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San Juan Star

Revising History Won’t Resolve Colonial Status Problem

By: Herbert W. Brown III*

November 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002
San Juan Star. All rights reserved. 

In a Viewpoint commentary of November 8, Ron Walker argues that Puerto Rico, "…is generally agreed to no longer be a colony" because it was removed from the U.N. list of colonies in 1953 after the local constitution was adopted. The only thing "generally agreed" is that its action on Puerto Rico in 1953 was not the finest hour for the U.N. in upholding self-determination for Puerto Rico.

The historical record reflects that on September 27, 1953, the U.N. General Assembly yielded to U.S. arguments that Puerto Rico should be removed from the list of colonies, and to that effect approved Resolution 748 (VIII) by a vote of 22 to 18, with 19 abstentions. This highly ambiguous measure adopted under pressure from the U.S. (with token support of Puerto Rican leaders who went along) was materially inconsistent with the decolonization standards set forth in Resolution 742, which the U.N. had adopted earlier that same day!

Anyone needing remedial instruction on this point may want to start with Justice Trías Monge’s book on the subject. An even more authoritative analysis of this issue can be found in U.S. House of Representatives Report 105-131, Part 1, June 12, 1997, pp. 14-20. (, "Thomas", Committee Reports, 105th Congress, Resources Committee, H.R. 856).

Instead of dealing with historical facts, Walker simply attempts to change the subject. Specifically he argues the Virgin Islands would be better off in its relations with Washington if it followed the example of Puerto Rico and territories in the Pacific that adopted local constitutions approved by Congress. In this regard, Walker states, "Congress would have preferred that Virgin Islands voters approve a new constitution to replace the Organic Act, as voters have done in Guam".

This is nonsense. Guam has never adopted a local constitution, and remains under an anachronistic Organic Act of 1950. Guam was authorized by Congress in 1976 to adopt a local constitution, but the voters rejected a draft constitution proposed by Guam’s constitutional convention. Thus, Guam is in the same condition as the V.I. in this regard. This means one of the primary factual premises of Walker’s article is simply false.

More important, the significance of Guam’s status process is the opposite of what Walker asserts. Specifically, the primary argument that defeated the draft Guam constitution in a 1978 referendum was that a locally adopted constitution would not solve the colonial problem.

Leaders of Guam’s pro-commonwealth faction campaigned against the draft constitution for Guam on the grounds its adoption would be used by the U.S. to "trick" the U.N. into removing Guam from its list of colonial territories. Puerto Rico’s removal from the U.N. list of colonies in 1953 was cited by Guam’s autonomists as the scenario Guam must avoid.

After voters rejected the draft constitution, Guam’s leaders established a local commission to develop "consensus" on status. The Guam commonwealth model was submitted to Congress in 1987 as a "consensus" expressing the political will of the people.

It languished for ten years, until Guam’s non-voting delegate in Congress finally convinced the House Resources Committee to have a hearing on Guam’s commonwealth bill in late 1997.

The Clinton Administration’s senior witness stated that the commonwealth formula was "inconsistent with United States sovereignty…and also contrary to Congress’ plenary powers over territories…". The Pacific Daily News reported commonwealth "killed" by Congress and the Clinton Administration. This disappointed Guam’s Governor, who reportedly raised over $900,000.00 for the Clinton-Gore campaign in a vain bid to acquire clout in mainland politics.

The Guam commonwealth proposal shows no sign of life to this day. Even Guam’s delegate, Robert Underwood, distanced himself from commonwealth in his recent campaign for Governor of Guam. In debates before the election, Underwood reportedly proposed "free association" for Guam. "Free Association" is understood by everyone (except the defenders of commonwealth in Puerto Rico) to mean associated republic status under a terminable compact treaty such as that adopted by the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. Mr. Underwood added that he would ask the U.S. to grant U.S. citizenship to Guam as an associated republic.

Underwood’s opponent, Felix Camacho, responded that only statehood guarantees U.S. citizenship in the future, a fact Guam may want to consider before lurching toward separatism. Apparently voters agreed, because Mr. Camacho was elected Governor on November 5. Mr. Underwood’s term as Guam’s delegate ends when the current Congress adjourns.

Unlike Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI) has a locally adopted constitution and is referred to as a commonwealth. Because it was a U.N. trust territory integrated into the U.S. without ever being on the U.N. list, the NMI is now recognized legally as an unincorporated territory outside U.N. oversight.

The lesson for Puerto Rico is that a territory is a territory, whether it is listed as a colony by the U.N. or not, with or without a local constitution. If the inhabitants of a territory do not have voting rights and representation in the promulgation of the supreme national law under which they live, their status is colonial.

*Herbert W. Brown III is an attorney in San Juan, President of the Citizens’ Educational Foundation-US, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the decolonization of Puerto Rico based in Washington, D.C. You may access the web site at

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