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The Best Of Imperialism, The Worst Of Imperialism

A little while ago, I made an offhand comment (appropriately enough, in the comments section) about how America has been, arguably, the least successful and the most successful colonial power the world has ever seen. (Hat tip to my Blue colleague, Steve Crickmore, for provoking that thought.) At the time, I said that it might be worthy of a longer study, and it's been rattling around in the back of my brain ever since.

The United States missed out on the best of the "colonial" era. Unlike the European powers, we didn't go setting up colonies around the world to exploit and benefit ourselves. I suspect this was partly late-bloomer syndrome, and partly because we got our own start as a colony, and rebelled -- that most likely left a bad taste in our mouths for the whole colonial thing.

Finally, in the waning years of the 19th century, we got into the act. But we decided it was too much work to build our own empire. Rather, why not just take someone else's? That led to the Spanish-American War, and that concluded with us taking over most of Spain's colonies -- the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico, among others.

So, how well did that work out? We granted Cuba and the Philippines their independence after a few decades. We kinda-sorta granted Cuban independence after a couple of years, but it was decades before they were well and truly free of American dominance (when they traded that for a Communist dictator). And the Philippines were even more contentious, with a long string of broken promises of independence up until the Japanese invaded and took over. After the war, the US finally relented and let the Philippines go their own way.

Guam and Puerto Rico, however, were a different story. They were made "territories" of the United States, with their people granted full citizenship and many of the privileges (but not all, and none of the obligations) of statehood. Guam, also, fell to the Japanese empire, but we took it back during World War II. Since then, both have flirted with independence or somehow changing their status, but there is no real passion in either place to change the status quo. Indeed, Puerto Rico has had regular referendums on the issue, and "stay the same" has won every time.

So out of four big "colonies," two have gone independent and two are happy the way things are, as part of the United States. How about other places, where we have taken territory by force of arms?

Colin Powell said it best:

[F]ar from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it. We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people.

And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say, "Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us"? No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.

Yes, we've sent our forces abroad. Yes, we've invaded other nations. But in each and every case, once the battle was won and the new government established and secure, we only stayed as long as we were welcome. We have forces in Germany and Japan, after we utterly crushed them militarily, but they are there with the consent of the government -- and everyone knows that the instant they wish us to leave, we will do so, with a minimum of fuss.

If you need any references, feel free to contact Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.

In Saudi Arabia, we entered at the request of the King after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. We stayed there, because they allowed it. And then, when the Saudis asked us to leave, we did so.

In the Philippines, we kept a sizable military presence after we granted them their independence in 1946. Subic Bay and Clark Field were linchpins in the United States defense system, our two major bases in the western Pacific. Then, when the Philippine government no longer wanted us, we left -- no fuss, no threats, no warnings of dire repercussions. We had overstayed our welcome, so we took our leave.

So, as colonial powers, we suck. We got four great ones off of Spain, but none of them stayed colonies for very long. And we've had numerous opportunities to add new ones, as we invaded and defeated plenty of other nations and territories (especially during World War II, when the United States militarily conquered most of western Europe and the Pacific), and in each and every case we handed back control to the natives. And while we left our military in most of those places, it was not as an occupying power, but as a guarantor of their independence and our own secuirty.

But there is another theory, one I happen to like. It's that the United States represents a newer, softer, more subtle, but far more effective form of colonialism than that by the sword. And that is cultural colonialsim.

American culture is, for better or worse, THE dominant culture around the world. Our TV shows, our movies, our form of English, our technology, our currency, our celebrities, are the most popular around the world. The symbols of the United States, to most people, are not the eagle and the Stars and Stripes and the Army and the Navy and the Air Force and the Marines. The symbols of America are McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Hollywood, the almighty dollar, the personal computer (both Windows and Mac), General Motors, Starbucks, Mickey Mouse, Superman, George Clooney, and so on.

We have done what tyrants of the past have never succeeded in doing. We have surpassed Caesar, Stalin, Hitler, Alexander, and a host of others -- we have conquered the world. And we did it not by force of arms, but simply by doing things better than everyone else. We have, in effect, "colonized' the world by making so many people want to be part of us. And we did it all (I believe) by accident. We never sought global cultural domination; the globe beat the path to our door.

