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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, June 12, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsState of the Territory |The Path to Self-Determination: Part 5

State of the Territory |The Path to Self-Determination: Part 5

In her bi-weekly column, “State of the Territory,” former Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw delves deeper into issues of concern for V.I. residents.

Our history in the Virgin Islands unfolds as a testament to the unyielding struggle of our people for integrity, dignity, and the authority to carve out our destiny. From the chains of slavery to the trials of serfdom, culminating in the assertion of citizenship, our narrative is marked by an unwavering pursuit of freedom and self-determination. Despite achieving noteworthy milestones, the relentless quest for freedom remains our enduring journey.

In the grand tapestry of global affairs, the Caribbean islands take center stage, weaving into the unfolding drama of empire—encompassing colonialism, slavery, emancipation, wars, decolonization, and geopolitical conflicts like the East-West and North-South struggles. It’s fascinating that, despite being the birthplace of Western colonialism, the Caribbean lingers among the last regions to undergo decolonization.

Over the past five decades, the Caribbean Basin has witnessed the emergence of twelve new nations, with eight positioned in the Eastern Caribbean. As a proud Virgin Islander, I’ve observed our influence shaped by the surge of Caribbean independence, propelling us steadily towards self-determination. This expedition contemplates the potential, through a plebiscite or referendum, for us to shape our political status—ranging from independence to integration or an intermediary stance.

For many of us in the Virgin Islands, the notion of economic self-sufficiency becomes a prerequisite for contemplating independence. The substantial financial ties with Washington present a challenge to the viability of independence. Our economic bonds with the U.S. government are substantial, evident in the retention of federal tax revenues in the insular treasury. Governed by the Revised Organic Act of 1954, this arrangement includes the Internal Revenue Matching Fund, commonly known as the Rum Cover-Over, a pillar supporting our retirement system.

The financial intricacies extend to 100 percent revenue sharing, with federal grants-in-aid surpassing per capita grants to all states and local governments by 51 percent. While Congress has extended considerable aid for capital projects and covered deficits stemming from income tax reductions, the question of economic self-sufficiency remains a central consideration as we ponder the pursuit of independence for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A revealing measure of our territory’s dependence on the U.S. government, encompassing all federal assistance, is the fact that more federal funds are spent per capita in the U.S. Virgin Islands than in any other U.S. jurisdiction. Simultaneously, our per capita tax effort is the lowest under the American flag. This financial reliance on Washington’s benevolence, coupled with substantial dependence on the mainland for support of our private sector, leads many Virgin Islanders, myself included, to dismiss the idea of independence as a feasible future option for our Islands.

Conversely, I acknowledge that, in the Eastern Caribbean and around the world, instances abound where nationalism has triumphed over economic dependence, sparking movements for independence. The options before us encompass integration in various forms, such as statehood or “fuller integration,” each promising greater autonomy, control of internal affairs, and increased participation in the national political system. Statehood deemed the least likely possibility, would entail our admission to the United States as a co-equal state. Fuller integration, a status shy of statehood but with more equal political treatment, might necessitate the formidable amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Additional options, commonly known as commonwealth and/or free association, imply local control over internal affairs, retention of defense and most foreign affairs by the United States, and Congressional constraint in exercising its authority.

The dynamics and distinctions among these options remain subjects of spirited debate. The term “free associated state,” closest in English to the Spanish “Estado Libre Asociado,” suggests more political autonomy than Puerto Rico possesses. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, greenlit by Congress in 1976, wields more governmental power than Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s experience with commonwealth status, established in 1952, fuels ongoing debate in the United Nations decolonization committee regarding its self-governance.

In contemplating our future, it’s crucial to recognize the delicate balance between our economic ties with the United States and our shared history with the rapidly decolonized Eastern Caribbean. While the prospect of Virgin Islanders willingly severing or loosening these bonds in exchange for a radically different political status may seem improbable, the crux of the matter is our right to choose. A 1981 poll reported that 55 percent of Virgin Islanders favored closer ties to the United States, 32 percent preferred maintaining the present relationship, and 13 percent supported complete independence. A probable choice for Virgin Islanders appears to be a form of closer integration with the U.S., excluding statehood.

Should we opt for fuller integration, certain principles must be upheld to ensure our self-determination and a greater measure of self-government. The so-called territorial clause of the United States Constitution, Article IV, section 3, clause 2, historically justified federal authority over U.S. territories. Yet, the basic principles governing the federal-state relationship—such as equality of treatment and limitation of federal power—are not automatically extended to us, though they should be.

While assurance of civil liberties is no longer a central concern, our participation in the national political system and territorial control over local affairs are paramount. As a territory, we lack representation as an entity in Congress, with only a single non-voting representative. Citizens of the Virgin Islands, including myself, are denied the right to vote for the president and vice president, resulting in negligible representation in the national political system. Lastly, I cannot overlook the persisting challenges posed by the Insular Cases, which continue to cast a shadow of undemocracy over our journey forward. These cases, with their historical implications and undemocratic tendencies, represent a nuanced aspect that demands careful consideration and resolution as we navigate the complex terrain of political status choices.

In navigating the intricate path towards self-determination, let us embrace our history, honor our shared identity as Virgin Islanders, and ardently advocate for a future where democratic principles triumph over the shadows of the past. Our journey continues, and with each step, we affirm the resilience of our spirit and the unwavering pursuit of a destiny shaped by the collective will of our people.

Related Links

State of the Territory | Navigating the Path to Self-Determination in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Part 1

State of the Territory | Navigating the Path to Self-Determination in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Part 2

State of the Territory | Navigating the Path to Self-Determination in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Part 3

State of the Territory | Navigating the Path to Self-Determination in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Part 4

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