Would Virgin Islanders prefer to be an American outpost?

Photo by Sawyer Sutton on Pexels.com

Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands I noticed the rift between those who considered themselves ancestral Virgin Islanders and those of us who were either born in or children of people born in the Eastern Caribbean.  This rift, in my opinion, was fueled by the native Virgin Islander belief that being citizens of the United States gave them a certain privilege or right to be condescending to anyone else from the Caribbean.  It was never surprising to hear a “local” refer to down-islanders as “garrot” or “islo” in reference to the fact that the person being persecuted came from further south and east in the Lesser Antilles.

It is no wonder so many of our families started separate civic organizations like the Nevis Benevolent Society or formed churches such as the Bethel Baptist Missionary Baptist Church whose membership was comprised mostly of individuals who hailed from the British Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, and Antigua.

On the other hand, arguably this behavior from native-born Virgin Islanders, albeit condescending and disrespectful of those whose lineage did not historically run through the Virgin Islands from birth, may be part of a native attempt to maintain a Virgin Islands identity unique from other Caribbean nations and territories. 

Virgin Islanders have likely struggled with identity dualism since the territory was formally transferred to the United States from Denmark in March 1917.  The identity struggle likely intensified as the U.S. Virgin Islands found itself surrounded by a Caribbean tossing off governance from European powers and going their own way.  Jamaica gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962.  Barbados and Guyana also broke from the United Kingdom in 1966.  St. Vincent and the Grenadines went their own way in 1979, while Antigua and Barbuda and St. Christopher (St. Kitts) and Nevis gained independence in 1981 and 1983, respectively.

The schizophrenia of being a Virgin Islander and an American tends to be received with more indifference and a smirk from Caribbean nations versus respect as a Caribbean neighbor.   

This schizophrenia apparently seeped into the constitutional politics of the Virgin Islands.  In its fifth attempt in 2010 to draft a constitution for the US Virgin Islands, the constitutional drafting committee ran afoul of the US Department of Justice by recommending tax exemptions for ancestral native Virgin Islanders and native Virgin Islanders.  A native Virgin Islander is defined as someone born in the Virgin Islands on or after 28 June 1932.  An ancestral native Virgin Islander is defined as someone born in the Virgin Islands prior to and including 28 June 1932 as well as descendants of such individuals whether residing in the territory or not.

Under the proposed constitution, ancestral native Virgin Islanders and their descendants would receive a tax exemption on ownership real property.  This exemption would not flow to native Virgin islanders or any non-Virgin Islander domiciled in the territory.  A law distinguishing who would receive and not receive a tax benefit based on place and timing of birth, in the opinion of the Justice Department, would create multiple tiers of citizens. These designations, apparently not tied to a legitimate governmental interest, would run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Department of Justice was also concerned with the drafting committee’s apparent attempt to usurp United States sovereignty over the coastal waters of the Virgin Islands.  In its constitutional proposal, the committee provided language that the Virgin Islands would exercise sovereignty over its inter-island waters and over waters extending twelve nautical miles from each island’s coast up to the borders with international waters.  The lack of mention of US sovereignty over this twelve-mile area, in the Justice Department’s opinion, raised the concern that such a measure, if enacted, would violate federal law.  

At the end of the day, the initiative to draft a constitution adds weight to what University of the Virgin Islands professor Paul Leary identified in a 2020 opinion piece discussing the feasibility of an independent U.S. Virgin Islands.  The Virgin Islands is experiencing “the absence of a clear national identity.”  His observation is a reminder that a national identity is the platform upon which a country must be built.  The Virgin Islands are way too small to play “nation-state” politics.  The size of the territory would only lead to more intense conflict among groups of native and non-native Virgin Islanders trying to divide up a near non-existent pie.

The cohesiveness necessary for nationhood in the U.S. Virgin Islands may be two to three generations away, but given the economic circumstances of the territory, where young people constantly move to the mainland for work and business opportunity, the development of a cohesive nation may experience unacceptable delay.  In the meantime, the Virgin Islands of the United States may have to optimize its status as an American outpost in the Caribbean; subject to scorn from its independent neighbors, relying on the United States for its identity, and pushing away its Caribbean brethren.      

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