President Obama was supposed to drop by the U.S. island colony of Guam in his trip to the Asia-Pacific region a couple of weeks ago. The trip was postponed and there is no announcement yet of when it will be rescheduled. But whenever he arrives, residents of Guam are going to give him an earful about a planned massive expansion of the already large U.S. military presence.

Guam, called Guahan by many of its 178,000 inhabitants, is the largest of the Northern Marianas islands, in the South Pacific. It was settled by speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages about 2,000 B.C. In the 1500’s, Guam/Guahan was “discovered” by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Subsequently, the Spanish took possession of the island, subjugating the native Polynesian Chamorro (or Chamoru) people to its rule.  

In 1898, the United States seized Guam from Spain as part of the booty of the Spanish-American War. The U.S. Navy ran Guam as a supply station until, in 1941, the Japanese invaded, imposing a brutally violent military regime. The people of Guam supported the expulsion of the Japanese military by the United States. But after the war, the United States greatly intensified its presence as part of a Cold War strategy of setting up U.S. bases in areas considered strategic for projecting force against the Soviet Union, China and other adversaries. Recently, the whole Marianas group, including Guam, has begun to be seen as a good place to set up cheap labor sweatshops, although this has been somewhat slowed down by the Abramoff scandal.

As a result of the intensification of the U.S. military presence, major demographic, cultural and ecological changes have hit Guam. Today, only 37 percent of the population is indigenous Chamorro; the rest are of Filipino, United States and others. The Chamorro language is declining. The local government has very limited powers, and the people of Guam, though U.S. citizens, neither have voting representation in Congress, nor the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections. Because the U.S. military has occupied 30 percent of the land, and because of the domination of the island economy by the United States, Guam, which until World War II grew enough food to feed its own people plus the U.S. military, now imports 90 percent of its food.

So it was no huge surprise when the United States government suddenly announced, without any consultation with the locals, that its military presence in Guam was going to be massively increased. But this time, the people of Guam are fighting back.

The trouble started in Japan, where, since the end of World War II, the United States has maintained military bases. The U.S. bases on the island of Okinawa have been the focus of an increasingly powerful protest movement, sparked by sometimes violent behavior by U.S. soldiers, who are immune from prosecution by local authorities. In reaction to that movement, the government of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, elected in August 2009, had promised to get the United States to redeploy troops from the area of greatest friction. However, he was unsuccessful and resigned this spring because of the problem. Nevertheless, the U.S. military has announced that it will be transferring 8,500 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam. The move will involve a massive increase in support services and infrastructure. Its impact will include:

*Bringing in as many as 80,000 more people from outside, troops and civilians, thus making the Chamorros even more of a minority in the lands they have inhabited for 4,000 years (they would drop from 37 percent to 26 percent). 

*Alienating even more farm and other land for military purposes.

*Severe damage to neighboring coral reefs and other natural resources for the purpose of expanding Navy facilities, including a berth for an aircraft carrier at a spot which is a principle birthing are for hammerhead sharks. 

The Navy did a bogus “environmental impact study”. However, a review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had something very different to say. Among other things noted by the EPA is that the sudden increase in population will create a huge crisis of drinking water, “unprecedented” impacts on coral reefs, vastly increased noise pollution, among other things. 

Though the people of Guam have not massively opposed the U.S. military presence up to now, the new plans, and the arrogant way they are being imposed, have sparked an increasingly strong protest movement. Meetings around the island have denounced the plans and raised demands for increasing autonomy. The demand for a face to face meeting with Obama when he finally arrives has come out of this process. 

Follow the struggle of the people of Guam at



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.