So, now that we have this nifty new empire, whatever shall we do with it?

Damned if I know. And I think very few have any real ideas.

There's one school of thought that says "we better smash it!" These folks are just scared of the responsibility that comes with accepting the role we've found ourselves.

There's another that says "if we ignore it, it'll just go away." I don't think that'll work; that's pretty much the formula for how we got there in the first place.

Then there are those who say "we must harness this for the good of all mankind." There is nothing more dangerous than a clueless idealist, who cheerfully race down the highway at breakneck speeds, flying over the asphalt of Good Intentions -- and I think we all know where that road leads.

We weren't smart enough to plan this to happen this way. Why on god's green earth would we think that we're smart enough to assert control now without throwing the whole thing into chaos and unleashing mass higgledy-piggledy?

My idea? Simple. Keep an eye on things for flagrant abuses and offenses, but otherwise sit back and simply enjoy the ride. As I said, we didn't set out to get where we are, we just followed our instincts, and they've worked out pretty darned well -- for nearly all concerned -- so far. Why mess with success?


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Comments (28)

e United States missed o... (Below threshold)
wolfwalker:

e United States missed out on the best of the "colonial" era. Unlike the European powers, we didn't go setting up colonies around the world to exploit and benefit ourselves.

This is the conventional view of history, yes. However, since I delight in playing with people's preconceptions, I'm going to suggest that it's wrong. The United States built a colonial empire as big as any European power did. Don't believe me? Look at how much land was included in the original thirteen states at independence. Then look at how we expanded westward, chunk by chunk. First the rest of Britain's North American territories, which took up most of the land from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. Next came the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the land area of the United States in one great leap. Then the Mexican Territories, the Gadsden Purchase, the Pacific Northwest, and finally Alaska. Compared to the original thirteen colony/states, that's a GIGANTIC empire. But most people don't see it that way, because we absorbed those lands and transformed them into new states almost as fast as we took them.

We were able to rapidly become an effective overseas colonial power in the 20th century because we'd practiced how to do it within our own borders during the 19th century. Military conquest, financial conquest, cultural conquest -- we'd done it all before. And we'd had some time to learn how to do it right. Only when we started acting like European colonial powers did we start having real problems.

[F]ar from being t... (Below threshold)
[F]ar from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector.

Yow! If this doesn't bring many hyper (*cough*)-ventilating posts from Chomskyite loons, nothing will.

Jay,Excellent post... (Below threshold)
BPG:

Jay,

Excellent post!

You left out a group of islands we bought from Denmark in 1917...the U.S. Virgin Islands. Which were administered by the U.S. Department of the Navy, then Interior, until the Organic Act was passed after WWII.

I think a further discussion on "all of the benefits but none of the responsibilities" is in order. Having lived in the USVI, I believe its time for Congress to cut these little territories loose. Let them associate as they may, after that.

JT, as always, a great post... (Below threshold)
WildWillie:

JT, as always, a great post. Wolfmaker, apples and oranges. ww

I <a href="http://blog.thou... (Below threshold)
Aog Author Profile Page:

I a bit about that a while back. It's not just culture, we have created a situation in which doing what the USA wants is in the best interests of other nations, creating a weaker but (long term) more reliable form of control.

America is a virus that inf... (Below threshold)

America is a virus that infects people wherever it goes and turns them into capitalist, freedom loving individuals.

This is why Bush's Iraq plan is such a brilliant policy. We invaded the very heart of the Middle East and set off the freedom virus.

Jay, great post.

Well, reactionary Islam see... (Below threshold)
hyperbolist:

Well, reactionary Islam seems alive and well in the Middle East, Frazetta girl. The empire is crumbling--sell GM/Ford/Citibank, buy gold, and learn Mandarin.

