• By Mark Rodriguez

Revisiting the Covenant

CNMI starts evaluating its political status

Saipan — The CNMI is bracing for big questions relating to the course of its future. Is it content with its current political affiliation with the United States? Is it in the best interest of the people of the commonwealth to keep the status quo? Is there a better political status that would lead to self-determination? Are they ready to graduate into becoming a sovereign nation? Is this what the people want?

Meeting for the first time on March 1, the Marianas Political Status Commission is tasked to get the answers.

The commission was formed through Public Law 19-63, which calls for an evaluation of the CNMI’s current political status. The law was authored by then Rep. Felicidad T. Ogumoro, who did not seek reelection after her two-year stint at the CNMI Legislature. In her valedictory speech at the close of the 19th CNMI Legislature in 2016, Ogumoro touted PL 19-63 as her major accomplishment.

“It is extremely important that we closely assess our political relationship with the U.S.,” she said, “so we could fully comprehend the events that have occurred since the signing of the Covenant in 1975, which, if we do not put a stop to, would deprives us of all that we rightfully own, leaving us landless and marginalized in our own land.”

She said PL 19-63 gives the people of the Northern Mariana Islands a chance to review its political union with the U.S. “To determine whether that relationship is working in their favor or not, and more importantly, whether their rights guaranteed under the Covenant are truly protected.”

The Northern Marianas previously enjoyed semi-autonomy that allowed it to manage its laws on wage, labor and immigration, while producing “Made in USA” garment products. But allegations of labor abuses in the once flourishing garment industry led to the federal takeover in 2008. The resulting demise of the garment industry killed the commonwealth economy, which was to bounce back less than a decade later with the arrival of yet another scandal-ridden industry — the casino.

The Northern Mariana Islands after World War II were a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands under the administration of the U.S. on behalf of the United Nations from 1947 along with Palau, the Caroline Islands and the Marshall Islands. The Caroline Islands became the Federated States of Micronesia while Marshall Islands became a republic after each of their Compacts of Free Association with the U.S. went in effect in 1986 with Palau earning the same status in 1994, becoming an independent country.

The first political status commission was formed in 1972 as the CNMI’s current leaders tried to negotiate its status with the U.S, resulting in the Covenant establishing the islands’ political union.

The Northern Marianas became a U.S. territory by virtue of the Covenant passed in 1975. After two years, the CNMI adopted its own constitution with its first full functioning government taking office in 1978 under then Gov. Carlos Sablan Camacho, the first elected governor of the Commonwealth.

Examining the current relationship between the governments of the CNMI and the U.S. will flesh out the pros and cons of continuing as a territory – American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—of the world’s most powerful nation.

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres said PL 19-63 “would emphasize the importance of the CNMI being part of the U.S. it is our people’s choice that we became part of the U.S. We’re not forced. The changes will also be by the choice of the people of the CNMI.”

PL 19-63, the governor added, provides the CNMI the opportunity to revisit its relationship with the U.S. “For us,” he said during the signing of the law, “it is basically saying that we want to have a commission because when we had the Covenant and passed it to be part of the U.S., it was done in that way.”

The commission may take a year or more to settle the issue. It is expected to face a long and contentious road. Issues such as military land leases on Saipan and Tinian, contract labor and immigration are among those expected to be raised during the meetings.

Some people of Northern Marianas descent believe the CNMI relinquished its sovereignty when the Covenant was signed and delivered to the people more than 40 years ago. They believe the U.S. federal government retained its role of setting policies, making the islands its extension in the Pacific. The Marianas island chain is strategic for the United States, being the first line of defense in the Pacific command.

More than a year since the law was signed, Torres finally empaneled the commission. Its members include former Senator Pete P. Reyes and incumbent Commerce Secretary Mark O. Rabauliman, former Rep. Rosemond B. Santos, Elizabeth D. Rechebei, John DLR Gonzales, Fermin M. Atalig, Aubry M. Hocog, Kimberly King-Hinds and Richard Lazaro.

As the commission buckles down to work, observers take a guess as to what it would do. Will it recommend amendments to the Covenant? Will the commission ask for the restoration of semi-autonomy on labor and immigration?

For now, the CNMI people will have to wait with bated breath as to what the Commission will find out and what recommendations its members will make. The chess match begins.

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