HAGATNA, Guam — This tiny Pacific island has several nicknames. There is “the tip of the spear” because it is the closest U.S. territory to potential hot spots in Asia, such as North Korea and the South China Sea.
There is “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier,” because the island is home to a huge air force base. And then there is “Fortress Pacific,” because of the huge military buildup that is planned to take place over the next decade.
But Guam’s population calls it by another name: Ours. And a sizable portion wants a real say in how it is run.
“This American territory is not enjoying democracy, where citizens can determine who their leader will be and what laws will be put upon them,” said Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo, who has called a vote for November on Guam’s political status. “It’s up to our people to decide which way to go: whether to be fully in union with the United States or to chart a separate course.”
A “decolonization commission” is set to report to Calvo (R) next month on whether to proceed with the plebiscite, which would give Guamanians three alternatives to their current status as a U.S. territory. That status — shared by Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — confers U.S. citizenship on people born here but does not give them the right to vote in presidential elections or a voting representative in Congress.
“Guamanian soldiers have gone to fight in countries so they can have democracy and vote, yet we have never voted for the person who sends us to war,” the governor said.
The three alternatives under consideration are:
● Statehood, which would give Guam all the rights (and burdens) of being a state, albeit a very small one, with a population less than one-third that of Wyoming.
●Free association with administrative power, like Palau and the Marshall Islands.
● Independence, which would make Guam a (minuscule) sovereign state.
The vote would not be binding — only Congress can change Guam’s political status — but would be symbolic of the territory’s sentiment.
The issue has been simmering for years but returned to the political front burner with the Pentagon’s preparations to relocate thousands of troops stationed on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to here.
The U.S. military presence on Okinawa has long been a source of contention in a prefecture that complains of being treated as a second-class citizen by Tokyo. But there are similar complaints on Guam, a 30-mile-long tropical island of only 160,000 people, which is already home to large air force and naval bases.
Pockets of fierce opposition to the initial plan formulated a decade ago to move 10,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam led the Defense Department to halve the number coming here.
“The prospect of the military buildup caused a crack in the facade of American-ness on this island,” said Michael Lujan Bevacqua, who teaches the indigenous Chamorro language at the University of Guam.
Bevacqua is a strong advocate of breaking free from the United States. “Being independent and having the ability to determine our own policies is much better for us,” he said.
LisaLinda Natividad, another proponent of change, says the decision to move the Marines onto this island is the latest sign of Washington’s highhanded ways. “The whole Guam buildup was set in motion because we’re a U.S. colony, and they think they can do whatever they want with our land,” said Natividad, who sits on the decolonization commission. “Just drive around for 10 minutes and it’s obvious."
The issue of Guam’s political status is complicated. Some resent the U.S. military presence but do not want to give up their American passports. Some want greater independence but want their taxes to stay here on the island, as they do now, rather than going into the federal coffers. Some fear the lack of opportunity if they could no longer travel freely to the mainland.
It is also controversial. People who have lived here for half a century take issue with the way the vote is being structured, saying it unfairly favors the Chamorro people. Only people who can trace their roots on the island back to 1950, when the island became an unincorporated territory, will be allowed to vote.
Efforts to populate a voter registry have been slow-going — only 10,500 have registered so far, Calvo said — and the education campaign is barely existent.
“I believe that before we have a vote, we need to have a strong education effort where people can really see what each status would mean,” said Shannon Murphy, a local journalist who runs the Guampedia website. “I haven’t seen it laid out in a way where people can compare each option.”
Even advocates of political change, including Bevacqua, say the governor is rushing the plebiscite because he has his mind on his legacy. A vote can only be held in an election year, and term limits mean Calvo will be on his way out of office at the 2018 poll. Calvo, who prefers the statehood option, said he called the vote because the time was right.
For the vote to go ahead, the governor, the decolonization commission and the Election Commission all have to agree. The decolonization commission is due to decide whether to press ahead at its meeting next month.
Local business representatives think that moving to lessen or get rid of the military presence on Guam would be economic suicide.
“As a business person, I wonder if they have thought through the economic aspects of the decisions they want to make,” said Joe Arnett, an accountant who has lived on Guam for 32 years and runs the armed forces committee for the local chamber of commerce.
“The U.S. federal government puts $600 million a year into Guam through Social Security and taxes paid by military personnel stationed here. That’s not including food stamps and school lunches and things like that,” he said.
Almost $9 billion has been earmarked for the base expansion and support facilities, one-third of which will be moved from Japan. In the north of Guam, preparations are underway. The Pentagon has unlocked $309 million for the first phase of construction of the new Marine base, which will be built on existing military land lined with palm trees. Next door at the Andersen Air Force Base, where B-52 bombers were lined up on the runway this week, construction workers were building a new hangar that will be part of the expanded footprint.
But the buildup will be long and slow. The first wave of 2,500 Marines is expected here by 2022, with the remainder due by 2027.
The Marines are making sure to stay out of the local debate. “Guam needs to figure out what’s best for Guam,” said Col. Philip Zimmerman, the officer in charge of the 20-strong Marine contingent on Guam.
But, he said, from a military perspective, Guam is a crucial forward base, noting tensions with North Korea and with China around the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea in recent months. It is 2,500 miles to Beijing from here, but more than double that to Los Angeles.
The base itself would be good for the island’s economy, Zimmerman said. “We will be creating jobs during the buildup, then we’ll be creating civilian jobs to run the ranges and to run the base itself,” he said.
A military socioeconomic impact assessment study found that the new base would create more than 3,000 full-time civilian jobs in 2021, and tax revenues to the Guam government would increase by about $40 million a year from 2028.
For his part, the governor said he would “gladly” pay federal taxes so that Guam could be a full-fledged state. “But anything is better than being an unincorporated territory,” Calvo said. “That’s just another word for colony.”