Independence – For The Record

Independence – For The Record

During the recent hearings in Washington the subject of possible independence for the Northern Marianas was briefly brought up. I’m certain there are many in the continental United States and elsewhere that would like to see Micronesia’s pipeline to the U. S. Treasury transferred to the pockets of those that live in the islands.

As an individual who was associated with the former Trust Territory Government in the early seventies when various options were being explored for a future status for the Micronesian islands, and the Northern Marianas in particular, many wondered at the time why the United States was so interested in continuing a close relationship so long after the conclusion of hostilities a quarter century earlier. This was a period, however, when the Cold War was at its height and the Vietnam War hot war was just over the horizon.

Guam bristled in those days with military bases but there was no such activity in the Northern Marianas principally because of the Trusteeship Agreement with the United Nations which precluded the use of the islands for military purposes, at least overtly. Throughout the Korean conflict and the Vietnam war the islands served no military purpose. During the early period of the Trusteeship and until 1973 the United States exercised a so- called “denial policy” in that the country was not particularly interested in the islands’ geographic assets but didn’t want any other country to benefit from them as they might serve a useful purpose in some future contingency plan. What ever use was contemplated was unknown to all except perhaps the military. Three quarters of Tinian was held as military retention for a time with a large portion recently returned. The “over the horizon radar” at Marpi was build only to operate for a short period before it was closed and the equipment removed. It was my belief then, as it is now, that the military interest in the islands was responsible for what is now a Commonwealth relationship but that interest has waned considerably.

Some twenty five years later we find that the United States’ major adversary, the Soviet Union, no longer exists and with it the strategic value of the islands north of Guam has also somewhat diminished if, indeed, they ever had any such value since the end of World War II. However, it eventually transpired that both parties wanted a closer relationship with the result that the Covenant was negotiated which became effective on April 1, 1976. From 1978 to 1998 the United States has provided Covenant funds to the Commonwealth in the amount of one half billion dollars, ($525.5 million). For the indigenous population of 17,120 (‘95) that’s equal to more than $30,700 per person and that’s only a portion of what comes from the United States Treasury. No U. S. citizen on the mainland is the beneficiary of an equal amount of federal funds. In fact it’s the other way around. The average American wage earner in the United States may pay as much as 25 percent of his annual earnings in federal income taxes and there are no rebates.

The average American has to work from January 1st to sometime during the month of April to earn the money equal to the annual amount necessary to pay their federal taxes. This does not include state and municipal taxes which are also levied on most taxpayers as are real estate taxes, sales taxes and a host of other assessments. There are many United States programs and grants which have benefited the Commonwealth. Among them education, health and human services, (Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, rent subsidies, etc.) agriculture, transportation, housing, energy, justice, arts and culture, social security for private sector employees, veteran’s benefits and many more. The use of postal facilities, coast guard life saving efforts, emergency typhoon relief, the use of the American passport, etc. All have benefited U. S. citizen island residents. The amount of money the Commonwealth has obtained from the United States Treasury just between the years 1987 and 1992 – above and beyond that provided by the Covenant – has totaled $149.5 million and that does not include grants from the Department of Interior. The partial breakdown for only the above six year period is as follows: education – $27.4 million; health and human services – $15.6 million; agriculture $42.6 million, (would you believe it); labor -$3.2 million; transportation – $16.7 million; commerce – $10.9 million, and all other -$33.1 million.

Many of the smooth roads we drive on, the medical services received at CHC, the scholarships for students, airport improvements, some water lines and many other infrastructure improvements are partially financed by the American taxpayer. Don’t think that if the islands were independent that foreign investment would flood in to make up the depletion of the local treasury – it won’t. Many resource rich African nations that gained independence in the late fifties and early sixties thought they could rely on private foreign investment to boost their economic fortunes and were sadly mistaken with the result they are now on a slippery path back to the stone age. Their plight is aired almost daily on CNN. The foreign investment that is in the Commonwealth is here as a result of one simple fact and that is the American Flag. If you don’t believe that, consider the massive injection of U. S. Compact money provided Micronesia and then take a look at the “basket case” economies of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and many other countries of the world.

