Identity struggle of an American Pacific island

President Clinton visits Guam today, a US territory whose citizens may want closer ties to the mainland.

In an era when colonization is outdated, and self-determination is the global galvanizer, a pivotal moment arrives for the United States territory of Guam. President Clinton's visit today happens one year before this Pacific island votes on its own political status and 100 years after the US acquired it at the close of the Spanish-American War.

One-third of Guam is controlled by the federal government, and many local families have been waiting since World War II's Battle of Guam to get their land back. US Air Force and Naval bases share this 210 square miles of turf with resorts, boutiques, and golf courses. Though an American outpost, it is to the Japanese vacationer what the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands might be to the US East Coast traveler - a getaway.

But, for those who grew up here, it is home. In December 1999, indigenous Chamorros will decide what political form their home should assume. For the last decade Guam has sought transitional commonwealth status - as a precursor to whatever final status Guam and the US agree upon. Commonwealth is the island's most avidly discussed status issue. The 10,000 miles separating the territory from its Washington capital make statehood seem unlikely. And Guam's US affiliation is so popular among Guamanians that free association sounds like next best.

Many Pacific islands chose free association with the US in the mid-1970s during the dissolution of a United Nations Trust Territory regional government.

A better deal

"The UN Trusteeship was an agreement between the US and the United Nations. The Micronesians had nothing to do with it," says Dirk Ballendorf, professor of history and Micronesian studies at the University of Guam. But "the compacts of free association were treaties between the islanders and the US. These agreements gave islanders some leverage."

Freely associated areas such as the Federated States of Micronesia are autonomous but dependent on the US. The people are US nationals benefiting from federal programs, development funds, US armed forces protection, unrestricted travel to US destinations, and the use of American currency in their economies.

Commonwealth status could allow Guam development-friendly exemptions from certain US laws such as labor and immigration policy while keeping the Stars and Stripes flying. But some fear such a relaxation would lead to further loss of the indigenous culture, arguing that local control of labor and immigration is what led to the outnumbering of indigenous Cha-morros and Carolinians by nonresident workers in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

But Leland Bettis, executive director for Guam's Commission on Self-Determination and the island's Commission on Decolonization, insists that Guam's quest for commonwealth includes a proposal for close monitoring and strict enforcement of US labor laws. "Keeping the sanctity of US labor laws is a standard we are willing to accept for the privilege of [setting our own] limits on permanent migration," he says.

Part of Guam's uniqueness is its vast ethnic diversity. Chamorros make up about 40 percent of the population. The rest is a mix of Filipinos, US mainlanders, Koreans, Micronesians, various Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Southeast Asians, Australians, New Zealanders, and a few Europeans and Latinos. But Mr. Bettis believes it is a diversity that is best determined locally.

According to US law, citizens of the freely associated states of Micronesia may assume residency in Guam, the Northern Marianas, and Hawaii. Micronesians fill many jobs and help create wealth throughout the Marianas archipelago, but this immigration practice has led Guam, the CNMI, and Hawaii to sue the federal government. They allege that the United States has not lived up to its commitment to adequately fund the educational and social impact of this migration.

"Between 1988 and 1997, over 40,000 people became naturalized citizens, permanent residents, or habitual residents on Guam. That's nearly one-third of the territory's 1990 census," Bettis says. "In an island, having limits on migration is really about self-government; it's about controlling demography."

Evidence of Guam's fervor for freedom is obvious on election day. It is not uncommon for 85 percent of registered voters to show up at the polls during a local general election. But, because Guam is not a state, votes for president don't count. Furthermore, Guam's congressman can vote only in committee, never on the House floor. In essence, Guam is the perpetual lobbyist whose interests constantly run the risk of getting lost in the shuffle of proposed and passed law.

Not a state, not independent

That is why Guam Gov. Carl Gutierrez has proposed to Mr. Clinton a five-member commission to consider the impact of national legislation on Guam before it is passed "perfunctorily" in Washington. "We're not going to be a state and we're not going to be independent, but we have to find a unique relationship that would give us meaningful participation in how laws that govern us are made," says Mr. Gutierrez.

Gutierrez himself was just reelected in a high-turnout election Nov. 3, but he couldn't celebrate his official certification until just last week, when the election board finally approved the process. Among alleged discrepancies in the ballot count were reports that non-US citizens had voted, thus underscoring the demand for local control of immigration.

According to gubernatorial contender Joseph Ada, the election board's certification will soon be challenged in court to protect the integrity of future Guam elections. Disagreement over who should be governor of Guam and tension in the Persian Gulf had delayed Clinton's territorial visit by more than a week.

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