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By Steven Nelson
With nuclear-armed North Korea threatening to fire missiles nearby, Guam independence advocates say breaking free of the U.S. is increasingly appealing to fellow islanders.
By their own admission, independence historically has been the least popular of three options debated among residents of the approximately 160,000-person territory, which was acquired by the U.S. from Spain in 1898.
But independence advocates say support has increased dramatically in the past year, with this week's sabre-rattling between President Donald Trump and the North Korean government further heightening interest.
"I've found that the past day and a half have been so fruitful with people wrestling with these issues," said independence advocate Michael Bevacqua, a professor of Chamorro studies at the University of Guam.
"A lot of the feelings of anxiety and fear on Guam are tied to Donald Trump and his impulsive approach," he said. "In the past, we would hear this grandiose reality-detached rhetoric out of North Korea, but now in the past few days when North Korea said something aggressive, Donald Trump responded with something even more aggressive."
Trump warned North Korea on Tuesday of "fire and fury like the world has never seen" following a report that the country had made missile-ready nuclear warheads. North Korea reacted Wednesday with plans to fire missiles into an area about 19-25 miles from Guam.
"Trump is really the epitome of, 'This is not a country we want to be part of,'" said Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, another independence supporter.
Leon Guerrero says the anti-Trump sentiment predates the latest news cycle, as does the threat posed to Guam by North Korea. But she said Trump carelessly "stirred a stronger and more direct, ‘we will attack Guam' from North Korea."
Leon Guerrero says this week's news coverage "has been really enlightening" for Guam residents, making them take note of the disconnect with the U.S. mainland.
Residents have taken to social media, she says, as a cable news channel displayed an infographic saying only a few thousand Americans would be affected by a nuclear bombing, and when a leading U.S. newspaper said Guam was sovereign.
A vote on Guam's political status may come at some point in the near future, but a planned plebiscite is currently stalled as a the local government appeals a federal court ruling on the ballot measure over eligibility, which has brought ethnic tension between native Chamorros and more recent arrivals.
People born on Guam are U.S. citizens but lack a voting member of Congress or electoral votes for president. The island is considered one of the world's 17 non-self-governing territories by the United Nations, a list that includes many U.K. island possessions, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa.
Leon Guerrero and Bevacquaco co-chair the Independence for Guam Task Force, an institutionalised advocate within the Guam government-created Commission on Decolonization. The commission is a two-decade-old entity established to educate islanders about their options.
Other task forces advocate statehood or free association, a form of independence featuring an agreement between political entities that could resemble Greenland's relationship with Denmark or the link between the U.S. and Pacific island nations Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.
Support for independence on Guam is difficult to gauge. Recent surveys conducted by the legalisation task force and college students have put support in the 20-30 percent range or higher, according to Bevacqua.
Bevacqua says decades ago, no candidate for the local legislature supported independence but that in November, five of 15 people elected were supportive of or open to independence.
Leon Guerrero cites anecdotal evidence, such as needing to change rooms because of too many attendees at a meeting after Trump's election, along with a 650-person attendance at a recent rally and a 500-person attendance of a concert on July 4 — notable figures for a small island, she says.
Independence with a possible phase-out of U.S. military presence, of course, is not the only answer offered by Guam residents.
Gov. Eddie Calvo, a Republican who supports statehood, endorsed Trump's tough-talking response to North Korea.
"As far as I'm concerned, as an American citizen, I want a president that says that if any nation such as North Korea attacks Guam, attacks Honolulu, attacks the West Coast, that they will be met with hell and fury," Calvo said in an appearance on Fox News.
Amanda Blas, a former journalist and Calvo spokesperson who now serves as executive director of the Commission on Decolonisation, where she is neutral on the three options, said that the recent threats "did make people consider, for example, independence: Would we still be such a great target? Same for free association."
Blas said she has not heard of any specific argument that statehood would better protect Guam, but that the option might lead to a greater sense of patriotism and belonging.
Dennis Lennox, a Republican political operative who does not live on Guam but has contacts there from his work on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign, said talk of independence is foolish.
"Anyone who thinks Guam could be an independent country is kidding themselves. It wouldn't have the means to protect itself and engage in statecraft — like who would pay for a foreign service and embassies?" he said, offering common arguments against Guam becoming an independent country.
Independence advocates do have answers to those arguments. Leon Guerrero and Bevacqua say the U.S. military, which controls approximately one-third of the island and contributes significantly to the economy, would not be automatically ousted, but would be able to negotiate a new arrangement with islanders as new revenue streams and industries are developed.
Leon Guerrero says the island could increase revenue by collecting money on its own visas for foreign visitors — the island is a popular destination for Japanese tourists — and could put military-occupied land to agricultural use. She and Bevacqua note possibilities associated with increased commercial shipping as well. An additional potential revenue source, recreational marijuana — a proposal backed by Calvo, who sought to "tax the heck" out of it — was tabled because of concern about the Trump administration's enforcement of U.S. federal law.
As islanders grapple with what to do, free association advocate Adrian Cruz says, "We are very patriotic, and it's not that we want to dump the United States altogether." He said most Guam families have a member in the U.S. military, but that distance from the mainland and a unique set of circumstances make the less-dramatic form of independence appealing.
Cruz says independence and free association are "two sides of the same coin," distinguishable by whether there is first a negotiated deal with the U.S. on issues such as military leasing of land.
"All the rhetoric has drawn attention to Guam, and one has to ask the question: What are all these military bases doing on Guam that the North Koreans are targeting?" he says. "We don't have a vote for president, and yet, our lives really are hanging in the balance in the hands of Donald Trump, said Cruz.
SOURCE: WASHINGTON EXAMINER/PACNEWS
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