A Department of the Interior report states that 13,000 migrants from the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshalls have settled in the CNMI, Guam, Hawaii or the U. S. mainland. One has to wonder why they left their respective “independent” countries to live in the United States if things back home were so wonderful? There are interesting comparisons from the CIA’s World Book of Facts concerning the estimated annual Gross Domestic Product on a per capita basis for some selected independent countries around the neighborhood along with those of U. S. territories: United States – $28,600; Guam – $19,000, (‘96); Virgin Islands -$12,500, (‘87); CNMI – $10,500; Puerto Rico – $8,200, (‘96); Palau – $5,000, (‘94); Cook Islands – $3,000, (‘93); China – $2,800, (‘96); Philippines – $2,600, (‘96); FSM – $1,700, (‘94); Marshalls – $1,680, (‘94), Howland Island – zero, (unless Amelia Earhart is there with a pension). As an observer of Micronesian economies, and I use the term loosely, they are still taking about business opportunities that were discussed thirty years ago. Nothing has happened. The leadership in the Northern Marianas knew this might be the result when they resisted the American government’s position to negotiate with all the island districts of Micronesia as a cohesive unit rather than conduct fragmented talks with several disjointed, and ethnically different entities. Northern Marianas’ negotiators were quick, and smart, to move for separate negations with the United States apart and beyond the talks with the rest of Micronesia.

In those days some American negotiators must have thought that because everyone lived on coconut laden islands and ate fish that they were all alike and thus strove to “lump” them all together because it was administratively convenient. They failed to realize that a Chamorro is as different from a Marshallese as a German is from a Spaniard. So much for the astuteness of the American policy makers, none of whom ever lived in the islands for any length of time. The United States Government did not seem to be listening when first informed that the Northern Marianas wanted separate discussions for a future political status and that they wanted no part of any political relationship that involved the other islands of Micronesia. In 1971 two buildings which housed the Saipan based Congress of Micronesia mysteriously burned to the ground.

I remember calling the fire department. Some months later the residence of the High Commissioner was subject to the wrath of an arsonist. In the middle of the night my wife advised the wife of the High Commissioner who, at the time was visiting Guam. Women do things like that. No, I didn’t set the fires. To this day the responsible person remains unknown. Interestingly, the U. S. Post Office, a local symbol of the American Government or the Coke Cola plant and Pan American Airway offices – all American icons – were conspicuously spared. Finally, the United States Government got the message and started separate talks on the future of the Northern Marianas. The fires seem to have accomplished what talk could not and the rest is history. The people of the Marianas were the first of all the former Trust Territory entities to decide their future political identity. They decided to enter into a Commonwealth arrangement in political union with the United States. In all of Micronesia they were the only island group to seek and receive so close an arrangement and it paid off – big time. They were aware of the stability assured by the American Flag and the U.S. rule of law that provided the safe business environment for Japanese and other foreign investment to flourish in the Commonwealth. When the American Flag went up it was a signal to all investors, domestic and foreign alike that many major United States' laws prevailed which is the absolute bedrock of stability upon which confidence rests and which creates the investment atmosphere permitting individuals and businesses to prosper and grow. All foreign investors in the Commonwealth and many of its leaders know this.

The American judicial system and its highly developed system of commercial law is a system proven to be acceptable to those who have not been previously acquainted with its jurisdiction. United States courts have inspired confidence in the international business community with a system of contractual law based on rules which are well known and respected throughout the free world. The court is certain and not arbitrary in the application of a legal system that provides one of the most essential ingredients for creating business confidence and that is the absence of arbitrary power and the knowledge that unconstitutional change will not occur. That is why there is so much non indigenous investment in the Northern Marianas. There is no other reason. Still, there are some people within the Northern Marianas that seem to be unfamiliar with the obligations and responsibilities that are inherent in U. S. citizenship, an honor bestowed upon the islanders almost in total by Presidential Order.

