The colonial legacy: Political corruption dates back to the Spanish period



In 2019, the University of Guam’s Regional Center for Public Policy released the results of a survey indicating that two-thirds of respondents believed that “corruption was a very serious problem” on Guam from 2013 to 2015 and that “corruption levels have increased from 2005 to 2015.”


They identified political parties as the group most affected by corruption. The respondents indicated that personal contacts in Guam are viewed as very important when dealing with agencies and entities of the government of Guam.


The report titled the "Guam Corruption Perception Report" was UOG’s first attempt to measure the public’s perception of corruption in government.


Last month, Sen. Sabina Perez introduced a bill proposing mandatory ethics training for all government of Guam employees. “Bill 94-36 is a proactive investment into our civil service, which in turn ensures government integrity and that resources are used appropriately,” Perez said.


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We express disgust when we hear about shenanigans in government. In reality, political corruption in Guam — be it perceived or actual — is an embedded malady inherited from the Spanish-era decadence.


After a weeklong visit as part of Spain’s 500th-year commemoration of the Magellan-Elcano Expedition, the Spanish delegation departed Guam on March 2, leaving mixed emotions — from indifferent curiosity to sober resentment. What didn’t get into public discourses was the colonizer’s bureaucratic legacy that has been perpetuated to become part of the local political landscape to this day — nepotism, political patronage and exploitation of connections.


In an article titled “Corruption, Greed and Public Good in the Marianas 1700 to 1720s,” published in 2013 by the Ateneo University in Manila, the historian Alexander Coehlo discussed the corruption of colonial bureaucracies and related scandals that rocked the governorship of Juan Antonio Pimentel.


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“In the Marianas the defining characteristics of sergeants and governors … was the indiscriminate exploitation of the Chamorro population through a network of majordomos, alcaldes mayores (provincial governors), and relatives in discretionary positions, as well as through profitable involvement in the ‘endemic evil’ of the Spanish empire, contraband,” Coehlo wrote.


“Far from being exceptional, illicit trade, bribery, favoritism, and the like became habitual practices of colonial officials, who also established important transoceanic trading networks centered on their diverse business interests.”

Coehlo’s article's highlights many of the unethical practices we are familiar with. Today, they are staples of the Office of the Public Accountability’s audit findings.


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“The low salaries received by Spanish colonial officials were complemented by what was a traditional mindset that justified using a government post for personal benefit,” the article reads. “The practice of profiting from a government post encouraged, and was also encouraged by, the patrimonial character of corporate power groups and local elites, with their extensive family connections, which were perennially involved in disputes over the control of political power.”


Granting rewards for loyalty is not an invention of contemporary politics either.


“There is ample consensus on the existence of corruption as a generalized practice in the spaces of power between colonial societies, the administrative bureaucracies and the Spanish Crown,” Coehlo wrote.


“Authority and flexibility,” the historian said, depended on a difficult balance between traditional powers and legal- bureaucratic powers.


“This fact can best be appreciated in the difference between the men who occupied government posts in colonial societies. The common characteristic of these personages was their having served the King. The Crown directly adjudicated some rewards, posts, and emoluments of all kinds to ‘friends’ or ‘clients,’ but only some received offices by virtue of their capacity or expertise.”


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Labor abuse had been existing long before it was given a name.


Coehlo narrated how Governor Pimentel and his retinue of indiscriminately exploited the Chamorros, making them work for months in their private lucrative businesses in exchange for a few tobacco leaves a day. Although such practice was not sanctioned by the Crown, “the Marianas governors, alcaldes and infantry captains — especially Pimentel’s grandchildren, Joseph Bonifacio de Argüellesand Juan de Argüelles Valdés, both of whom occupied these offices‘ in consideration of the integrity and zeal of their royal service’— used their positions to benefit illegally from the work of those same men and women too poor to contribute to the royal treasury, extracting ‘contributions’ for their private coffers.”


Fast forward: While bureaucratic malfeasance has become a cultural mainstay, todays’ local citizens — unlike our Spanish-period counterparts — have the power to confront or defeat it. But whether they would use such a power is a different story.


As far as taking action against corruption, the UOG study found that “although respondents agree that ordinary citizens can make a difference in the fight against corruption, they often choose a more passive approach and actions that carry the least risk of retaliation.”


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