The notion of an independent Virgin Islands strikes many as outlandish. But is it?
A wave of colonial liberation swept the globe after World War II. It began with Indian freedom in 1948. Eventually, it reached the Caribbean. Jamaica and Trinidad gained independence in 1962; Barbados in 1966. Our neighboring islands followed (Dominica-1978; Antigua-1981; St. Kitts/Nevis-1983). Independence is the usual way in which colonial status ends.
But isn’t this impossible for a small place like the Virgin Islands? Actually, size is not the issue. We are more populous (104,000) than St. Kitts-Nevis (53,000), Antigua (96,000) and Dominica (72,000). The United Nations contains members as tiny as Tuvalu (pop. 10,200} and Nauru (pop. 11,0000. Then why are we still in a colonial relationship with the U.S.? We remain subject to the will of Congress. We have no representation in Congress. We cannot vote for President.
If you don’t think we are considered a quasi-foreign entity, consider a common experience. When you travel to the American mainland you undergo immigration and customs checks at the airport. The items you bring with you (liquor and other local purchases) are limited in amount and value, with the terms set by national legislation. You are treated as if you are entering the U.S. from a foreign country. If we are truly a part of the United States, how is this possible? There are no customs or immigration checks when you travel from one state to another. But as an unincorporated territory, we “belong to but are not a part of” the United States.” (By contrast, if you fly directly from San Juan to the mainland, there are no such procedures. Why? Simply because Congress has decided to treat Puerto Rico, a fellow unincorporated territory, differently. It is included in the U.S. customs zone. We are not. Go figure).
So why is independence considered off the table for the VI? There are several reasons, but the most important one is the absence of a clear sense of national identity.
But let’s start with economics. The VI is highly dependent on the American connection. Tourism is the major industry and most visitors are from the continental United States. Their travel is facilitated by a common citizenship so that a passport is not required. Most major investment in the tourism sector, such as hotels, comes from American sources, and is facilitated by the security of knowing that we are part of the American political sphere and that property rights are fully protected — and safe. (No popular revolts to worry about.) Major chains such as K-mart, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Home Depot, etc. have a strong presence. They add economic value and reinforce the feeling of being “American.”
There is also the inflow of federal dollars in the form of grants and programs, which are substantial ($239 million in 2019). Taxes collected by the federal government on VI rum are returned. This amounted to $256 million dollars in 2019. The local economy would implode without these revenues.
Then there are cultural impacts. The media in the V.I. is dominated by American news and information, creating an important psychological impact. Common citizenship and the availability of regular air connections lead to frequent residence, both short and long term, on the mainland. Many islanders enlist in the Armed Forces and gain pride in their American service. There is a local unit of the Army National Guard. High school grads attend stateside colleges.
But there is another reason why there is so little local interest in independence. There is no broadly shared national identity. The population contains many segments with no deep and continuous connection to the VI. The 2010 census is revealing in this regard.
Less than 50 percent of Virgin Islands residents were born here. The Latin America/Caribbean born constitute 35 percent. U.S. born make up 16 percent. Even the percentage of native-born exaggerates the number of those with a generations-long connection. Many are no doubt first or second-generation offspring of those born elsewhere, most likely the Eastern Caribbean. There is simply no deep sense of a distinct national Virgin Islands identity in the overall population. Without it, there is no foundation for political independence.
This is the most important reason why there is no strong sentiment for independence in the VI, despite its subordinate (colonial) status with the United States and the example of our close island neighbors. Economics plays an important part, but one should not underestimate the role of a strong and shared cultural identity and its connection to nationalism. For the foreseeable future, the Virgin Islands will remain a colony. Only the passage of time and the growth of shared social bonds will change that.
Editor’s note: Paul Leary, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of the Virgin Islands.