Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Decolonization in the Caribbean #11: Constitution Frustration

Earlier this month I was on a panel discussion at UOG about the prospect of Guam holding a new constitutional convention and writing a new constitution. I was by far the youngest person on the panel, as I hadn't been born yet when the last Guam Constitutional Convention was held, but I was honored to have my voice included amongst other notable island figures such as Speaker of the Guam Legislature BJ Cruz, Public Auditor Doris Flores Brooks, Guam Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson and former Senator Marilyn Manibusan. The discussion ended up being quite rich, with three out of the five panelists (myself included) speaking out against the writing of a Guam constitution. It is not so much that I or the others were against the exercise of writing a constitution, but the issue was, why write a constitution now, while Guam remains a colony of the US?

Every once in a while this topic will emerge, usually proposed as an easier path for dealing with Guam's political status/decolonization. Rather than educate the public about the three main political status options and plan for a plebiscite, people talk about how we should just write a constitution now, submit it to the US Congress, as a intermediate step to decolonizing. When compared to the amorphous, complicated and wide open path that lies ahead through public education campaigns, a plebiscite and then negotiations with the US government, we can see why people might feel comforted by the simplicity and straightforwardness of just writing a constitution.

Guam has already had two constitutional conventions one in 1969 and the other in 1977. The last time this issue was seriously considered was in 1979 when the majority of Guam voters rejected a draft constitution. The group PARA-PADA formed from different activist and community groups in order to try to defeat the draft constitution, primarily because it didn't provide much protection or support for Chamorros, the island's indigenous people and "ha na'fo'na i kareta gi me'nan i karabao." The constitution was being written prior to the determination of a political status goal for the island, which meant that whatever was draft and submitted to the US Congress might not reflect adequately the ultimate push for decolonization or self-determination. The rejection of the draft constitution led to the Government of Guam seeking to determine the political status of the island first, before writing any constitution. There are obvious reasons to take this path because submitting a constitution to the US Congress for their approval only makes sense if Guam were to choose inclusion/statehood. If Free Association or Independence were chosen and the island was planning on seeking greater autonomy, negotiations with the US Congress would still have to take place in some form, but having them approve your constitution and change it at will, wouldn't be appropriate. 

This chosen path has led to its own frustrations and periods of stagnation, as there was no consistency between subsequent administrations on Guam, as some took it more seriously than others. The lack of continuity and action is one reason why the constitutional issue emerges regularly, as a means of cutting through the balabola, and just taking concrete, immediate action now.

If we want to know more about what it is like to try to write a constitution prior to determining your political status, we can ask those from the US Virgin Islands who have gone through 5 failed constitutional conventions (1964, 1971, 1977, 1980, 2009). This past week in St. Vincent, two experts from the USVI (including Carlyle Corbin in the image above) spoke about the difficulties that they have had, trying to write a constitution that is tailored to the needs and aspirations of a people, in a process where the US Congress and Federal government has the final say. This means that even if your people gather together and create a document that reflects as best as possible, what you want in terms of your own government, the US Congress can simply reject it or change whatever part they'd wish. But people who are pushing for the writing of a constitution and its submission to Congress know little about what is taking place in the US Virgin Islands and other US territories. If anything, this points to the fact that there is a great need for solidarity and information sharing between those of us in the US insular empire.

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