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Read this article and find out more about “taxation without representation” with Caribbean and Pacific island colonies

During the 1970’s when I was a student in elementary school, and in the 1980’s when I had been in junior high school and in high school, the way that American history was most commonly taught is that the courses would begin with a very brief overview of Native American tribal history from the ice age up through the 15th century.

Then the textbooks included chapters about the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese and British exploration and subsequent colonialization of the Americas, up through the 1770’s.  The next chapters in the textbooks were about the Continental Congress, the developments which led up to the Revolution, independence and then the Constitutional Convention.

Students are taught that the 13 British colonies decided to secede from George III for numerous reasons, most of which involve the structure of the colonial governments which enabled the British monarchy to exploit the resources of the colonies, with the colonists receiving close to nothing in return.  It is also explained that it is accepted by almost all credible modern historians that in the 1770’s and the 1780’s, our country’s founding fathers had assumed that we would not likely stop with 13 states, our founding fathers had all assumed that we would be expanding in future centuries.  Our founding fathers likely assumed that the United States Of America would expand westward, and the Constitution was clearly designed to make it easy for our government to acquire new territory and establish new states.

We’re taught an introductory version of these events beginning in elementary school, we learn about this same series of events in in greater detail in junior high school, and we learn these same events in much greater detail when we’re in high school.  While this version of events is a vast oversimplification of our history, it is in fact largely accurate.  This is how our history has been taught throughout most of the 20th century.

And in most schools, students were taught a lot of details of the history of our 50 states.  And in most schools, most of the textbooks mention very little about our current colonies.

The curriculum in many states has changed a lot since I had been a high school student.  From what I’ve seen, today history classes do discuss the history of our current colonies slightly more so than they did back in the 20th century, but the topic is still glossed over, the textbooks and many teachers still mention the topics relating to our current colonies only briefly- that is unless you live in those colonies.

Taxation Without Representation In The 18th Century

The early chapters in most history textbooks explain a lot of detail about how harsh the living conditions had been in many areas during the 17th and the 18th centuries due to the British government’s exploitation of the American colonies.  Textbooks describe how the French and Spanish governments had established comparably exploitative colonial relationships in their former colonies such as Florida and Maine, before those territories were acquired by the British, either through sale or territorial border wars.  And textbooks correctly point out that the Dutch colonial governing structures were much more progressive, the Dutch colonial governments allowed  for a lot more rights and freedoms for the citizens within their territories.

The textbooks continue with our history of westward expansion throughout the course of the 19th century; the textbooks describe the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the concept of manifest destiny which became popular during the mid 19th century, which contributed to Andrew Johnson administration’s decision to purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Taxation Without Representation In The 21st Century

Now in the 21st century, the United States Of America now includes not only our 50 states and Washington, D.C., we also administer Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as the Northern Mariana Islands.  What history textbooks rarely mention is that in some ways, the current arrangements that our Federal government presently have with the territorial and commonwealth governments in those territories share eerie similarities with the colonial governments that the French, Spanish and British monarchies had established in their North American colonies back in the 15th, the 16th and the 17th centuries.

Briefly: The United States acquired Guam Puerto Rico in 1898 following the Spanish American War, we acquired American Samoa from Germany in 1899, we purchased the three Caribbean islands St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas from Denmark in 1917, and in 1947, the United Nations Security Council handed authority of the Trust Territory For The Pacific Islands to the United States.  The Trust Territory For The Pacific Islands included the Northern Marianna Islands which had previously been held by Germany in the early 1900’s, and were later occupied by Japan.  According to U.S. government records, as of July of 2015, Puerto Rico has 3,474,182 citizens, Guam has 161,785 citizens, the U.S. Virgin Islands have 103,574 citizens, American Samoa has 54,343 residents (“nationals,” not citizens) and the Commonwealth Of The Northern Mariana Islands has 52,344 citizens.  The Pacific island colonies and the USVI are administered via the Office Of Insular Affairs, which is a branch of the Department Of The Interior, and Puerto Rico is administered by the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

Although people in some parts of our present colonies do live in poverty, the living conditions in Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands are not oppressive as the living conditions in the original 13 colonies had been during the 1750’s and the 1760’s, there’s no equal comparison at all with regard to living conditions or civil rights abuses in day- to- day activities.  The colonial relationships are not exploitative as those of three and a half centuries ago had been.

