"Independence: A Very American Idea"
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Co-Chair, Independence for Guam Task Force
April 12, 2016
Recent weeks have been brimming with discussion of decolonization, self-determination and political status change for Guam. Governor Calvo spent a large part of his recent State of the Island Address talking about Guam’s political status and laid out a bold plan to hold a political status vote by the end of the year. Calvo’s proposal created a stir in the community, especially among those who have been fighting for self-determination for decades, as it seemed to open the right to vote in a self-determination plebiscite to all registered voters and not just those who are considered to be “native inhabitants.”
Last week Calvo presented his plans to the Commission on Decolonization, of which I am a member, representing the Independence for Guam Task Force. We had some very spirited discussion on the Governor’s plans, sharing our concerns, but also expressing our appreciation for his new aggressive pushing of the issue. At present, the Governor has agreed to forgo using the referendum process to hold a plebiscite, and instead work with the Commission on Decolonization, to focus on public education and resolving legal impediments that currently complicate this process. As someone who has committed much of my life to seeing Guam decolonized, this is incredibly exciting.
Guam has been a colony for centuries. Its treatment as a colony has changed depending on who is doing the colonizing and what their interests are. Spanish colonization had several different phases and faces, as does American colonialism. This first and sometimes most difficult step in conducting a public education campaign about decolonization is getting people to recognize the need for political status change. Getting them to see that there is something wrong with the current political order and that things could be better if it was changed. If Guam was currently being colonized by a small and unassuming country, it would be easier to convince people of the need to change things. But when your colonizer is the self-proclaimed greatest country in the world, some of that bravado trickles down, and people in the colonies will come to accept it as truth. Under those ideological conditions people come to see all possibility for the future not only through their colonizer, but tied to their colonizer. It is primarily for this reason that discussions about decolonization have always been inhibited due to fears of such ideas being anti-American.
When the first modern conversations about political status change began, few were sure about how to talk about it. The idea of Guam being anything other than a colonial possession was daunting and it felt ungrateful and wrong to reject the existing way in which Guam is tied to the United States. Generations of self-determination activists endured the slings and arrows of being labeled “anti-American” because of their beliefs that Guam should be decolonized and that Chamorros should be given the chance to determine their political destiny after centuries of colonization. But I am grateful for their efforts, as it has brought us to the point today, where fewer and fewer people understand political status in such narrow and inaccurate terms.
After all, if you pay attention to the voices of the some men who are credited with founding the United States, they would seem to be very support of Guam’s colonization, as they were struggling against their own forms of disenfranchisement, discrimination and colonial restriction. The rhetoric that gave birth to the United States has been something that has been the model for so many other movements for decolonization and independence in the centuries since. This is true, despite the fact that the United States has scarcely lived up to its own lofty rhetoric, as it was created atop the disenfranchisement of women, the massive displacement of Native Americans and the continued enslavement of African Americans. Regardless of how you see the “spirit” of the United States today, during its genesis, there was a clear anti-colonial spirit and loud condemnations of colonization and also the rights of those who are colonized to become free and independent.
The thoughts of Thomas Jefferson are a good place to start when looking for this type of relevant rhetoric. I’ll list three quotes here from Jefferson, you may have heard them in the context of US history, but imagine them instead in the context of Guam’s decolonization:
“Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government."
"Every nation has a right to govern itself internally under what forms it pleases, and to change these forms at its own will."
"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be … the signal of arousing men to burst the chains … and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
Or if perhaps Jefferson isn’t close enough to the core of what makes America America, take for instance this passage from the Declaration of Independence:
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”
You could easily take this document upon which people claim the spirit of a great country was born, and rework it to reflect the historical experiences of Chamorros. What does it mean then when a country so obsessed with expounding and solid-gold-engraving the world with its greatness has trouble remembering its own decolonial origins? Or that the United States has trouble accepting the fact that the colonial injustices that helped spark its own birth may still exist and that the US itself may very well be the perpetrator?