It is well known that the Virgin Islands has made several attempts to draft a constitution that would allow it to manage the internal design and operations of its government. During these efforts, Virgin Islanders were engaged in a search for an enhanced political status. These attempts were unsuccessful.
A new attempt is being considered, and there is hope that success will be realized. Emphasis will be placed only on adopting a constitution and not on the thorny issue of political status and self-determination. Those who propose the bifurcation of these issues argue that voters are not yet interested in the topics of self-determination and political status. They argue that voters are currently interested only in a constitution that meets the mandate of the U.S. Congress requiring a local constitution to recognize the sovereignty of the United States.
Another group of Virgin Islanders believe that self-determination and political status should be the primary focus before a constitution is drafted and adopted. They believe that the constitution should reflect a newly defined political status that will allow for substantially greater autonomy and internal control than could be realized through adoption of a constitution only. These two views oppose each other diametrically, and the opposition appears to be irreconcilable since they collide directly.
The Virgin Islands is on a short list of 16 non-self-governing territories worldwide. This list is maintained by the United Nations. Over a span of many years, this list has been reduced from more than 700 entries to its current number through the internationally recognized process of self-determination
While adopting a constitution that meets the approval of the U.S. Congress might possibly remove the territory from the list of non-self-governing territories, doing so is of limited value, since it does nothing to address the fundamentally important and internationally recognized issue of self-determination and political status.
As a territory of the United States, and an unincorporated one at that, the Virgin Islands will remain subject to the plenary power of the U.S. Congress. In its oversight capacity, Congress can do whatever it pleases with the territory, as stated repeatedly by the federal judiciary. This is especially noteworthy since the Virgin Islands is not a "large T" territory in transition to statehood. Instead, it is a "small t" territory not expected to transition to statehood.
The remaining status options available to the territory are: (1) status quo (or unincorporated territory) or (2) independence.
Free association is often discussed as an option, but this model is a variation of the independence option that allows an independent state to establish and maintain a mutually agreed upon relationship with the United States. An examination of the several Compacts of Free Association between the United States and those states that are engaged in them demonstrates what the possibilities are. There are many elements in those arrangements that acknowledge self-determination and political status concerns that may be worthy of examination and study by Virgin Islanders in their quest for a redefined political status. Perhaps embedded in them are paths to a future that should be considered.
After more than a century of unsettled political status for Puerto Rico with its 4 million inhabitants vis a vis the United States, there is virtually no reason to expect that any option outside of the three that are recognized by the U.S. government and the world community will be developed to accommodate the needs of the Virgin Islands.
Most of the Eastern Caribbean states have embarked on political status options, and they have had many years of experience directing their insular and international affairs. There should be no surprise if the British Virgin Islands moves in a similar direction in the future. It has already commissioned a study of the costs of becoming independent.
For readers interested in this topic and who are desirous of developing informed opinions on the issues involved, consulting the following terms and their meanings might be valuable:
– Compact, which relates to an agreement with conditions mutually agreed to by the parties.
– Commonwealth, a term yet to be fully defined that refers to the relationship that Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory has with the United States.
– Free association, a modification of total independence that includes shared sovereignty based upon mutually agreed upon terms between the parties, and may be in the form of compacts.
– Full integration, referring to integration as part of the union of states.
– Incorporated territory, which refers to a territorial jurisdiction in transition to full integration or statehood, except that the Palmyra Islands as the only incorporated territory of the United States is not seen as likely to transition to statehood.
– Independence, which refers to separate and distinct sovereignty.
– Non-self-governing, which refers to territories with limited or nonexistent internal autonomy.
– Organic act, an act of Congress that is subject to amendments by Congress from time to time that organizes the government of a territory.
– Self-determination, a process recognized by the international community that allows peoples of the world in non-self-governing situations to choose a political status from among internationally recognized options.
– Unincorporated territory, which refers to a territory such as the Virgin Islands that is organized because it has an organic act but is a "small t" territory because it is not seen as likely to become fully integrated and a state.
Editor's note: St. Thomas resident Gaylord A. Sprauve is a retired V.I. government administrator.
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