The residents of Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands are American citizens, the residents of American Samoa are officially classified as American Nationals, and they enjoy most of the same full citizenship rights as the residents of our 50 states; they can travel freely to and from the U.S. mainland, they can move to the continental 50 states, they can work on the mainland, they can attend colleges and universities here as citizens, they can enlist in our military, they can attend or military academies, our Federal agencies oversee their infrastructure, including their highways, national parks and the airports that are located on those islands.

The currency of those islands is the American dollar, their post offices are administered by the USPS, and if the people who live in those islands commit serious crimes, they are sent to our Federal prisons.  When people who live in those islands retire, they collect Social Security, and they are fully eligible for Medicare and Medicaid.

Our Federal government is however taxing the residents of those islands, with the exception of American Samoa, while concurrently allowing them zero (0) effective representation within Congress.

Anyone who has ever read the instructions on any IRS tax form has noticed that the citizens of Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands pay the exact same Federal taxes as the citizens of the 50 states and Washington, D.C.  The citizens of those islands have a total of zero (0) U.S. Senators, they have a collective total of zero (0) electoral votes in the electoral college, and they get to elect non-voting delegates to the House Of Representatives (in the case of Puerto Rico, the phrase “Resident Commissioner” is used instead of “Delegate,” the representative functions in the same non-voting capacity.)

We don’t know what our next Constitutional amendments will be, when the next amendments will be proposed or when they will be ratified.  We do know that Article V of our Constitution requires that all future amendments will need to be ratified by three fourths of our state governments.  That is to say that 38 of our 50 state governments will have to ratify all future proposed amendments before any future amendments are finally approved- 38 of our 50 state governments, and zero (0) of our colonial governing bodies.  Our colonies are not involved in the process of ratifying constitutional amendments, yet the residents of those islands will be living under the terms of all Federal legislation.

This is taxation without representation, this is precisely what that historic battle in Lexington and Concord in 1775 was rebelling against, this is why our Declaration Of Independence was written the following year, and this is precisely what our founding fathers were trying to prevent from ever occurring again when they’d convened in Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

Proposed Referendums For Independence

In December of 1960, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution# 1514, The Declaration On The Granting of Independence To Colonial Countries And Peoples.  This resolution is NOT a treaty, it is a General Assembly resolution which states that colonized territories throughout the world have a right to self governance.  In the UN General Assembly in December of 1960, 89 countries voted in favor of this resolution and 9 abstained.  Of the 9 countries whose delegates abstained from voting on this resolution, 8 of them are modern colonial powers, and the United States Of America was one of them.

The following year, in 1961, the United Nations established the UN Special Committee On Decolonization, which was established with the specific intent of ensuring that colonial powers give their colonies the right to secede, and that if the residents of colonies to opt for independence, the transition goes smoothly.

The terms of the 1960 Declaration On The Granting of Independence To Colonial Countries And Peoples does not state that maintaining colonies would constitute a violation of international law or that their independence is mandatory.  The terms of this resolution state that we’re required to allow the citizens of our colonies to have the option to secede if they do decide that they want to do so.

In 1990, the UN declared that the 1990’s would be the Decade For The Eradication Of Colonialism, in 2000, the General Assembly passed resolution# 55/146 which reiterated the terms of the 1960 declaration, and they declared that 2000- 2010 would be the Second Decade For The Eradication Of Colonialism.

Independence movements do exist in our Caribbean colonies, there are presently no independence movements in our Pacific island colonies.

