Decolonization: Independance

September 6, 2016 Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Ph.D.


Independence will grant our people the autonomy to decide what laws, institutions, and programs to create in order to best suit our needs and ensure the protection of our human and natural resources. Guam will negotiate agreements and treaties with other countries to help protect our island and improve our economic, social, and cultural welfare.

Independence will not happen overnight. Guam will work with the United States to transition out of our current political status. If we choose to maintain a relationship with the U.S. for defense or other purposes, we will negotiate the terms of this relationship. Our community will shape the type of governance, economy, health care, education, public safety, justice systems, and environmental and cultural protections necessary to create a prosperous and sustainable Guam for future generations.

The Independence for Guam Task Force is charged with advocating independence as the best future political status for Guam. To this end we plan to educate the community, both those who are considered to be native inhabitants and those who are not, about the need for the island’s decolonization and the possibilities that lie ahead should Guam choose to seize our sovereign destiny and chart our own unique future. Currently, as a colony of the United States, we gain many benefits, but nonetheless exist in a dependent and woefully underdeveloped fashion. Looking long-term into the future, our colonial status keeps us trapped economically, politically, as well as mentally.

More than the other two political statuses, independence is the one that needs the most discussion for it to be understood fully and considered. It is a concept that is frightening to many because it means breaking away from our colonial past, seeking new partnerships and possibilities, and also learning to trust in our abilities as an island community again. This essay will try to deal with some of the misconceptions that abound about independence as a political status.

Looking back, the 20th century was a time of national independence movements, where millions of people fought for or negotiated their political future. According to the United Nations, more than 80 colonies have decolonized since 1946. The overwhelming majority of those colonies chose to become independent rather than states or freely associated territories. As The Guardian/UK noted in a 2014 article, “When given the chance, most people choose independence.” Because of this, the planet has changed from one where the majority of the world’s people once lived under colonial rule to today where there are close to 200 independent countries.  

Far from being terrifying, the idea that colonized people would seek the chance to regain their sovereignty and govern their own affairs again is standard. For peoples both large and small, political independence is very normal, not strange or terrifying. However, in places that remain colonized like Guam, independence can seem frightening. It is something that is surrounded by many myths and misunderstandings.

During the 12th Pacific Festival of the Arts, Guam was visited by a number of delegations from independent Pacific nations. No one recoiled in fear at seeing them and their political status, why then is it that the idea is so fearful if we consider it for ourselves? In discussions with delegates from these independent nations, they expressed excitement at the prospect of Guam achieving independence and offered their support. When asked if they regretted their choice for independence they said no. One woman from Nauru—the world’s smallest republic with a population of only 10,000—asked, “Why would anyone regret freedom?” before adding, “We all deserve to be free.”

There is no correlation between the size (in terms of land mass or population) and the prosperity of an independent country. There are large countries that are either rich or poor and small countries that are likewise. There is also no standard by which a colony is deemed “mature” enough to govern itself.

Two countries, which are regularly ranked among the top ten richest in the world, are similar to Guam in terms of size. Singapore, whose land mass is only slightly larger than Guam’s (278 sq. miles) is considered to be the third richest country in the world. Luxembourg, which has a population of less than 500,000, is considered to be the fourth richest country in the world. These nations are successful because of the abilities that independence provides them in terms of taking advantage of and best utilizing their natural and human resources, as well as their location.

When the first discussions on political status change and decolonization started to emerge in Guam, one constant refrain of resistance was the notion that Guam could never be self-sustaining, self-sufficient, or independent in the way the United States is. There was a misconception that independence was impossible for Guam, and that we shouldn't even try. But as the late Guam Senator Frank Lujan reminded people in his article, SLEEPING BEAUTY: TIME PASSES BY, “Those who defend Guam's colonial status argue that economic independence for Guam is impractical. We happen to agree. Guam by herself can never be economically independent. But nor can our great mother country the United States. There no longer is any such animal as an independent nation in the world today...All nations in the latter part of the 20th century are economically interdependent.”

Every independent nation, the United States included, works with others and depends on others. The difference between a colony and an independent country is that the latter gets to choose whom it wishes to associate with and is able to negotiate the terms of the relationship. As a colony, we are stuck with our colonizer's list of friends and enemies. We must simply look at places closer to home when trying to imagine independence for Guam. Places who were once colonized and who are now using their autonomy and their resources to the best of their abilities.

One of the biggest problems Guam faces now is that in terms of our relationship with the United States, their primary interest has always been and will most likely continue to be Guam’s strategic military importance due to its location. Looking to the future, how could this negatively affect Guam’s tourism industry, which is the most prosperous economic engine for the island? Guam’s political and business leaders have wanted to more aggressively market the island as a tourist destination in mainland China, but have not been able to as the United States views China as a possible enemy. This makes it difficult for China’s citizens to get visas to visit Guam. This limitation inhibits Guam from taking advantage of the 100 million people living in China. Imagine if Guam was able to capture even 1% of that population’s interest? As an independent nation, we would be able to determine who can visit Guam easily per international agreements. As a colony we cannot.

This issue provides a good example of why even just educating ourselves about independence can be a worthwhile endeavor. We have been saddled with so much of what exists in Guam today that we accept as being simply the way things are supposed to be because of our particular colonial history and present. We have modeled much of our social, political, and economic infrastructure after a perceived American way of handling such affairs. But rarely do we ask ourselves if these institutions, these ideologies serve our own interests or match our cultural values and our geographic realities. This conversation around independence is important, as it can help us take stock of our lives, see what exists around us today that we should keep, and what we need to do to sustain ourselves in the long-term.

From our education system, to our economic system, to our legal system, to environmental protection, the very things we rely on for sustaining life here have more to do with a land thousands of miles away than these precious 212 sq. miles we call home. For example, the way we handle our food security on island is connected to a late capitalist, globalized system of production, which relies on importing food from poorer countries. Why should an island live like this? Why should an island rely on a system whereby 90% of what everyone eats and uses comes from elsewhere? The same goes for education and so many other things. As an independent nation, we could refocus our educational system so that it is derived from our history, culture, politics, and biological and geographic surroundings. What if our educational system drew its core from Chamorro culture, history, and the realities of living in Micronesia on the edge of Asia, instead of just copying curriculum from the United States and adding an occasional karabao ride?

Independence requires imagination and vision. It is not something we cannot do. In fact, for most of our history, we were an independent nation. We must inspire our people to believe in ourselves as our ancestors did for thousands of years. Colonization has taken so much away from our people. High on that list of stolen goods is our sense of pride and self-confidence. Colonization creates the idea that the colonized cannot do anything for themselves, and can never survive without their colonizer. In order to overcome these lies, we must not only remind ourselves of how we have been mistreated, but how we can do better. How we can be trusted and should be trusted with our own destiny. It is here that the words Maga’låhi Hurao, the first Chamorro leader to organize large-scale resistance to the Spanish presence in Guam, are so important. In a speech attributed to him, he rallied Chamorros to rise up, saying, “Metgotña hit ki Ta Hasso.” (“We are stronger than we think.”) It is important to remember this when considering independence as an option. We are not too small. We are not too immature. We are not too far away. Independence is not impossible, because we are stronger than we think.

Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Ph.D. is Co-Chair of the Independence for Guam Task Force, Commission on Decolonization

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