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  • By Zaldy Dandan

The past is not what it used to be

Saipan — When the CNMI government was inaugurated 40 years ago, its leaders inherited a public sector that was already big — and practically broke. Then-Interior Deputy Undersecretary Barbara Heller, in a report, admitted that the Northern Marianas and the rest of the Trust Territory islands “generally have not progressed toward self-sufficiency over the past 20 to 30 years. If anything they have lost ground in terms of growing public sector payrolls, failures to generate a proportionally larger local tax revenue and outright fiscal drain on the federal treasury.”

The NMI population and economy were way smaller than they are now. There weren’t a lot of tourists visiting the islands. There was still no garment industry. The minimum wage rate was 80 cents per hour, equivalent to about $3 in 2018 dollars. There were training programs for trade and other skills, but most locals were employed — and preferred to work — in the government. The schools were overcrowded. Many teachers were considered unqualified. Littering was a serious problem. The former military dump in Puerto Rico was already near capacity. A World War II-era power barge was Saipan’s main power source. Two-thirds of the local population were getting food assistance from the feds.

It was estimated that 95 percent of the population would qualify for food stamps. The crime rate was high. A lot of the criminals were juveniles. The prison was not secure. There was a time when the local trial court had no judge. The roads were bad. Each week, there seemed to be auto accidents, some of which were fatal. The communication system was primitive. Public services and programs were inadequate or nonexistent.

Regarding healthcare, Marianas Variety reported that “hospitals… do not meet the minimum federal requirements.” Federal health officials who conducted an inspection noted “poor record-keeping, disrepair of major equipment and unsanitary conditions.” They said several duties were being performed by unqualified personnel. There were a lack of facilities, overcrowding and the condition in the food storage area “bordered on the deplorable.” The hospitals did not “provide a sanitary environment to avoid sources of and transmission of infections.”

Moreover, there was “almost a total lack” of handwashing practiced by staff including some physicians. Soiled linen was not properly bagged and transported, waste was not properly disposed of, and meat and bread were stored in coolers and freezers “subject to contamination by vermin which were observed at the time of viewing.” In handling emergency cases, “[r]esponse by physicians on call normally takes 30 minutes.” One case involving 12 patients took over an hour for response. Also noted were poor medical records that did not contain sufficient information to justify the diagnosis, and anesthesia being administered by a physician who had received “a four-month Navy training course in 1955.”

In a survey conducted by the Northern Mariana Islands Community Action Agency, respondents were asked to name “the most important everyday problem in the Marianas today.” The top answer was: “A disrespect for conservation laws, too frequent dynamiting of the reef and too few [fish and] coconut crabs left.”

Sixty percent of the survey respondents “earned less than $3,000 a year [about $11,900 in 2018 dollars]; 20 percent of [them] considered difficulties in the disposal of garbage an important problem; 24 percent felt that there were too many rats and they were everywhere; 24 percent felt that too many benjos or outhouses smell badly [indoor plumbing was still a dream for many islanders]; 23 percent felt that too many young people were using marijuana; and 23 percent felt that children needed better alcohol and drug education.”

In January 1979, Variety reported the creation of an island cleanup task force. During its first meeting, members discussed methods of “improving village cleanup, solid waste pickup in the villages, highways and beaches, methods of controlling flies and mosquitoes and means of reducing the stray dog population….”

In November 1979, Variety ran a front-page story titled, “Illegal Dumping Scored.” The accompanying photo showed “Mayor Frank Diaz [looking] over [a] pile of trash dumped illegally at Agingan Point.”

According to the news report, “A public dump [the one in Puerto Rico]…has reached capacity, [leading to] illegal dumping and the littering of roadsides. These problems have a reached a near-crisis in the view of the governor’s cleanup task force.” Said Mayor Diaz: “The litter problem in Saipan is absolutely overwhelming.”

As good ol’ George F. Will would put it, “Ignorance of history causes us to disparage the present.”

Zaldy Dandan is editor of Marianas Variety

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