It should be kept in mind that the people of the Northern Marianas, unlike other nationalities seeking U. S. citizenship, were not required to possess any knowledge of American history or appreciation of the principles of democracy as most Americans perceive them to be. Most foreigners seeking U. S. citizenship must study a variety of subjects related to American history, pass an examination and swear an oath of allegiance. This was not required of the people of the Northern Marianas. Nor, during the period the Trust Territory Government conducted educational programs for self government, was civics and the duties of citizenship taught in the public schools. To have done so during this period of the early seventies when political preferences were being explored – and to have openly advocated U. S. Commonwealth status from among the other remaining options available to the people of the Northern Marianas, namely, maintaining the status quo and remain a Trust Territory, independence or free association with the United States, would have raised the ire of the French and Soviet delegates to the United Nations and precipitate a charge of colonialism against the United States.

The political education program had to be impartial. So, in some respects, this has resulted in a deficiency of appreciation among some in the Commonwealth as to the great honor and value of American citizenship. This is the fault of the United States Government and the Department of Interior in particular. I know, I was a part of the education for self government program the Congress of Micronesia requested twenty five years ago when the U. S. Department of Interior “caved in” to the demands of the Soviet representative to eliminate any direct reference to the advantages of an association.

The educational program had to be impartial and unbiased. And it was. Independence? From what? An oppressive government? I think not. Over the years many political entities dissatisfied with their relationship with a particular nation have sought independence from one country or another. Our thirteen original colonies did it in 1776 when they broke away from England. Citizens of all nations the world over, including the United States, are not, and never will be, individually independent from the laws that govern the entire citizenry unless of course you happen to live under some form of anarchy. One may be free from obeying laws in an anarchy because there are none – it’s chaotic mob rule as we witness taking place in several African and Balkan countries. Maybe I missed something when I was in school but I always considered that I had “independence” by virtue of being a citizen of the United States. For one thing I like the freedom to write and express myself in articles such as this. There are many places in the world where it can’t be done. We can say anything we want about our government without fear. But don’t try it in just any country of the world otherwise there is a distinct possibility you will go to jail for several years. A friend of mine here on Saipan spent 10 years in a labor concentration camp for criticizing the Czech government when it was under the totalitarian cruelty of Communist rule. If you doubt the value of U. S. citizenship – ask him – I’ll give you his name. So, there must be something desirable about American citizenship since millions the world over seek it.

Concerning the criticism some have leveled at the use of Preston Gates to get the CNMI’s position across to Congress, lobbying must be necessary otherwise why would the American Medical Association, the Association of Retired Persons, the duck farmers of America, the Oyster Shuckers Federation, (Oh shucks) and hundreds of other groups employ this effective technique to educate otherwise uninformed lawmakers at the national level on a particular issue of importance. My grandmother once told me, “independence is very expensive because you have to pay for things yourself and sometimes pay with blood.” Without the various United States grants in aid there would be no tax rebate in the CNMI – instead there will be a tax increase like the rest of the world contends with. It is also quite possible that there would be very little, if any, additional foreign investment and probably little if any federal assistance. So when someone talks about independence ask them how much it will cost because the days of the free lunch will be over. You can write that on the wall to remember it. The Commonwealth has been very lucky in its relationship with an overly generous United States. These islands are not the end of the rainbow. We are not some special breed deserving of favored treatment. As a result of its relationship with the former islands of the Trust Territory, the United States, over a 15 year period and at the end of the agreements, will have paid the following: $627 million to Palau, (population – 17,225); $1.34 billion to the Federated States of Micronesia, (population – 105,445) and $1 billion to the Marshall Islands, (population 56,219).

People in Congress are questioning American largess in the western Pacific and it is unlikely that this level of funding will continue when the various agreements with those island nations expire in a few years. With the exception of the missile test range in the Marshall Islands, the United States receives nothing for its money and Congress is now aware of the bill of goods sold to them a number of years ago by the military under the pretense of Micronesia’s so-called strategic value. There is no strategic value any longer. Proof of that fact is the limited military interest in Guam which is now only a shadow of its former operational capability.

The Navy doesn’t have too much need for islands anymore, they build their own – and they move – they are called fleet carriers. So much for strategic value. Like the Maginot Line, the strategic concept along with its mental cobwebs have been relegated to the dust bin of history. Forget World War II “pop guns,” a single near miss at a strategic target of a 20 mega ton nuclear warhead would still vaporize an island. Islanders should be pleased with their reduced geographic value.