As the vast majority of the world undoubtedly heard far too much about, 2012 was a national election year in the United States. The voting led to the reelection of the United States’s first African-American president, the defeat of “rape guys” Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, the election of the first open bisexual (who’s also non-religious!) to the House of Representatives, and a variety of other impressive firsts that give people like me hope that this political cycle will be at least a little less bad than the previous ones. There’s one bit of news that’s worth examining in a bit more detail, though, and that’s the news out of Puerto Rico.
But what’s Puerto Rico? And didn’t we hear something about some Pacific islands? Let’s have a look at a map.
Anyone who pays as much attention to the news as I do will have seen this map, or others like it, indicating the results of the Republican primaries leading to the 2012 election. (Wikimedia Commons). The colors aren’t important for today. The image of the “lower 48” American states is known the world over, and it doesn’t take much awareness to recognize Alaska and Hawaii, the non-contiguous and youngest states. What many people don’t know, and many maps of the USA don’t bother to show, are the US’s five non-state territories, highlighted here:
Five groups of inhabited islands—Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas, and Guam—are under United States control, along with a smattering of uninhabited islands. These regions have a variety of relationships to the United States proper, and they are characterized by some degree of disconnect from the normal Constitutional protections afforded to American citizens. None of the territories have senators or congressmen, instead sending non-voting delegates to the House of Representatives. Inhabitants of the territories do not vote in US national elections, though they do participate in primary elections (as shown above). The people of the territories pay taxes that fund Medicare and other social services, but cannot take advantage of those services while living outside the 50 states. Inhabitants of American Samoa are not even automatically American citizens (unlike the locals of the other four territories), and must apply for US citizenship in the same manner as resident aliens.
One might imagine that the lack of constitutional protection and related abuses would make the five territories particularly eager for a change in their status, but this is not the case. While these abuses mean that the interests of the territories are rarely reflected in the national discourse, and the very existence of the territories is often forgotten in stateside conversations, their peculiar status also reduces their tax burdens and exempts some territories from “annoyances” like labor laws. So, most of the territories face a certain pressure to maintain the status quo, whether popular or not. On top of that, most of the territories also have separatist movements working toward independence, and opposed to pro-statehood sentiments. In any case, Congress would have to approve the addition of a new state, pending the establishment of suitable state-level institutions in the applicant, so a pro-statehood vote in a territory is only the first step.
Each of the five territories became American under different circumstances and has a different relationship to the United States. The stories are particularly interesting in that they show the United States in a way it does not often like to be seen: as a former colony turned colonial power.
Guam and the Northern Marianas
The Marianas Islands are a chain of Micronesian Pacific Islands located roughly between Japan and New Guinea. Though the entire chain is a single cultural unit that shares much with neighboring Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, it has long been divided between southernmost Guam, the largest island, and the remaining “northern” Marianas.
The United States acquired Guam and the Northern Marianas from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, along with Palau, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. The US almost got Cuba as well, but that’s another can of worms. The US kept Guam because of its strategic location and sold the Northern Marianas to Germany along with Palau. The German Empire’s extensive Pacific holdings, including Palau and the Northern Marianas, became Japanese and then American again after World War II. Where Palau, the Philippines, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands eventually gained independence, the Northern Marianas voted to become a “commonwealth” of the US, similar to Puerto Rico. This status afforded the people of the Northern Marianas more autonomy than status as an unincorporated territory (like Guam) gave them.
Under US jurisdiction, the indigenous Chamorro language of this archipelago was aggressively suppressed, to the point that it is now considered threatened or worse. The islands became a manufacturing hotspot because US workplace protections, such as minimum-wage and immigration laws, were construed as not applying to them or other non-state US territories, allowing US companies to extract a great deal of money from the islands by keeping the locals desperate.
The people of the Northern Marianas have on many occasions voted to become a single territorial unit with Guam, but this union has never been realized. Some in the Northern Marianas suspect that their interests might be even more neglected than they already are if they joined with their larger, thrice-more-populous neighbor, even within the United States. (Such concerns, real or imagined, are why the Caribbean is such a ridiculous patchwork of independent islands.) Guam, for its part, itself rejected union with the Northern Marianas in the last Guamanian referendum on the subject, though in 2008 Guamanian governor Felix Camacho expressed interest in the two territories becoming a single US state. As with Hawaii, such a union will face difficulties because of the islands’ distance from the US mainland.