I agree with your conclusio... (Below threshold)
John Anderson Author Profile Page:

I agree with your conclusions. And in response to the 1st commenter, we bought most of the continental lands (notably the Louisiana Purchase and Seward's Folly/Alaska), and some (e.g. Texas, which had wrested independence of Mexico) applied for entry. OTOH, yes, some rather terrible things happened along the way.

I would point out one area we took by oft-overlooked force - Hawaii. Unlike Florida it was not someone else's colony taken after a war, it was a sovereign nation seized from what even today would be considered a progressive government which did not pose other than a small economic threat (taxing exported agricultural foodstuffs). At least as murky and unworthy as any mainland "Oops, that land we gave you for a reservation is valuable so we're gonna move you" grab.

Well, reactionary Isl... (Below threshold)

Well, reactionary Islam seems alive and well in the Middle East, Frazetta girl. The empire is crumbling--sell GM/Ford/Citibank, buy gold, and learn Mandarin.

Funny, thirty years ago all we heard was sell GM/Ford/City National (the predecessor), buy gold and learn Japanese.

Five years later everyone was buying GM/Ford/Citi Group, selling gold, and selling all of our real estate to the brilliant Japanese.

Americans bought the real estate back from the Japanese several years later...for much less. Pebble Beach was the centerpiece of that disastrous Japanese foray into US real property.

Great post Jay.The... (Below threshold)

Great post Jay.

The United States has raised the standard of living in many parts of the globe and continues to do so.

Funny, thirty year... (Below threshold)
Funny, thirty years ago all we heard was sell GM/Ford/City National (the predecessor), buy gold and learn Japanese.

Actually, that was twenty years ago. Which, of course, was before the Japanese stock market took a massive dump.

Thirty years ago, it was: sell GM/Ford/Bell Telephone and learn Arabic, because all those crafty Arabs with their billions in petrodollars were soon going to own the world.

Heh.

Jay, while I don't disagree... (Below threshold)

Jay, while I don't disagree with your premise I do have to quibble with a couple of points.

First, as Wolfwalker said we did have our share of colonization, just not traditional over the sea colonization.

Second, the Spanish American War was not fought for territory -- as you put it

Finally, in the waning years of the 19th century, we got into the act. But we decided it was too much work to build our own empire. Rather, why not just take someone else's? That led to the Spanish-American War,

That premise is inaccurate. The SAW was fought to liberate the opressed people of Cuba and to avenge the sinking of the Maine.

Granted there were business interests, yellow journalism, and political reasons, but the same is true of all wars.

As a matter of fact the war resolution included the Teller Amendment that

disclaimed any intention by the U.S. to exercise jurisdiction or control over Cuba except in a pacification role and promised to leave the island as soon as the war was over.

If we are to believe the reasons listed in the AUMF for Iraq we really can't make up contemporary reasons for a war 100 years ago -- we need to stick to the documents.
David

Actually, that was tw... (Below threshold)

Actually, that was twenty years ago. Which, of course, was before the Japanese stock market took a massive dump.
Thirty years ago, it was: sell GM/Ford/Bell Telephone and learn Arabic, because all those crafty Arabs with their billions in petrodollars were soon going to own the world.
Heh.

I stand corrected. I should have said:

Sell gold in January 1980
Buy the Dow in August 1982
Learn Arabic in 1977 and forget it to learn Japanese in 1987.
Sell the Japanese anything and everything in 1988.

Oh, and I almost forgot, sell any Canadian energy holdings in 1976-77 before the partial nationalization seized your property.

Who said 30 years ago that ... (Below threshold)
hyperbolist:

Who said 30 years ago that Arabs are going to own the world? Maybe somebody did say that--it was before my time--but I've never heard of anyone predicting Arabic hegemony, except recently by that 'fraidy cat Mark Steyn.

This is a good read (sorry, I can't remember how t hyperlink):

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/magazine/27world-t.html?ex=1359176400&en=1af8c9c386cc212d&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

This Parag Khanna fellow makes a good argument to support his hypothesis that the world will consist of three great powers: America, China, and Europe. Geopolitics, economics, sociology, ethnography, and history included. (This is how V.D. Hanson would write if he was smarter and less lazy.)

