the bills were never reported out of committee. The discussions between the Commission on Self-Determination and federal representatives never yielded a final agreement.”
Underwood added that the lack of movement prompted the Legislature “to create a Chamorro Registry for the eventual exercise of Chamorro self-determination with or without Congressional authorization. A new Commission on the Decolonization of Guam was established to move the process forward in advance of any formal discussion with the federal government.”
However, a legal challenge has been made against a political status vote for native inhabitants, defined as those residents of Guam who became U.S. citizens by virtue of the Organic Act. Guam resident Arnold “Dave” Davis filed a lawsuit arguing that it is discriminatory. The suit is currently pending in federal court. Alvarez said the commission’s strategy to get around the legal challenge was to allow all voters to participate, but also ask them to self-certify that they are native inhabitants, and can trace their ancestry back to being residents of Guam as of 1950.
The Commission on Decolonization had planned to hold a plebiscite this November, but has since cancelled the vote because of what Alvarez said was “ambiguity over a local law requiring a 70-percent threshold of eligible voters necessary to hold the vote.” He added that there are several interpretations, and the commission is seeking more clarity before pushing forward. The next time a plebiscite can be held is November 2018, as the law requires the voting must take place during a general election.
Alvarez is now focused on populating the registry of native inhabitants, which have increased to more than 11,000 compared to 3,000 when the Calvo administration first took office in 2011. He said they are also pushing forward with a public education campaign on the three political status options: Statehood, Free Association, and Independence.
There is a task force for each of the options, and they are in charge of rendering their own materials, with academics and scholars from UOG and GCC helping filter and verify the content. “There is a lot of material already out there, and we are reviewing it to see what needs to be updated for the new education program,” Alvarez said.
Status Quo is not among the options because “it defeats the purpose of a plebiscite. It doesn’t lend itself to self-governance. The people of Guam never participated in the Organic Act to begin with. That was purely a decision made within Congress. It’s time we decide what we want,” Alvarez argued.
He believes the right time to hold a vote is fast approaching. “I see a resurgence, actually a renaissance, of Chamorro culture. I see people getting interested in the culture again, especially those kids coming back from the States. They’re very positively taken. They’re saying, ‘Wow, we do have a language. We do have a culture. We do things that are unique to us.’”
Underwood observed that “as the Chamorro population of Guam dwindles to less than 50 percent, the issue seems more urgent than ever.” Added Alvarez, “To me, decolonization is like air, you can’t see it, you don’t know how it affects you, but it is there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ungrateful (to the U.S.). But I just think it’s time that we grow up. We make our own success. We make our own failures, but at least it’s us making our success and making our failures. That’s a quote right out of Tommy Remengesau, the President of Palau I met in 2013. That’s what he told me about the beauty of being independent.”
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