Debate over the exploitative nature of America’s founding history and the country’s behavior overseas are now frequent in the U.S. public discourse, but there is no mention of Guam and the vestiges of American empire that continue in the Pacific. Biden’s new Pacific Strategy claimed to be built to defend sovereignty and freedom, yet its fulcrum was the least enfranchised place in the nation.
“The ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ is like this new paradigmatic shift against China,” Kenneth Gofigan Kuper, a professor of political science at the University of Guam, told me. “All geopolitical roads in this region lead to Guam — we’re the Rome of the Pacific. We are the price of a ‘free and open Pacific,’ but Guam is not free.”
In two referendums in 1982, the people of Guam voted to become a U.S. commonwealth — like the Northern Marianas — but legislation to change the status stalled in Congress. In 1997, the Guam Legislature passed a law that established the Guam Commission on Decolonization and called for another plebiscite. The choices were: statehood, independence or free association. Voting was restricted to the “Chamorro people,” who were defined as “all inhabitants of Guam in 1898 and their descendants.” (“Chamorro” is the spelling Guam adhered to before 2018.) Three years later, the plebiscite law was amended to replace “Chamorro” with “native inhabitants of Guam” to avoid accusations of racial discrimination. But in 2017, the Ninth District court ruled that since the new law referred to a statute that had previously stated “Chamorro,” it still violated the 15th Amendment, and struck down the law. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
The question of who would vote in the plebiscite was complicated, and how it was phrased was contentious. Over centuries of migration, the CHamoru have become a minority on the island. In the 2020 census, 36 percent of the population identified as Asian alone, with 29 percent of self-identifying as Filipino. There were also debates as to whether any of the options on the ballot were truly realistic — was Guam technically too small to be a state, too entwined with the United States to be freely associated and too reliant on American passports to be independent? Would they lose their security or gain a say over it?
Still, the circuit court’s rejection of Guam’s appeal in 2019 inspired the largest public protest on the island in recent memory. It also left Guam’s government nervous about trying again — Democratic legislators want to ensure any new law is unassailable before announcing it. But no matter how and which way people believe the status discussion should be decided, there is an overall acknowledgment that colonialism is an anachronism — that territorial status should be modernized.
“The absolute, immense power that Congress has in the instance of the Insular Cases is unfair, unconstitutional and un-American, but on the other hand, it gives them immense power to create a different relationship with an entity like Guam,” Robert Underwood, Guam’s representative in the House from 1993 to 2003, told me. “That could be independence, free association or, if arranged in a certain way, it could be unique legislation just for Guam.”
This year is the 125th anniversary of the founding of the American Insular Empire, including Guam and Puerto Rico. “When you think about other empires — the British, the French, the Spanish empires — colonies are part of the national identity, this acceptance that ‘We have an empire, we have colonies,’” Bevacqua, the museum curator and historian, said. “The United States, despite all that it’s done, lacks that basic ability on a national level to acknowledge the colonies problem. Normally it’s just all these piecemeal attempts to deal with the colonies by bringing them in closer to the United States, and that’s part of the problem. Colonizers that are so self-assured of their greatness only think of fixing problems by giving more of themselves.”