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TRANSFER DAY 2017: Is The U.S. Virgin Islands Proof Positive That America Is Still An Empire With Colonies?

FLAG OF THE U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS

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CHARLOTTE AMALIE — The United States’ national traditions of American exceptionalism and anti-imperialism perpetuate the myth that the U.S. is not and has never been an empire. How can anyone forget President George W. Bush’s infamous claim that the U.S. was the only great power in history to have refused the opportunity to become an empire?

But Bush was wrong: the United States’ imperial past is very real – and remnants of its empire are still around to this day. This year, the Virgin Islands, located in the Caribbean basin, marks the centennial of their formal transfer from Denmark to the United States of America.

The United States purchased the islands in 1917, when they were known as the Danish West Indies, hoping that they would be an ideal strategic location for a naval base and would help secure the region surrounding the Panama Canal.

By purchasing the islands, the United States would also ensure the maintenance of the Monroe Doctrine, the historic 1823 declaration that the U.S. would view any further colonization or interference in the affairs of the western hemisphere by European powers as a threat to its national interests.

The brief history lesson on the Virgin Islands’ official centennial website is all well and good, but it fails to grapple with the taboo topic of empire.

Buying the Danish West Indies was one small act in a wider imperial policy – one that historian David Healy describes as nothing less than a “drive for hegemony” in the western hemisphere.

Bought and sold

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. transformed into a colonial empire, annexing the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. In the years after the war, Cuba effectively became a protectorate, and the Umted States supported Panamanian separatists in Colombia and took control of the Panama Canal Zone.

Over the next two decades, Washington pursued a policy of informal imperialism in and around the Caribbean; the Monroe Doctrine was reinterpreted to meet the United States’ imperial needs and justify its repeated political, economic, and military intervention in the western hemisphere countries.

The Virgin Islands’ capital, Charlotte Amalie. Raquel Bagnol/Shutterstock

In the early 20th century, the United States became paranoid that imperial Germany also wanted to purchase the Danish West Indies, as well as the Galapagos archipelago from Ecuador.

The US Virgin Islands thus became closely associated with the Monroe Doctrine during the first two decades of the century. For many Americans, it seemed unquestionable that the United States was the only legitimate purchaser of the islands.

After many attempts to negotiate their transfer from Denmark, a deal was finally struck in 1916 and, by March 31 1917, the United States flag flew above the now renamed U.S. Virgin Islands.

Over time, the United States began to shed its colonial possessions. It relinquished control of the Philippines in 1946 and granted statehood to Alaska and Hawaii in 1959 – but today, the Virgin Islands are still classified as unincorporated territory, as are Puerto Rico and Guam.

Virgin Islanders hold U.S. citizenship, yet they cannot vote in presidential elections and their elected Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett has limited voting power. Together with Guam and Puerto Rico, these islands linger in a colonial system from the early 20th century.

The United Nations has not ignored this affront to self-determination and has classified the islands as among the world’s Non-Self-Governing-Territories.

Its Special Committee on Decolonization recommended in a 2016 resolution that its parent organisation should “actively pursue a public awareness campaign aimed at assisting the people of the Virgin Islands with their inalienable right to self-determination” and reaffirmed that “it is ultimately for the people of the Virgin Islands to determine freely their future political status.”

This year’s centennial deserves attention, not just as a celebration of Virgin Islands life but because it reminds us that the American colonial past survives today, albeit in limited form.

Recognizing these islands as a colonial remnant is part of thinking clearly about how the United States’ history of imperialism affects its foreign relations to this day.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy has been reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region since 1989. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is originally from Detroit, Michigan.

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