The independence movement in Puerto Rico dates back approximately 100 years. There have been a number of parties which have advocated for the island to become independent, the largest of which is the Puerto Rican Independence Party which formed in the 1940’s.  There have been a number of other parties which had attempted to achieve Puerto Rico’s independence, including the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which was active from the 1960’s through their disbanding in 1984.  The FALN did not advocate for a non-violent approach to achieving independence; this party’s leadership had felt that attempting to achieve independence through legitimate political channels seemed impossible, and they embarked on a series of bombing campaigns throughout the U.S. mainland during the 1970’s in an attempt to achieve their goal.  During the 1960’s and the 1970’s, the Young Lords was an activist group that had chapters throughout a number of U.S. cities which had advocated for Puerto Rico’s independence.

There is also an active independence movement in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the party is called the Independent Citizens Movement, this party was founded in 1968.

We do have precedents from our relatively recent history of instances in which our Federal government has granted independence to some of our former colonies and the process of transition to independence has gone smoothly.  For example, most recently, in 1986 our Federal government granted full independence to the Marshall Islands, and the Republic Of The Marshall Islands was formed.  Independence was not accomplished overnight, their national government formed in 1979, and between 1979 and 1986, our Federal government and the government of the Marshall Islands worked together to make plans for the transition.  Our Federal agencies and Federal offices withdrew from the islands, and the government of the Marshall Islands worked with the United Nations so that the entire world would recognize and accept them as a sovereign nation beginning in 1986.

In the years since 1986, the relationship between the U.S. and the Republic Of The Marshall Islands has not been without its problems.  The U.S. has been paying reparation funds to the residents of the islands who are still suffering from serious medical conditions which they have developed as a result of being exposed to the fallout from atomic weapons tests that were conducted between 1946 and 1962.  Many of the people who are receiving reparation payments state that our government is paying them too little, they state that the checks that they receive will not cover the current costs of medical procedures and medications.  There have also been problems of with people who were promised that they would have the option to retain their American citizenship or that they would have the option to have dual citizenship status, and then they’ve found that they are unable to work in the U.S.  These are very serious problems, it is not known when or how these will be resolved.  However, despite these problems, the process of the transition from being an American colony to becoming an independent country did go smoothly.  People who had been living in the Marshall Islands prior to the country’s independence in 1986 have been able to keep their pensions and their Social Security benefits.  American businesses have been able to successfully conduct business in the Marshall Islands, and business that are based in the Marshall Islands have been able to successfully conduct business transactions with the rest of the world.  The transition from colony to fully independent republic could be used as a model for future decolonization- and our Federal government can in fact learn from the example of the Marshall Islands.  The issue of payment of reparations is unique to the Marshall islands, that issue would not be relevant to any other colonies.  The problems with people who were promised that they could have dual citizenship status could be relevant to future decolonization, and our government can learn how to prevent this situation from recurring- if people are promised that they would have the option to become have citizenship in two countries following decolonization, then the Federal government will have to ensure that they will actually honor the terms of this promise.

The Options For Statehood

Aside from independence, the residents of our Caribbean and our Pacific island colonies should also have the right to hold referendums for statehood status.  Aside from the independence movement that I’ve mentioned, there is also a movement in Puerto Rico which advocates for statehood status.  At present, there are no parties that I’m aware of which are actively seeking statehood status in any of our other colonies.  Our Federal government would probably be willing to allow our colonies to opt to hold a referendum regarding potential statehood status if the residents of those islands were to request such a referendum.  Many of our Congressmen and Congresswomen would probably not be opposed to seeing the U.S. become a country of 51, 52 or even 53 states, though this is an issue which is very rarely discussed in either of our houses of Congress, simply because they view this as an issue of very low priority.  This would not be an issue of such low priority of more people were to insist that our Federal government pay attention to the fact that our colonies are not fairly represented in Congress.

We can also turn to example from our history to see how the transition from territorial status to statehood has been accomplished very smoothly.  From 1912 through 1959, the United States Of America was in fact a country which was comprised of 48 states.  The movement for statehood status in both Alaska and Hawaii began in the 1940’s, and in 1959, Congress opted to grant statehood status to both Alaska and Hawaii.  Both decisions had been controversial but the transitions to statehood were accomplished smoothly.  Throughout the 1940’s and the 1950’s, many residents of Alaska and Hawaii had been discussing the option independence rather than statehood.  In those instances, the process truly was democratic- the number of residents of those islands who preferred statehood outnumbered those who preferred independence.  In Hawaii, a referendum was held in 1959, which resulted in Hawaii becoming our 50th state.  A few months earlier, the Alaska Statehood Act passed for a number of reasons, one of which was that the publicity which had been generated by advocacy groups and political parties as well as the fact that many Congressmen and Congresswomen had simply realized that Alaska’s status as a territory simply no longer made any sense.

