UNINCORPORATED

Why the Status Quo Has Got to Go

ESSAY | DEBATE
By: Melvin Won Pat-Borja
Issues and Perspectives


Since 1898, the CHamoru people of Guam have fought to attain political equity and have pursued this goal through political self-determination. Though resolution has been sought through these means, our people and our government have diligently achieved political status improvements from within the U.S. political framework. We have moved from appointed Naval leadership and political ambiguity into a highly organized form of democratic local government. Guam has consistently improved its unincorporated territory status to the point where it is clear that we have outgrown it.  

After all, territorial status was never meant to be permanent... or was it?  We have managed to improve this status time and again — through formal processes and through the sheer will of our people. But how many more improvements must we make before we realize that the current status is broken and cannot be fixed? How much longer will we continue to run on this hamster wheel before we realize that the only way forward is self-determination and genuine decolonization? Countries around the world, both colonizers and colonies, have moved on from political status improvements and have come to recognize the importance of addressing the core issue of this inequity.  

The United Nations recognizes Guam as one of the last 17 non-self-governing territories in the world. Ironically, the United States is the country that first put us on that list along with American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. However, the United States, in recent years, has worked to remove Guam from the list — falsely asserting that we are indeed self-governing. If that were the case, we would already have equal representation, a voice in national elections, and access to the U.S. federal system — again, all political status improvements that many consider to be necessary in order to give the people of Guam some sense of equity in the American system of government.

Many people believe that all Guam needs to solve her problems is the ability to vote for President and representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. I assert that this idea is shortsighted and lacks complete understanding of what it really means to be a territory. I am not asserting that there is no value in attaining equal representation and access to national voting rights for Guam. I don’t think that anyone is asserting that Guam (and the other U.S. territories) could not benefit from national voting rights; however, we must also understand the implications of this consideration for our island.  
We must recognize that the people of Guam, like all free people, deserve the right to decide their own political destiny — a right that has been withheld for almost 500 years. CHamoru self-determination is more than just a vote on a political status preference; it is a symbol of human dignity and the freedom to make a choice for ourselves. Do we not deserve the same dignity afforded to people all over the world? If the United States can send our men and women overseas to fight for freedom and democracy, how can those same ideals not be extended to the people of Guam?

Equity for Guam requires more than just access to the system — it requires the acknowledgement of this longstanding political injustice and formal address at the policy level — not another political Band-Aid like what we got from the Guam Congress walkout in 1949. Though that act of civil disobedience resulted in much needed attention and political action with the passage of the Organic Act in 1950, it also did not resolve our issue entirely. It merely gave us another avenue to pursue complete resolution. We must recognize that these efforts are not the end, merely a means to the end. National voting rights, like the extension of citizenship to CHamorus in Guam, must only be seen as an improvement and not a solution. Even at that, there are a number of other issues that need to be addressed, like the Territorial Clause, which determined that only certain parts of the U.S. Constitution would be extended to the citizens of the territories, or the Jones Act, which unfairly raises the cost of goods in territories to protect U.S. shipping interests, or the extension of Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid/Medicare or Compact Impact Reimbursement or simply being allowed to have a voice in international negotiations that affect us like the Compacts of Free Association or the bilateral agreement between Japan and the U.S. that negotiated the terms of the military buildup on Guam.  

The list seems endless and I could continue with a few more run-on sentences to prove my point, but at this point the best thing to do is to educate oneself.  If you still think that status quo should be an option for Guam, ask yourself some basic questions. What is the point of self-determination if we don’t want our status to change? Why have generations of CHamorus fought for this right if only for Guam’s political status to remain the same? If decolonization is so bad, then why have so many nations around the world chosen to decolonize? Why are there only 17 non-self-governing territories left in the world? What happened to the rest of them? If you believe that we really are “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” then why do unincorporated territories still exist? And why are we still talking about equal rights?  

The only thing constant is change. Why would we choose to remain in the status quo? The world is changing around us and our challenges are evolving. We must also evolve if we want to survive — even more so, if we want to thrive as we once did, for the first 3,000 years of our history.
Issues and Perspectives