15 March 2017

Bevacqua: Guam is a colony of the United States

Michael Lujan Bevacqua

The United Nations, through its Special Political and Decolonization Committee (also known as the Fourth Committee) keeps a list of the 17 remaining colonies left in the world. You may be familiar with some of these territories. French Polynesia, New Caledonia, American Samoa and Tokelau all sent delegations to Guam for the Festival of Pacific Arts last year. Others — Turks and Caicos, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Bermuda — are on the other side of the world.

Guam is one of these last official colonies, although you might not realize it. As we go about our daily lives, colonial truths are everywhere, but so too are our efforts to erase them. I have often written that Guam’s No. 1 industry is neither the U.S. military nor tourism, but denying our colonial present. 

Our local denial of colonial reality is something mirrored at so many other national and international levels. The United States, whose origins were fiercely anti-colonial, has kept formal colonies for over a century. The term “unincorporated territory” is meant to stand in for that colonial truth, somehow making it easier to claim that freedom and democracy aren’t supposed to apply to places that you claim to own.

Outside of the U.N., much of the world sees Guam as a possession of the U.S. or prime real estate for its bases and bombers. 

Discussing colonialism in the world today can be difficult. The world’s remaining colonizers never run out of excuses and the rest of the world conveniently assumes such things no longer exist and belong to a previous epoch. To invoke Guam’s current status as colonial often leads to a range of dismissals or rhetorical rejections.

People may respond Guam can’t be a colony because colonialism was a cruel and violent process of the past, and Guam certainly doesn’t suffer under the U.S. — it actually benefits! This is misleading.

Colonialism isn’t defined by levels of suffering and isn’t something that disappears because the colony benefits in some way. Paul Zerzan recently tried to argue this in a rival newspaper, and the late Joe Murphy used to argue it regularly in this newspaper. They claimed that since Guam benefits from colonization, it cannot be considered a colony.

An overly simplistic argument, as colonies are not defined in terms of suffering or lack of benefits, but rather the nature of the relationship that makes such exploitation possible.

They might also respond that you are being ungrateful and unrealistic and that as you come from a small, unsustainable, backward island, you should be grateful to be a colony, and that of the greatest country in the world, no less!

This is also misleading. It is a way of recasting a fundamentally imbalanced or unequal relationship as necessary, due to the inferiority of a pathetic island and islanders, who could never take care of themselves. Colonizers have argued this for colonies big and small. It has limited basis in reality.

Finally, they might simply try to correct you, as if switching the label neutralizes the sting of injustice. You will say colony and they will say territory, or protectorate or dependency or possession, or they just might say “Guam, USA.” Anything to try to deny the label that screams the need for change, for decolonization.

Looking to the future, accepting the colonial label and what it says about our relationship to the U.S., to other nations around us, will help us far more than denials.

* Michael Lujan Bevacquais an author, artist, activist and assistant professor of Chamorro studies at the University of Guam.