In both Hawaii and Alaska, the office of territorial governor became the office of state governor and our number of Senators went from 96 to 100.  In 1959 there were two temporary Representatives in the House Of Representatives- one for Alaska and one for Hawaii until the next reapportionment, when the House Of Representatives reverted to 435 members, which included Representatives from Hawaii and Alaska.  And citizens of Hawaii and Alaska were able to vote for President, Alaska now has three electoral votes and Hawaii has 4 electoral votes.

Living conditions did improve for many residents of those two former territories after Alaska and Hawaii achieved statehood status, though the issue was controversial back in the 1950’s, and in the case of Alaska,the issue still remains controversial today.  There is still an active independence movement in Alaska today.

Not only has there never been any active independence movement within the Commonwealth Of The Northern Mariana Islands, most of the residents of those islands seem to be very thankful that they are a part of the United States Of America.  They welcome the trade opportunities as well as the protection from our military.  In the case of the Northern Mariana Islands, considering the option for potential statehood status would seemingly be a very sensible option for their future, and the process of transition that occurred in Hawaii back in 1959 would serve as a good example as to how this can be accomplished smoothly.

Maintaining The Current Status

And of course, our Federal government does indeed have the option to continue to do nothing at all regarding the future of the status of our colonies, in which case little is likely to change anytime in the near future.  As I’ve mentioned, there has been an active independence movement in Puerto Rico since 1919, there is also a party which advocates for statehood status in Puerto Rico, and there has been an independence movement in the U.S. Virgin Islands since the 1960’s.   As you may have noticed, oddly enough, discussions regarding the possibility of holding referendums regarding granting independence or the possibility of potential statehood status of our Caribbean and our Pacific island colonies was not mentioned at all during the current 2016 Presidential campaigns by the Democrats or the Republicans.  Some of the third party candidates this year including the Green Party have been advocating for independence for our colonies, and opinion regarding this issue is divided among our various socialist parties; some of the socialist parties advocate for independence of our colonies, while others feel that the islands would be better off if they were granted statehood status.  I strongly suspect that regardless of the outcome of the upcoming Nov. 8th, 2016 elections, our Federal government will likely take the option to maintain our current policies, that is to say that our Federal government will likely continue to do absolutely nothing whatsoever in the near future to address the future status of these islands.  And then, we will continue to be living in a country which continues to preside over colonial governments with taxation without representation- which is precisely what our country’s founders were rebelling against when they fired the first shot that was heard around the world in 1775, when they signed the Treaty Of Paris in 1783, and this is what they were trying to prevent from ever occurring again when wrote our Constitution and the Federalist Papers in 1787.

Our Uninhabited Caribbean And Pacific Island Possessions

The United States Of America also owns a number of smaller Pacific islands, including our Minor Outlaying Islands- Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnson Atoll, Kingman Reef and Wake Atoll.  These islands have no permanent residents, these are wildlife refugees and national monuments, the only residents of these islands are international academic groups of marine wildlife researchers who only stay on these islands temporarily.  Therefore, decolonization isn’t actually an issue which would effect these territories, as the permanent human population of these islands is zero (0).  I believe that unlike the case of Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands, our continued ownership of these uninhabited islands does make more sense.  There are also three Caribbean islands, Navassa Island, Serranilla Bank and Baja Nuevo Bank whose ownership is claimed by the U.S. as well as other countries, including Jamaica, Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras and Colombia.  These 3 islands are also all uninhabited.  The issues of their ownership does need to be resolved, presumable either by the United Nations or the Organization Of American States, but once again, decolonization is not the relevant issue because these islands are uninhabited.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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