(This article is published in CounterPunch.)
We live in the 21st century. We are often told colonialism is “a thing of the past.” Yet the US still formally has five colonies: Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
These nations are often referred to as US “territories” (there are 16 official US territories in total, but only five are inhabited). This term is a euphemism. These five nations have no formal representation in the US political system. Their peoples, most of whom are US citizens, cannot vote for representatives in Congress and cannot participate in the presidential election. A head of state whom they did elect can send them to war. They merely serve as sources of natural capital the US can exploit and pools of human capital and labor it can siphon into its economy and military.
Remember “taxation without representation”? This maxim is often touted as the principal ideological basis for the so-called American Revolution. (Leading historian Charles A. Beard insisted otherwise, demonstrating in his canonical work An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States that the obscenely rich Founding Fathers were motivated not by freedom, but by profit.)
US schools claim that it was the inability of the American colonies to represent themselves politically that led these colonial subjects of the British empire to declare their independence. We see similar conditions today in the US “territories,” and, yet, the very same fervent American nationalist who would doubtless break out in a fit of rage were someone to call the US a 21st-century colonial power would positively bristle at the notion that New England was just a British “territory,” not a colony.
Political comedian and TV host John Oliver brought attention to this issue in a March 2015 segment on his show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, rekindling public discourse about the undemocratic status these nations endure. Some of the US media picked up on the controversy, yet no one addressed the indisputable colonial nature of this relationship and the injustice it engenders.
Most of the people in these five colonies are US citizens, yet they cannot vote in US elections. According to the 2010 Census on Puerto Rico and Island Areas, 4.1 million people live in these territories. These millions are not afforded the rights of citizens in the US proper. Dr. Anne Perez Hattori, an historian of Guam, notes that “the United States flag is flying over these lands,” but they live under a different set of laws.
How is this justified? The short answer is racism.
98.4% of the inhabitants of these colonies are considered “racial or ethnic minority populations,” according to the aforementioned census. In the 1901 Insular Cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the US colonies, which it referred to as “possessions,” were territories “belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States,” as they were “inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought.” Differing in “modes of thought” was the explicitly racist court’s polite way of saying “they are stupider than us because they are not white.”
The court therefore concluded that “the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible.” In other words, it claimed that these “alien races” would be unable to govern themselves and administer justice according to how white supremacists define it.
The judge who wrote the lead decision in the first of the rulings in this case was Henry Billings Brown, a white supremacist who also authored the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine that maintained racial apartheid in the US until it was overturned in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.
Today, decades after Plessy v. Ferguson was defeated, the rulings of the over one-century-old Insular Cases still hold. The citizens of these colonies are separate and unequal. They carry US passports that read “The bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”
This is not a new concern that has only recently emerged. Those living in these lands have repeatedly voiced their opposition to these colonial practices. Their voices have been silenced. In March 2015, Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett testified on the House Floor, stating
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma this week, and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act, I want to once again call to the attention of my colleagues here in Congress that there are still American citizens today who do not have equal voting rights. These are citizens of America’s island territories—the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Marianas.
Puerto Ricans are US citizens. John Oliver draws attention to the hypocrisy of calling people like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor the daughter of Puerto Rican “immigrants,” given Puerto Ricans already are citizens. “No she isn’t,” Oliver interjects. “She’s the daughter of Americans who moved from Puerto Rico. If Puerto Ricans are immigrants, anyone who moves anywhere is an immigrant.”
In fact, Puerto Rico has more US citizens than 21 states, but less voting rights than any of these. In January 2015, the country’s resident commissioner to Congress Pedro Pierluisi explained
Puerto Rico has been a territory since 1898. Its status is incompatible with the principles this Nation strives to uphold at home and promotes abroad. There are 3.6 million American citizens in Puerto Rico. My constituents cherish their U.S. citizenship and have made countless contributions to this country in law, science, business, government, the arts, the armed services, and every other field of human endeavor. Yet they cannot vote for President, have no U.S. Senators, and send one Delegate to the House who has a voice but no vote in this Chamber.
The people of Puerto Rico, beyond lacking democratic rights, are deprived of equality under law. Congress has a license to discriminate against the territories, and Puerto Rico is treated worse than the States under a range of Federal programs. To compensate for the shortfall in Federal funding, the Puerto Rican government has borrowed heavily in order to provide adequate public services. This disparate treatment is the principal reason why Puerto Rico has endured severe economic problems for decades.
Inequality, both political and economic, is driving thousands of my constituents to depart for the States every month. It is human nature to go where you believe you can secure a better future for yourself and your family. However, residents of Puerto Rico have finally said enough is enough. They demand a status that is democratic and dignified, a proud status for a proud people.
Guam is essentially a large military base. US Navy and Air Force bases take up over one-fourth (27%) of the country’s land mass, yet its people, who are US citizens, do not have full voting rights.
Meanwhile, at least one in eight (13% of) Guamanians are US military veterans. And those who have served the country that rules over them without their political consent are later abandoned by it. In 2012, the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ per capita spending on medical care for veterans in Guam was lower, by far, than it was in any other state in the US. On his show, Oliver shows a documentary film clip featuring a Guamanian veteran who is trying to get medical care, only to find that the closest location for treatment is over 3,800 miles away, in Hawaii.
During US elections, Guam holds an ad hoc unofficial straw poll. In the 2012 presidential election, its turnout was 67%—higher than the US turnout (at 62%). Evidently they understand and practice “Anglo-Saxon” principles of “justice” more than the Anglo-Saxons living in the US, but are legally treated as third-class citizens because they are of an “alien race.”
Individuals born in every state and territory are automatically granted US citizenship, save for one: American Samoa. The US cares so little about the people of this colony its politicians cannot even pronounce its name correctly. In June 2013, congressman Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) was given a simple task: introduce American Samoa’s non-voting Delegate to the House, Eni Faleomavaega. He butchered not just the name of the representative, but also the name of the country (which he called “Samolia,” procuring a letter l from nowhere). Faleomavaega responded coolly, correcting Bentivolio’s pronunciation.
Although American Samoa does not have representation in the US political system, it does have the largest US Army recruiting station in the world. The US does not care enough about American Samoans to grant them full political rights, but it will happily turn them into cannon fodder.
Five American Samoans have sued the US government over this injustice. The Obama administration has fervently rejected them, citing the racist Insular Cases that claim citizens of these colonies are not capable of living up to the standards of “Anglo-Saxon” law. And ignorant white Americans still have the temerity to claim we live in a “post-racial society.”
None of this should come as a surprise, of course. Colonialism was built on racism. The remaining US territories are vestiges of this colonial history.
Neocolonialism is certainly an enormous issue. The US has hundreds upon hundreds of military bases around the world—so many there does not appear to be a standard publicly released figure. In Afghanistan alone, the US had up to 800 bases, as well as 505 just in Iraq. US imperial control expands far and wide, and de facto colonies can arguably be found in many places. Yet the five inhabited US territories are official, de jure colonies.
The bourgeois liberal solution to this problem is simply to turn the countries into member states, with full political representation. The revolutionary solution is to demand autonomy and independence from the imperialist power that colonized them as far back as the 19th century and continues to exploit them today.
Whichever is chosen is ultimately a decision for the people of these colonies to make democratically, and it is the responsibility of those living in the US to defend their right to do so.