So the news from Guam is that Obama defeated Clinton by seven votes, 2,264 to 2,257, a Florida-like finish in this closely watched, hotly contested primary. No, seriously folks, why is Guam a butt of jokes, or the primary itself an object of derision, with well-informed and usually sensible bloggers making the argument that since Guam isn’t a state, what business does it have voting in presidential primaries?
I have a soft spot for Guam. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between New York State and Guam. A few years ago, I met with two Guamanians who were trying to put together an encyclopedia on Guam, and it had the all-time best title for any encyclopedia I have ever heard of; the Guampedia. (I don’t think it ever came off.)
I decided that Guam is a lot like New York State, some minor differences like size and economy aside. They both first fell under the ambit of Europe at about the same time. If Giovanni di Verrazzano was the first explorer to see New York harbor in 1524, Guam had an earlier, and even more prestigious” discoverer,” Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, on his voyage of exploration that would make first European contact with many future American colonial possessions, including Guam, the Marianas Islands, and the Philippines. (And both Magellan and Verrazzano shared the fate of being killed by native peoples.)
Formal colonization came later, and in 1668, four years after the English took over New Netherland, the Spanish established control over Guam, at first a Jesuit mission under the direction of Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, S.J. His mission to the native Chamarro people went well at first, but native hostility grew, and in 1672 he was murdered by Chamarros outraged by his baptizing of infants without their permission. After considering his case with all deliberate speed, in 1985 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
The basic difference between New York State and Guam seems to be this: New York ceased to be a colony in 1776, and became a constituent state in a sovereign country, while Guam has never ceased to be a colony. While it does not match Puerto Rico, which in this year of 2008 completes five centuries of colonial status—the first Spanish governor there was appointed in 1508, and this has to be a world’s record—it might be in second place. The United States the largest colonial power in the world today, and it controls what are by far the oldest colonies. For Guam this has meant, 230 years of Spanish rule; two period of direct control by the US Navy (1899 – 1941, and 1944 – 1950, interrupted by a very nasty Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1944, control by US Department of Interior from 1950 to 1971, when finally the Guamanaians were given a modicum of self government and allowed to elect their own governor.
The basic rule of thumb seems to be, if , like Puerto Rico, a US possession maintains a native majority and widely spoken language other than English—about half of the Guamanians are Chamorro, and English and Chamorro are the official languages—statehood becomes almost impossible. (If Hawaii had maintained a native majority population, , I am sure that it too would still be a territory.) As I understand it, Hilary Clinton, pandering shamelessly as she is doing in the gas tax holiday, called for Guamanians to be able to vote for president, and not just in primaries. I think it is a great idea . After all, we already permit Washington DC to vote for president without real representation in Congress, and the status of our current colonial possessions¬—Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands—seemed fixed in a twilight zone of semi-colonial status. Why don’t we just extend the principle of Washington DC, and recognize that other non-states ought to be able to vote for president as well? Of course this will never happen, and there will be howls of opposition, claiming that such a move would besmirch that crown jewel of our political system, where no question of unfairness or malapportionment has ever been raised, the electoral college.