Interestingly, the Northern Marianas’ exemption from minimum-wage laws ended in 2007, and their exemption from US immigration laws ended in 2009, potentially indicating a move toward closer integration with the United States. Certainly, these new requirements for fair worker treatment will put a further dent in the islands’ use as a garment-manufacturing hotspot that grants the coveted “made in USA”sticker. Whether Guam will follow suit and eventually join into a single Marianas territory or new state remains to be seen.
My mother’s homeland, Puerto Rico became a United States holding in 1898, along with Spain’s Pacific territories described above. As with Guam, the US’s interest in Puerto Rico was primarily in its strategic location, ideal for resupplying ships heading for the as-yet-unbuilt Panama Canal. Puerto Rico was ruled as a de facto military colony for nearly 20 years before its citizens gained the ability to elect their own governor, and it would be another 40 years before they became US citizens. In the meantime, the US took advantage of the island’s legal limbo to pass laws against campaigning for or even discussing independence in Puerto Rico and ruthlessly exploited the island’s economy to drain it of its riches, leading to violent skirmishes between nationalists and the US Army. There was even an attempt to assassinate President Truman over the US’s treatment of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans have frequently voted on their island’s status. After the violence of the 1940s and following the US’s intense investment in Puerto Rico’s economy in the 1950s, interest in independence has dwindled, despite too-vivid memories of the islands vicious exploitation and ongoing economic difficulties. The discussion has since been between maintaining the commonwealth status quo or applying for statehood, a conversation that the status quo has narrowly won each time until 2012. The 2012 referendum asked Puerto Ricans whether they’d like to change their territory’s status, and whether, in the event of a change, they’d prefer to become a US state, an independent nation with a Compact of Free Association(like Palau and the other former Pacific territories), or an independent state without such a compact. This time, a majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of changing the island’s status, with statehood being the overwhelmingly preferred new status. (Of course, many voters declined to answer the second question, betraying a distinctly American ignorance of how ranked-list voting works.) Thanks to this referendum, Puerto Rico will most likely be the first time the United States gains a state since the accession of Hawaii in 1959.
United States Virgin Islands
The Virgin Islands archipelago extends from the edge of Puerto Rico to St. Kitts and Nevis. Like most of the smaller Caribbean islands, it changed hands many times between Britain, the Netherlands, and France before being settled by the Danes in 1672. Also like many Caribbean islands, its native people were eradicated during colonization, and the islands’ majority is now descended from African slaves. The colony was not particularly profitable for Denmark, and the Danes attempted on several occasions to sell the islands to the US. The US did not accept these offers until 1917, when Denmark feared takeover by Germany and both Denmark and the US agreed to the sale in the interest of keeping the islands out of German hands.
A referendum for statehood in 1993 attracted a dismal 31% turnout, which the US government treated as void. I was unable to find mention of any attempts to change the USVIs’ status before, and none has been attempted since. However, the Islands attempted to write a constitution in 2009, which would have been an important step toward incorporation and eventual statehood. This constitution did not pass federal muster, since it established preferential treatment for locals and did not cede sovereignty to the federal government (as all state constitutions do).
Occasional chatter suggests that the US Virgin Islands join Puerto Rico and apply for statehood as a single entity, much like the merger proposed for Guam and the Northern Marianas. The territory of Puerto Rico includes several smaller islands that are part of the Virgin Islands chain, and parts of Puerto Rico are closer to the US Virgin Islands than the Virgin Islands are to each other. Some government agencies treat the two adjacent territories as a single unit for administrative purposes, as well. There are even proposed names for such a union: PRUSVI or Puerto Virgo. Such a merger would be far more challenging than a united Marianas territory, however. Unlike the Marianas, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have largely distinct histories and cultures. Relatedly, one legacy of Puerto Rico’s violent past is a degree of local pride rarely seen in US states, as the number of people who identify their nationality or lineage as Puerto Rican attests. It’s easy to imagine that Puerto Rico, interested in keeping its Spanish and Taino cultural elements in the face of US hegemony, might find the prospect of annexing a population of preferentially English-speaking Afro-Caribbean people and Danish place names somewhat unpalatable. Ironically, the USVIs have approximately 1/37th the population of Puerto Rico, so if any culture would be threatened by freer movement between the two regions, it would be that of the Virgin Islands.
