Liberation Day in Guam Photo credit: U.S. Navy / Photographers Mate 2nd Class Mark Allen Leonesio
Craving Statehood: The view from Guam.
by Ethan Epstein, Weekly Standard, July 3, 2017,
Big news swept across this U.S. territory in late May: “Olive Garden to open restaurant on Guam,” read the bulletin in the Pacific Daily News, one of two daily newspapers to serve the Pacific island of 160,000. (And they say print is dead.) When it arrives—no opening date has been set, and the News breathlessly reported that the story is “developing”—the Orlando-based purveyor of salad and breadsticks will join other staples of suburban dining, like Tony Roma’s Steakhouse, Applebee’s, and California Pizza Kitchen, that have set up shop some 6,000 miles off the west coast of the continental United States.
Indeed, despite possessing numerous features typical of your average far-flung tropical paradise—white sand beaches, bathtub-temperature ocean water, coral reefs teeming with tropical fauna—Guam has already imported many of the more quotidian characteristics of “mainland” American life. The dominant aesthetic is 1970s strip mall. A quick drive across the island gets one bogged down in a midday traffic jam. So packed is the local Kmart—reputed to be the world’s busiest—that it takes 15 minutes of driving in circles to find a parking space. Perhaps owing to the large military presence on the island dating back some six decades (there are still strategically important Air Force and Navy bases here), the island also has an unhealthy predilection for Spam—it boasts the world’s highest per capita consumption of the stuff.
Yet for all the trappings of American life, Guam, like the other four inhabited U.S.-governed territories, lacks even a semblance of political representation back on the mainland. While Guamanians are U.S. citizens by birth, they can’t vote in presidential elections and they have no congressional representation. (The island does send a nonvoting delegate to Washington.) Congress, moreover, can overturn any law that Guam implements.
At a mid-June meeting in his seaside office, Guam’s Republican governor Eddie Calvo tallied up the costs of his island’s neutered status. The Department of Labor’s crackdown on H-2B visas for foreign workers has supposedly hamstrung Guam’s economy by leading to a skilled-labor shortage—a point echoed by several business leaders here, who say they simply can’t find qualified construction workers. A 1920 law known colloquially as the Jones Act, meanwhile, mandates that all ships traveling between U.S. ports be American-operated, which means that the island can’t import goods from, say, the fairly close-by Philippines but must instead turn to faraway California, leading to increased costs. (All ships traveling to and from Guam stop in Hawaii, meaning they travel technically domestic routes, and are thus subject to the Jones Act’s decrees.)
Calvo attributes these problems directly to the political status issue. It’s not that the federal government is out to hurt Guam; it’s just that there is nobody in the nation’s capital to speak for his island. “As the sausage-making [in Washington] occurs, there are certain state interests that have to be dealt with,” he says. “The problem with this whole political equation is that Guam is not even in the sausage-making!”
Guam became a U.S. territory in 1898, at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, some 230 years after it was first colonized by the Spanish. (As in the Philippines, the Spanish influence is still keenly felt; Cruz is the most common surname here.) During World War II, Guam was captured by the Japanese, whose 31-month occupation of the island was marked by unremitting brutality. July 21 marks the anniversary of the day that U.S. forces liberated Guam from the Japanese; the governor says it’s a bigger holiday here than July 4. So ferocious was the battle that finally vanquished the Japanese that only a handful of prewar buildings remain standing.
Owing largely to the still-profound memories of World War II, Guamanians claim to be among America’s most patriotic citizens. Which might be why a statehood movement is gaining ground; indeed, Governor Calvo personally backs the cause. He’s pushing for a plebiscite on the island, which would offer its residents three options: independence, statehood, or so-called “free association,” a kind of half-baked independence in which a smaller state remains dependent on a larger country for protection and economic assistance. (The U.S. already has such relationships with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.) Others argue that Guam should simply join Hawaii or the Northern Marianas Islands (anchored by the largest island in the chain, Saipan), which are a couple hundred miles north. Governor Calvo, for his part, has pledged that despite his personal preference for statehood, he’ll back whatever course of action his people select.