Today’s tiptoe through history1 comes from an article published in The Nation, October 26, 1974 by Roger Gale.2 I wonder if America’s newest colonial acquisition, Iraq, will have a similar trajectory as Guam did?
I realize most of you are not very interested in Guam, but I am. Avert thy gaze if you are feeling hurried and pressed for time. I won’t reproduce the entire article this time, but I have the PDF if you want a copy.
First a little background:
Although a speck on the world map, Guam may soon become the hub of America’s presence in Asia. Most distant of all American colonies, the island’s economic potential is now being recognized for the first time. It is within 1,500 miles of both Tokyo and Manila, and is fast becoming part of the Asian economic orbit after long years of isolation and secrecy imposed by the American military. Guam has probably changed more in the past five years than in the 250 years since the Spanish seized the island. A sleepy port of call since it became an American colony during the Spanish-American War, it is experiencing an astounding annual growth rate of more than 25 percent. More than a dozen hotels have transformed – once tranquil Tumon Bay into a junior Waikiki; the newest of them is the tallest building between Honolulu and Manila. More than 6,000 new homes have been completed in the past Jour years alone.
Tourism, almost all of it from Japan, has become Guam’s most visible industry. Last year, 240,000 tourists visited what is now Japan’s most popular “Caribbean” island; it was the destination of almost a third of Japan’s world travelers. Five years earlier, only 3,500 tourists had stopped at Guam.
and the problem:
But despite the sudden tourist boom, the U.S. military, hidden behind its fences, is still the mainstay of the economy. It employ more people and buys more services than does any other activity on the island. According to Navy figures, the $171 million it spent last year constituted a full, one-quarter of the island’s’ economy. It was only a few years ago that the Navy relinquished control of the island’s power, phone and water systems. Until 1963, in fact, permission from the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington was needed to visit the security-conscious island. In the past decade, especially during the war in Indochina when B-52s flew bombing missions from Guam, the military presence has grown immensely, but security has become less of a preoccupation.
Although Guam is the Navy’s largest home port and will grow even larger next year when six new destroyers are transferred to the island, the military now has a rival for economic predominance on the island. Like the military it does not wish to advertise its presence, but in the past few years investment and land speculation have become a major industry on tropical Guam. A free port, with casual accounting practices, Guam has become a haven for excess Japanese yen and since Nixon’s visit to China, for insecure New Taiwan dollars. Because large contracts are becoming scarce in Vietnam, South Korea’s largest construction firms have moved their major foreign operations to Guam. As a result of all this new money, between 1972 and 1973 bank deposits rose a phenomenal 300 per cent and recorded loans increased almost 700 per cent.
With a population of 105,000 and a density per square mile of 500, Guam’s potential for capital-intensive growth is incalculable. Something more than one-third of the 206 square- mile island is in U.S. military hands so land prices in prime areas have shot up to as high as $1 million an acre. Speculation in tract homes still to be built by Kaiser Industries or by one of the Korean construction firms, has raised the cost of the average two-bedroom house to about $50,000.
The military has returned a few small parcels of land in the last year but, as one Guamanian pointed out when the Navy announced its latest offer, “What a joke! The Navy is leasing our own land back to us so we can construct a school for military dependents.” At the same time that it is returning small parcels of land, the Navy is moving to buy Guam’s last undeveloped shoreland for a $250 million ammunition wharf.
Guam is also a free port and therefore attractive to producers, and retailers of high-cost, low-weight goods like watches and cameras. Watches, which are partially assembled in a number of small factories on the island, can be imported into the United States at reduced tariff rates. In the future, it’s location at the “mouth'” of Asia will be a more important factor in Guam’s growing role as a transshipment point to and from the U.S. mainland. Because Guam’s economy is almost all “store-bought,” with agriculture nearly nonexistent, ships now return to the West Coast almost empty.
As an air hub, Guam has’ grown in five years from a one airline island to being served by six regularly scheduled airlines and a number of charter and transient aircraft. A new $25 million air terminal is in the works. Guam is already the world’s biggest cable crossing, and a new trans-Pacific cable now being laid will make it still more important in this respect. The island is also the “Communications Area Master Station” for the Pentagon, coordinating all military communications in Southeast Asia, Japan and the South Pacific.
Although the local labor supply is small and fully employed by the military and the government of Guam, cheap nonunionized labor from the Philippines and Korea3 is easily imported. Receiving the minimum wage (a good part of which has to be sent home to their families) and living in military-style barracks, workers are hardly in a good bargaining position.
In addition to all these attractions, Guam is virgin territory in an area that is being picked over and ripped off by multinational corporations based in Japan and America.
This year Guamania’ns became a numerical minority on their own island. If you count “stateside” Americans as foreigners, as the natives do, there are almost as many aliens on Guam as in Hawaii, where the population is eight times larger. The scheduled 20 per cent increase in military personnel and the continued influx of Asians means that in the next three or four years, more than two-thirds of the island will be populated by foreigners.
Even when Guamanians were in the majority, control of the island had long since passed from their hands. Joe Murphy, editor of Guam’s Pacific Daily News, estimates that 70 to 80 per cent of the island’s businesses (including the newspaper) are foreign-owned and that considerably more than half the island’s land is either leased or owned outright by non-Guamanians. But the sudden realization that they no longer even form the majority of the population has provoked the most vociferous reaction’ on the part of Guamanians since the bloody Spanish conquest of the island.
The legislature-has also created a Political Status Commission which inspired a series of hard-hitting newspaper columns on Guam’s colonial status. Sen. Frank Lujan, chairman of the commission, says the people of Guam have been kept dependent by a series of “colonial myths” which have led Guamanians to believe that they have no choice but to remain in the American political orbit. The Pacific Daily News refused to run any more columns on the subject after the publisher reportedly deemed them “anti-American.”
I haven’t been to Guam since 1997, so perhaps my information is out of date, but seemed like these same issues exist. Tourism, especially Japanese tourism, is still huge, the military is slightly antagonistic towards the rest of the island, and Guam is an occupied territory without representation in Congress.
—Update – Our far-flung correspondent adds some much-needed corrections to the story. Check it out.