Whatever the potential administrative, touristic, and cultural benefits of the union of PRUSVI, such a fusion remains unlikely, given the US Virgin Islands’ constitutional difficulties and the general legal madness surrounding US territories, but it may yet come to pass. Maybe they’ll even bring the British Virgin Islands with them—such a union wouldn’t even require a change of currency.
The last inhabited United States territory is American Samoa. The United States came into possession of the islands that would become American Samoa during a period of territorial maneuvers in the years between the Spanish-American War and World War I. The US, the United Kingdom, and the Empire of Germany jockeyed for influence in the South Pacific a great deal during this time, leading to a few incidents of interference in the Samoan people’s civil war and a number of tense standoffs between American and German warships near important harbors. The tensions were resolved in 1899 with the Tripartite Convention, which gave the eastern islands to the United States, the western islands to Germany, and a variety of former German possessions near Papua New Guinea to the British, in exchange for (roughly 15 years of) peace. As with the US’s other territories, American interest in the eastern Samoan islands was primarily strategic, and centered on the harbor town of Pago Pago, which served as a vital naval base in both World Wars. German Samoa changed hands a few more times and became independent in 1962, but American Samoa remains an American territory.
Unlike the other four US territories, American Samoa seems more likely to consider independence than statehood. Samoans rejected a Congressional effort at incorporation shortly after World War II, in favor of building local institutions. In 2012, Samoa’s governorand its Congressional delegate both encouraged their people to consider the prospect of independence once more, though the territory has shown little enthusiasm for any change in its status. It seems likely that the Samoans will remain at the periphery of the United States, perhaps until their independent neighbors become prominent enough that joining them seems viable.
The accession to the United States of these territories presents a number of interesting scenarios.
A great deal of attention has been devoted to “majority minority” jurisdictions within the US—towns, counties, and states where the majority differs from the white, European-descended majority of the US at large. Thanks to different rates of growth in various communities, many parts of the United States are destined for minority-majority status. The territories have been largely absent from this conversation, which is a shame, since all five of them are minority-majority and likely to remain so. This is particularly true of the Pacific territories, thanks to their remoteness. The accession into the US mainstream of these unique communities is likely to complicate the US political narrative of “red” and “blue” states and demographic voting blocs even more than the assimilation of various immigrant communities over time already has. Hawaii brought many interesting facets to the broader American culture, including many of the words associated with surf culture—what might Puerto Rico or Guam bring?
That is, if Congress lets them. The US is the country that gave us the word “gerrymander,” and much rides on a predictable balance of votes in the United States. Some cynics posit that any new application for statehood in the current political climate will be rejected, as having an odd number of states would undo the vague balance between red, blue, and swing states that currently prevails. With that in mind, Puerto Rico’s chances of becoming the 51ststar (with or without the Virgin Islands) might be enhanced if culturally conservative Guam (with or without the Northern Marianas) applied at the same time. Others point out that New Mexico’s application for statehood was rejected several times, only being accepted as the white population edged into majority status, and propose a different but related motive.
Alternately, since all five territories have cultural kin in neighboring, independent states, the future may hold independence or a merger with their neighbors for all five. Secessionist sentiments might yet surge in Puerto Rico, the USVI, Guam, and/or the Northern Marianas, if the US’s investment in these territories continues to be as incidental as it has. The US Virgin Islands may also decide that their future is with their British neighbors or with a resurgent West Indian Federation, if such a state forms, or Guam and the Northern Marianas may decide to join the Federated States of Micronesia, adding one more language to the Federation’s three.
Perhaps the United States will yet become more United, by adding more States. And it would even shed some authority to do things that would be blatantly illegal within its own actual borders. Now that would be an interesting world.Sources and Further Reading: