Guam: Self-Determination, or More U.S. Troops?

Usually, when someone refers to a place as a "U.S. colony," they are making an analogy, suggesting that U.S. influence somewhere is so strong, and the indigenous residents of the place have so little effective say over key decisions, that it's as if the place were a formal U.S. colony.

But, remarkably, and perhaps predictably, for a country whose leaders, editorialists and pundits constantly pontificate about how we are an indispensable force for freedom in the world, we rarely discuss the fact that there are places in the world that are actual U.S. colonies. Still less do we consider whether we are complying with our international obligations to respect the right of self-determination for colonized peoples, and if we are not, what we could do to change that.

A small corrective is being offered as part of Asian Pacific Heritage Month by PBS, which is webcasting Vanessa Warheit's documentary, The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands until next Sunday, June 20.

The Mariana Islands comprise two political entities, the territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Guam was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in 1898 after Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American war, while the Northern Mariana Islands were conquered by the U.S. from Japan in World War II. As political entities, the two have several features in common: while they are ruled by Washington, and their residents are U.S. citizens, many of whom serve in the U.S. military, they have no vote in Presidential elections, nor do they have a representative in Congress who can vote on the passage of legislation.

In other words: they are U.S. colonies.

Guam, in particular, is facing a major decision about its destiny, a decision made in Washington about which its indigenous population has not yet had any effective say. The United States is currently planning to relocate 8,000 Marines and 9,000 dependents to Guam by 2014. With an expected influx of foreign workers recruited for military construction projects, Guam's population is expected to increase by some 80,000 people by 2014, a 45% increase from its current estimated population of 180,000.

More than a quarter of the island is already owned by the U.S. military, the Washington Post noted in March, while a quarter of the island's population lives below the U.S. poverty level.

As the Post noted, Guam was not consulted in the decision to move 8,000 Marines to the island and has no legal means to block it. Yet an Environmental Protection Agency analysis said the U.S. military buildup could trigger island-wide water shortages.

The possibility that Guam's indigenous residents may suffer irreparable harm from this planned military buildup without ever having had any effective say about it heightens the responsibility of Americans who do have voting representation in Washington to know something about the military buildup and its historical background. Thanks to PBS, until Sunday we have the opportunity to catch up a little on the history they didn't teach us in school.

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