Who said 30 years ... (Below threshold)
Who said 30 years ago that Arabs are going to own the world?

Oh, practically everybody. I remember that it was all the rage, just like global cooling was. This was before the Iranian revolution when the Shah arbitrarily quadrupled the price of oil to $16 per barrel. An outrageous price! But, he got away with it and then the Mideast oil potentates knew they had leverage. The idea was that the West was so dependent on their oil that they could name any price, any demand, any concession and we would have no choice but to accept their terms. It took about a half a decade to figure out that in the great balance of things, the Mideast was every bit as dependent on us as we were on them.

Jay's admonition as to how ... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

Jay's admonition as to how America should see itself in the world:

Why on God's green earth would we think that we're smart enough to assert control now without throwing the whole thing into chaos and unleashing mass higgledy-piggledy?

seems to be a pretty fair description of where we found ourselves a decade ago, and a wise rejoinder to what has turned out to be the 'folie de grandeur' of the 1997 `Project for a new American Century` some of whose 25 signatories such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld found themselves in the Bush administration and not surprisingly rendered Jay's concerns a little quaint.

In its "Preface" to its principles in 'Rebuilding America's Defenses' the Project states that it aims to:

ESTABLISH FOUR CORE MISSIONS for the U.S. military:
• defend the American homeland;
fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars;
• perform the "constabulary" duties associated with shaping the security environment in critical regions;
• transform U.S. forces to exploit the "revolution in military affairs";

We were doing fine with good imperalism, ruling principally with an almighty dollar, or by cultural colonialism and not as the world`s policeman with a hypermilitary and enormous geopolitical strategic aims...Whatever happened?

Whatever happened?</b... (Below threshold)

Whatever happened?

Defense spending, relative to GDP, tax receipts, and overall spending was falling at a precipitous rate in the mid and late 1990's. Terrorist attacks were increasing at home and abroad.

Millitary morale was falling under Clinton. Foreign perceptions of US millitary preparedness were unsatisfactory and reliance on ineffectual UN intervention was unacceptable.

That's just the a primer on the the most salient matters.

Interesting reaction to a r... (Below threshold)

Interesting reaction to a rather complicated international issue.

First of all, the remaining US dependencies/colonies are not "part of" the US as you suggest, but are 'owned by' the US. This is a fundamental difference, as the people have no political rights in the US political system. They are governed by the Teritorial/Property Clause of the US Constitution which leaves their fate in the hands of the US Congress in which they have no voting representation. They do not vote for the US president. The results of the last several Puerto Rico referenda hardly confirmed the interest in remaining in the present status. Their Governor addressed the United Nations on this issue in June. All of the five US colonies - American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. - are democratically deficient.

BPG says to cut these territories loose. This would be fine if the US lived up to its responsibilities under the UN Charter to prepare the territories for real self- government, rather than continuing to legitimize the existing colonial illusion.

These issues are addressed in depth at overseasreview.blogspot.com.

C.L. Otero


The empire is crumbling-... (Below threshold)
Clay:

The empire is crumbling--sell GM/Ford/Citibank, buy gold, and learn Mandarin.

OMG, you make me laugh sometimes.

In 1970, Cornell University political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote his book, The End of the American Era. According to this faux prophet, The US had arrived at "a plateau in our history" and our demise was imminent. His recommendation was that we acquiesce along the lines of "a Denmark or a Sweden." (Hacker's latest failure Money: Who Has How Much and Why can be had at Amazon for a penny, plus shipping. I'm waiting for the price to drop). Well, 38 years after Hacker's book, we've long since forgotten to watch for his apocalypse. But, at least his name was foretelling.

We found that the '70s didn't last, well, past the '80s. In fact, in the 20 plus years that came after, the US experienced consistent economic growth. The guys that scared us the most in the '70s - Japan, the Soviets, the EU - all fared far, far worse. The champion that fueled America after the 1970s - entrepreneurial capitalism - is alive and well, though he gets kicked around a bit by pandering liberals as they feebly attempt his obituary, much as they do with America herself. While the US productivity once lagged behind its advanced rivals, we've generally outpaced the visiting team since the mid-'90s.

