While reflecting on this year's convention and my own experience 8 years ago, I sifted through my digital files and came across this article this article that I written fro AAJA or the Asian American Journalists Association.
2008 Democratic Primaries: Guam and the Banality of American Colonialism
By Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Written for the Asian American Journalists Association
Written for the Asian American Journalists Association
The unincorporated United States territory of Guam, an island accustomed to being left off the radar of the American media, has been showered with press coverage over the past few months, due to its participation in the 2008 Democratic Party Presidential nominating process on May 3rd.
For a small island of 170,000 residents, which is located 4,000 miles west of Hawai’i on the edge of Asia in the Western Pacific, and is often treated like a foreign country or a bastard stepchild of the United States, this combination of participating in America’s great democracy and the huge spike in national media recognition was exhilarating. This status of being an unincorporated territory is often discussed metaphorically as Guam being “foreign in a domestic sense,” or an ambiguous political appendage of the United States, which in terms of the Federal Government, the US military, the American media, and even everyday Americans, can casually be counted as American in one moment, as something else, something foreign the next.
Despite this curious political status of Guam being central to its relationship to the United States, this increased level of media coverage was almost completely silent on what the island’s political status represents in terms of providing a critique of America’s claims to be a bastion of democracy.
During the run up to this primary season this year, the American media fell hard for the myth that Senator Hillary Clinton’s nomination was inevitable and that the nominating process would be over by the first week of February. The primary schedule itself is helps create this sort of expectation, since it is set up to ensure that by the time roughly half of the contests have taken place, a nominee should already be chosen. By (the first) Super Tuesday however, it was very clear that this race would not be over anytime soon, and suddenly the United States, the legions of political pundits and reporters, the Democratic party, found themselves overwhelmed with more than half a dozen remaining primaries to contest. Suddenly, the votes of millions who were not really supposed to count, could conceivably count. States and primaries at the end of the calendar, which would usually be ignored if a nominee was selected early, were receiving huge amounts of coverage and treated as darlings by the campaigns of the two remaining candidates.
But amidst the counting of all these votes which were not supposed to count, there was also new attention given to a set of votes which were suddenly valuable, but were assumed to not count in a different, sort of exceptional way, namely the votes of Democrats in the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico. As the struggle over delegates and votes worn on, even the delegates prizes of these two territories was battled over. In the case of Puerto Rico this could be understood, as the delegate total there was 66, and in the waning days of the race, this territorial prize outshined the totals of states such as Montana and West Virginia. In the case of Guam, however the delegate total was minute, with only 4 pledged delegates and 5 super-delegates at stake.
With every delegate crucial at that stage of the race, Guam was thrown onto the American political radar and received a flurry of newspaper and cable news coverage, as well as attention from the candidates themselves, who each conducted several interviews to Guam media over the phone or via satellite. In the primary held on May 3rd, a little over 4,500 Guam Democrats voted, and Senator Barack Obama won the contest by just seven votes.
Media both in Guam and in the United States focused on this aspect of participation, this idea of Guam at last being included in the glories of American democracy. On Guam, the media discussed this issue primarily through expressions by island residents of gratitude for the privilege of being included, of getting to vote, or getting to help make history this year by nominating an African American or a woman for President. In the national media, the creating of any story on Guam and its primary was overshadowed by the fact that despite the island being a territory of the United States for 110 years, it was still something which few Americans really knew anything about. These news pieces became simplistic introductions to the island, which provided small snippets of its history and its contemporary existence, focusing primarily on its strategic military importance, today as the “tip of America’s spear” in the Pacific and its role as an American battleground against the Japanese during World War II.
Although these pieces were dedicated to informing the American public about what Guam is, they were nonetheless rife with inaccurate information. Most notably, a CNN news-piece created in the days prior to the Guam primary featured video footage from the wrong island in their portrayal of life on Guam.
Amidst all this new coverage dedicated to explaining the “what” of Guam, there was a huge almost overwhelming silence over an even more obvious question, the “why?” of Guam. Namely, since Guam is not a state, why does America have it? Why is it attached to the United States? Why is it a territory? What does being an unincorporated territory of the United States mean?
For instance, it was peculiar that in the middle of all this discussion about how the votes and delegates from Guam will be counted, and how similar the island is with other states that were voting, there was little to no substantive discussion about what types of votes and delegates Guam actually has, namely it along with American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and the Democrats abroad have half delegate votes. Guam in its primary actually selected eight pledged delegates, but each only counts as half a vote. To put this in perspective, the penalty which was eventually levied against the Democrats of Michigan and Florida, whereby their delegate votes were reduced to half votes, is the normal arrangement for how Guam gets to participate.
But even as these half votes were being celebrated for being counted, there was also a persistent strain in media reports around Guam and Puerto Rico, that in actuality their votes don’t really count and shouldn’t count because of the political status of these islands and their residents. Residents of Guam and Puerto Rico are US citizens, but so long as they remain in their islands, their rights and privileges as citizens are limited to non-existent, especially in terms of political representation at the Federal level. Although the territories of the United States each hold Democratic primaries, they have no formal role in the general election, their votes are not counted and they have no electoral college votes. Just as they have no vote for President of the United States, they also have no voting power in the United States Congress, save for a sole non-voting delegate from each territory in the House of Representatives.
When Hillary Clinton added her anticipated primary victory in Puerto Rico to the slate of reasons why she should remain in the race, there were slight murmurs of disapproval and uncertainty in the press. Chris Matthews on his show Hardball made repeated statements calling into question the legitimacy of Puerto Rico participating in the primary process since they can’t participate in the vote that really counts. Liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas from the website Dailykos made similar statements, questioning whether or not it was appropriate to count these votes, for these people to have their say, since they and their voices cannot actually be counted.
These concerns over counting votes that don’t really count, and the issue of Guam receiving only half votes for its delegates is directly related to the issue which media in the United States almost completely ignored, save for the invoking of banal phrases such as “unincorporated territory,” namely Guam’s subordinate status in relation to the United States. This term “unincorporated territory” is in reality a euphemism for harsher labels such as “colony,” and notwithstanding the ignorance of the American people, the past century of Guam and United States relations can provide a model was modern colonialism. The lack of attention to the question of “why the US has Guam?” is due to the inability of the media in the United States, as well as most Americans and nearly all politicians, to recognize the United States as a colonial power.
The lack of current political representations and rights is only the most recent example of this colonial relationship. Guam’s history is rich with other examples, most notably is 43 period prior to World War II, where it was literally run as a military colony by the United States Navy and the massive legal and illegal takings of land from the island’s indigenous people the Chamorros, after World War II in order to militarize the island. The impacts of this history can still be found on the island today, whether in terms of record breaking recruitment statistics amongst the island’s youth for military service, the drastic poisoning of the island’s environment, or the fact that in an island which is roughly 200 squares miles in size, 33 percent of it belongs to the United States Navy and Air Force.
Today, despite the silence on this matter, Guam remains one of the more than a dozen territories remaining in the world which are officially recognized as colonies or “non-self-governing territories” by the United Nations. Under the United Nation’s resolution 1541, the United States is mandated to assist the island in undergoing a process of decolonization which will at minimum, provide a self-determination plebiscite for the island’s indigenous people. The three options which can be considered for this vote are statehood, free association and independence. The Federal Government however has rejected this mandate and decried any attempt to resolve the issue of Guam’s political status through the international community and the United Nations as interference and an infringement upon its domestic affairs.
While the majority of the island’s residents are uncertain about what the next political status for their island should be, and divided over whether any status change is possible or even desirable, the island has slowly over time developed a strong and determined decolonization movement. As part of this movement, for the past two decades Chamorros have made annual pilgrimages to the United Nations in New York to testify as to the state of affairs on Guam, and also call upon the United States to recognize and see through its obligation to decolonize the island. During the testimonies given to the Fourth Committee at the United Nations in 2006, one speaker noted that the representative of the United States who was present in the room while they testified, would not even look at them, not even acknowledge that they were there.
This metaphor of refusing to acknowledge the obvious, refusing to admit to a presence which is right beside you in the room, is also apt in describing the media coverage, or lack there of on the issue of Guam’s political status and its potential decolonization.
During the 2008 primary season, where history has indeed been made with the nomination of Senator Obama for President, there is an exuberant willingness amongst the American media to celebrate all the wonders of American democracy and the promise of American greatness that was being actualized. Yet, at the same time there is an almost banal refusal to admit to or even report on, in the cases of Guam and Puerto Rico and the other territories of the American Insular Empire, what these islands attest to in terms of the limits of that democracy and gaps in that “glorious” promise.