Overview of Guam’s quest toward decolonization

Guam is in a unique position among the non-self-governing territories of the world because of its long colonial history. Although the Organic Act of 1950 and its subsequent amendments afforded the people of Guam limited self-government and other rights and protections, Guam essentially remains under the control of the US Congress. With the options offered by the UN Resolution, Guam has struggled to change its political status and relationship with the United States government and achieve a “full measure of self-government.” However, Guam’s small size andstrategic location have made the US government unwilling to make any significant changes to the island’s political status.

In the early and mid-1970s, Guam leaders created special commissions on Political Status to examine the island’s political conditions, the desires of Guam’s people, and the various options available to them regarding the island’s relationship with the United States. The first Political Status Commission was organized by the 12th Guam Legislature in 1973 to critically assess the economic, social and cultural factors impacted by the island’s political status and to explore the possibilities a changed status would bring to the people of Guam. The second Political Status Commission established by the 13th Guam Legislature in 1975 was tasked with taking the findings of the first Political Status Commission and begin educating the general public about the different political status options, as well as to negotiate a new status with the federal government.

Around the same time, through the urging of then congressional Guam DelegateAntonio Won Pat, the US government authorized Guam and the US Virgin Islands to draft their own constitutions. Won Pat argued that a constitution represented an alternate approach to address Guam’s needs and deal with the island’s political status. The Political Status Commission, however, objected to this approach, asserting that any effort to draft a constitution should arise from a political status chosen by the people of Guam. Nevertheless, a constitutional convention was held in 1976.

Local indigenous grassroots activist groups began to organize in opposition to the official efforts of the Constitutional Convention (ConCon), such as the Peoples Alliance for Responsible Alternatives and the Peoples Alliance for Dignified Alternatives (PARA-PADA) and the Guam Landowners Association (GLA). The ConCon resulted in a draft constitution the following year, which was rejected by the Guam electorate in a 1979 referendum. The constitution was seen as very restrictive and left little room for Guam to address specific issues such as land, immigration and transportation. The US government had tried to argue that a constitution would fulfill the requirements of self-determination, but the UN Special Commission did not agree, and Guam remained on the non-self-governing territories list.

The Political Status Commission meanwhile tried to conduct public hearings on the different political status options. Initially, the Legislature proposed the establishment of a special committee to draft a Territorial-Federal Relations Act, or a combined political status/constitutional convention. Again, activist groups in particular were against these proposals, arguing that a self-determination approach would be the most effective way to address Guam’s political status. This argument was bolstered with the release of a White House Report on Territories in 1979 which asserted that Guam and the other US territories should not have the options of independence or statehood. Guam’s strategic military importance in the western Pacific region and its small size were seen as significant reasons to oppose the island’s complete break from or integration into the United States. However, Guam leaders presented a united front in opposition to the findings of the report and argued that Guam had the right to pursue and exercise its right to self-determination, per the UN Charter.

In fact, informal polls and official plebiscites throughout this period showed shifts in people’s attitudes regarding the various options of independence, statehood, status quo, free association and commonwealth. A plebiscite in 1976 showed that voters supported status quo with some changes, but by the official plebiscites in 1982, voters supported and committed island leaders to seek commonwealth status. However, it was still unclear among most voters what a change in political status might mean for the people of Guam.