The US, unlike other advanced industrial countries, continues to reproduce: Our fertility rate is the highest in the advanced industrial world (Yep, our boys can swim!). By 2050, Korea, Japan, Europe, and even Russia and China will arrive at the golden year era of their respective histories, with 35% or more of their populations past their productive prime. Only 20% of Americans will have reached that milestone (We were just doing our part when we added four Americans to the work force. Hey, it was labor...for one of us). China made a critical error with its forced abortion, one-child-per-family policy. It fit as a communistic policy, but as their economy becomes more capitalistic they seem to be reaching critical mass in their female shortage. The average Shanghai husband cooks, cleans, and better damned-well talk sweet to his wife because, no matter what she's like, he is one rucky man.

Our biggest challenge is on the political front. We sent Carter packing and roused from the '70s nightmare and awoke to Reagan's "morning in America". We haven't seen the leader that will lift us out of our present media-enhanced, democrat-congress doldrums yet (it sure as hell isn't Obama and McCain's only better by degrees), but he or she is out there. After all, this is America. We never stay down for long, though we've been counted out several times before. Just consult history, all you doubters. And if you're a betting man, go with the red, white and blue chips. If we ever reach the point where overwhelmingly more people are departing our shores than arriving, well, go ahead and cash those chips in. Although I'm guessing the world will have much bigger problems then.

Screw gold, let's start drilling. And let's go ahead and annex America's hat if they don't shut the hell up...eh?

Was that last sentence rath... (Below threshold)
Clay:

Was that last sentence rather imperialistic of me? Oops. Sorry. Must be in my DNA.

China has a billion people ... (Below threshold)
hyperbolist:

China has a billion people and a rapidly expanding middle class. Read that article and tell me what about it you disagree with. It's pretty long, but you might learn things if you go slow enough.

Just like global warming, t... (Below threshold)
WildWillie:

Just like global warming, this crop Hyper pushes is the same. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, all thought that was the end of America's strength. During the Cold War, many predicted that our capitalism would fall under the pressure from the strong USSR communism. There are so many in this country that almost hope America weakens just so they can say "we told you". But what always happens is Americans rise up and face any threat until we again get our footing. China may have a billion people, but most of them are poor peasants with no idea about geo-politics or the desire to learn. So, cheer on for our doom Hyper, it has been done many times before. ww

Although I disagree with hy... (Below threshold)
jpm100:

Although I disagree with hyperbolist's explanation and conclusions around the fact, US industry is on hard times.

GM and the other autocompanies survived the past thirty years by selling off assets. Now, they're all out of assets.

When the government bids for something like a new fleet of mid-air refueling planes, we has 3 entries of Americans companies competing for the bid 20 years ago. Today we have 1 US company and another one fronting for European company. We have military equipment, like tanks being built abroad.

Twenty-five years ago we wouldn't have considered Wall Street and Finance as major economic entities and not proof of a good economy. Why, because the had been lacklusters the decades before and that was because people saw them get destroyed by the Great Depression and World Wars and depressed by even moderate recessions.

Although I disagree with his conclusions concerning this issue, his claim about US industry is generally correct with some exaggeration factored out.

HBI read most of you... (Below threshold)

HB
I read most of your link. Parag Khanna makes some interesting but not very unique or insightful points. His premise is a reiteration of a familiar meme, the most recent and well known Francis Fukuyama's The End of History. At the risks of painting with too broad a brush, but not ignoring the obvious, leftists tend to trot out this theme in the midst of every period of significant change of circumstances in the US economy or national security picture.

A couple of comments from a macro viewpoint: China is a major player economically, but its economic advantage is overwhelmingly concentrated in labor which is a notoriously unreliable long term source of wealth creation on an international level. China has no vast middle class; it has a vast peasant class that subsists at barely the lower economic level, a level not remotely comparable with the purchasing power of even the US' lower economic class. The same can be said for India.

