The Rubin Lake Incident

I wrote a few years ago a letter to the PDN which asked that those of us on Guam please rethink our relationship to the United States. I noted that the best time to reposition, rearticulate and rework this relationship was when, despite the powerfully charged rhetoric of Guam’s Americaness and patriotism and partnership with the US, we get slapped in the face with our colonial existence, our subordinate status. I called this moments “scandals.”

One common response that I receive from this point, is that no such scandals exist, that I was merely making it up. The relationship between Guam and America is as smooth and equitable as ever. In exchange for not paying taxes, and not being able to have any sovereignty, we get to enjoy being a strategically important appendage of the greatest country left in the world! If that can’t explain the high levels of Chamorro patriotism towards the United States, then nothing can!

Naturally, this isn’t the case. Life as a semi-American in Guam is a tenuous, delicate and scandal-ridden exist. On a regular basis, the desire you feel for America, to be American is rejected. Sometimes at the level of Federal-territorial relations and communication. Sometimes in the form of media, popular cultural, books, comic books. Sometimes in the form of military speech and policy.

Being from a colony today, we probably have the worst memories of all, and so these scandals do not stay with us. We struggle to forget everything, about our past and the damage that has been done and the things lost or destroyed, and only to look to the future which is sold to us by the United States. This amnesia is tragically productive. Released from the wisdom of any textured history, we find it easy to comprehend and live with the fact that our future at present exists to be determined by another, and that we shouldn’t simply accept this fact, but rather celebrate it!
Several decades ago, during the “age of decolonization,” a common mantra was “good government is no substitute for self-government.” Today in Guam, just like those who remain colonized, trapped in nation-within nation or dependent nations, completely obscene relationships, we cling to the inversion of that mantra, “self-government is no substitute for good government.” Stuck, forced into a position of powerlessness, we on Guam tend to accept as our only strategy, a rejoicing and glorifying of that powerlessness. What else, can really explain the disgusting celebration, by many of Guam’s leaders, of Guam’s impending militarization, without any comment on the negative impacts that will necessarily accompany it?

In Guam today, our constant amnesia is connected to denying the colonial difference, to finding patriotic or forgetful ways around the racist, paternalistic and exploitative relationship that continues to exist between us and “Uncle Sam.”

But the body and often the land itself remembers. When a scandal erupts, it is history and truth returning from its exile, to lay waste to the fantasies that we have built, to raze the illusions which we have conjured up in our desperate attempts to feel more American.

My point remains the same on the importance of these scandals. We should not use them as a podium from which we will scream that “WE’RE AMERICANS TOO!” We should instead take them seriously, and investigate what this difference means, which takes so many different forms and refuses to disappear no matter how may flags we wave in front of it or car magnets we suffocate it with.

In an effort to keep fresh the memories of an island which too often seems to me determined to forget everything which might shed a negative light on our colonizer, allow me to recount one such scandal which too many people assert, never happen.

In 1994 during a press conference organized by the Christian Science Monitor News Service to cover an upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, two of Bill Clinton’s advisors were asked a simple question about Guam. As APEC was designed not to be a cooperative of nations, but of economies, a reporter from Gannet, which owns The Pacific Daily News on Guam, asked whether or not it was possible for Guam to join this organization. As Ronald Stade notes in Pacific Passages, “the response to the question was a round of laughter.”

The reporter attempted to reformat and explain his question, noting that other “colonies” such as Hong Kong were allowed to join, and Guam’s economic and population size either exceeds or is equal to a number of APEC’s existing members. This question was met by Anthony Lake, assistant to the president for national security affairs and Robert Rubin, assistant to the president for economic policy with more laughter, giggles and smiles, and the final formal answer of “I guess I could say that the negotiations have not gotten to that point.”

In this moment, the patriotic, colonial and wishful fictions that bind Guam and the United States together through touching metaphors of willing partners, patriotic brothers, uncles to nephews, father to son, etc. all fall away. There are a number of formal answers which could have covered over this obscenity, substituted this revelation. Guam is too small, Guam is part of the United States, Guam is not mature enough, Guam is not economically developed enough, etc. Instead, the prospect of Guam being recognized in such a way, as a partner among nations, produces for those who represent its colonizer, laughter. In the words of the Governor of the Guam at the time Joseph Ada in his letter of outrage to President Bill Clinton, “The response was not an explanation, not a U.S. position but laughter.”

Large protests followed, and Democrats, Republicans, Chamorros, Filipinos and even manapå’ka all magically seemed to join together in unity behind the insult of this scandal, and both the news media and the gates to Guam’s military bases were flooded with demands for apologies and other angry demonstrations.

As I constantly reiterate, this instance was not unique or special, scandals like this take place all the time, but many of them don’t reach this sort of island-wide level, but rather move within certain circles and groups. But the problem with our historical amnesia is that when subsequent scandals take place, they are not connected to the previous moments, previous scandals, not organized or conceived of as part of a pattern, but are instead felt as intense and horrifying, because they always seem like the first instance this has happened.

In the hopes that these scandals are no longer conceived of as ephemeral or exceptional moments which just pass by and mean nothing, I want to present an artifact to remind us all about the Rubin Lake Affair.

I’m posting below the letter that Joe Ada wrote to Bill Clinton in 1994 a few days after the incident where the prospect of Guam joining the community of nations and world economic was laughed at, requesting and demanding an apology. This is a rare instance where outrage and anger, led to the realization that we on Guam are not simply dependent, not simply a footnote to something greater, but that we have power in this relation, if we are willing to make demands and assert things. It is a lesson which I wish more of our leaders today would learn.

14 November 1994

Dear Mr. President:

I would like to call to you attention the recent insult to Guam proffered by the National Security Advisor and the Economic Council Advisor during a press breakfast hosted by Godfrey Sperling of the Christian Science Monitor on November 10, 1994. In response to a reporter’s questions about Guam’s possible role in APEC, (and follow up questions) laughter was your advisors’ response. The response was not an explanation, not a U.S. position but laughter.

As you may be aware, both I and Guam’s Congressional delegate, The Honorable Robert A. Underwood have sought a role for Guam in APEC. The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong is allowed to attend. Countries with populations similar to our own are in attendance and in a parallel meeting of the Summit of the Americas, Puerto Rico is invited to attend. Although we are small, Guam procures over $1 billion of goods from the United States annually. In fact, we purchase more U.S. goods than all of the small island states of Oceania combined. Our trade with Asian countries is even greater. The impacts of Asian interests in our economy amounts to over $2 billion per year.

Guam is a major hub of telecommunications in the region and is poised to be a regional aviation hub with the closure of the Naval Air Station in Agaña. We don’t think our economic interests are a joke and we think that a U.S. position which treats it as such is myopic and not in the United States best interests. Perhaps what is most disturbing about the demeaning treatment of Guam’s desire to be heard is the fact that the National Security Advisor contributed to the “comedy” of Guam. Of all people, he should be aware of the longstanding U.S. military presence on our island and the fact that one-third of our people’s land is held by the U.S. government. If the National Security Advisor had any notion of the nature of these interests, and growing local sentiment against the way U.S. policy arbitrarily treats our land needs, he should have known the folly of belittling the people who have been patient in their hosting of such facilities.

The people of Guam are deserving of an apology from Mr. Lake and Mr. Rubin or to hear of their termination. The absence of an apology within twenty-four (24) hours will likely result in actions of civil disobedience directed at military installations as has occurred in Guam today.

The U.S. has interests in Guam, and our island’s economic future is in the Asian region. There is ample room for our partnership of interests to be manageable, but only if our interests are respected. I look forward to your expeditious reply.


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