The EU is an artifice that already shows cracks in its foundation. Countries that embrace capitalistic individualism will reject the EU when circumstances warrant. Witness the rejection by Ireland recently. The Irish have determined that luring major corporations via better tax policy is a wealth creator. They have no intention of sharing that wealth with socialists.

The major issue is defense spending and projection of force. The US is dominant in that area and no country is within decades of catching up notwithstanding the challenges of asymmetrical warfare and force projection in multiple theatres. There is an inherent value in the dollar that acknowledges the strength of our military and this is periodically manifested in a flight to safety when international crises occur.

China has a billion peop... (Below threshold)
Clay:

China has a billion people and a rapidly expanding middle class.

Have you ever been to China? I spend a fair amount of time there, but my visits are not limited to Shanghai. My job takes me to the interior where the terrain changes dramatically. The Chinese love to showcase the modern cities of Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong, but I travel to places like Suzhou, Chengdu, Dongguan. The panhandling in these cities make San Francisco look like a beggar-free zone.

Thousands of manufacturers have shut down or moved out of China because of rising raw materials costs, higher wages and the rise of the yuan against the US dollar. These processes are in turn accelerating inflationary pressures within China. The natives are getting restless there as inflation increases but wages don't keep pace. As in the past, Beijing will not hesitate to use police-state methods to suppress unrest among workers. The intense exploitation of workers in sweatshops, coal mines and construction sites has created a climate for social explosions, worrying employers around the globe. Last year, we were giving serious consideration to manufacturing in China, hence my extensive travel there, but we've since decided to take China off the table. We're now increasing our capacity by manufacturing in Malaysia, where the workforce is stable, the infrastructure is advanced, and companies understand the importance of English.

I'll read the article, but doubt it will tell me anything new. I've been there.

> Then, when the Philip... (Below threshold)
Arthur:

> Then, when the Philippine government no longer wanted us, we left -- no fuss, no threats, no warnings of dire repercussions.

If you don't count that whole Mt. Pinatubo business. (like that eruption was a coincidence or something - HAH!)

Jay,Again I point ... (Below threshold)

Jay,

Again I point out that your premise:

Finally, in the waning years of the 19th century, we got into the act. But we decided it was too much work to build our own empire. Rather, why not just take someone else's? That led to the Spanish-American War, and that concluded with us taking over most of Spain's colonies -- the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico, among others.

Is unsupported by history. If you can support this please let me know.

I did find this:

The crucial question confronting McKinley on the eve of the peace was precisely how much of Spain's empire would fall to the US. Earlier the Teller Amendment ruled out that Cuba would become a formal colony or state of the US. But Puerto Rico and Guam would become colonial possessions.

But what of the Philippines? Which was a vast island archipelago inhabited by a alien people with alien culture and if the islands became American could they be incorporated? Would they become states? What shape would the new American empire take? Would it be like Britain or Rome or would it remain a continental empire?

Clearly McKinley had not contemplated holding territory in Asia and Dewey's attack on Manila was not to take the Philippines but to prevent the fleet stationed there from steaming to the Caribbean.

The business community was against war, it was only when word of the horrors 400,000 cubans experienced in Spanish concentration camps emerged that Americans demanded action.

As I said earlier, the Teller Amendment specifically renounced colonizing Cuba.

I would be very interested in anything you can give me to support your assertion that we went to war for the territory as it seems unsupported by history.
David

C. L. Otero,I went... (Below threshold)
BPG:

C. L. Otero,

I went to the address you provided. I have not yet completed the National Geographic article.

I resided in the territory for 2 years, on two of the islands. I've never heard of the "United Nations Association of the Virgin Islands". And people are not shy about their dislike for 'Continentals'.

The strategic reason for purchasing the island in 1917 was to prevent Germany from establishing a submarine base in the Caribbean with which they could harass American shipping closer to home. Projecting power, with today's technology, can be done from Florida or Texas. There'd no need for the U.S. to retain the islands or Puerto Rico were it not for the Hovensa refinery on St Croix, which processes all of the oil coming from Venezuela.

These islands have self-government but are so corrupt that they could not survive w/o the United States, even though simultaneously the population can't stand being part of it.




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