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Not bad at all

Live from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan — According to a local wag, GUAM stands for “Give Us American Money” while CNMI is short for “Currently Not Making Improvements.”

However, looking at the annual fiscal orgy that is the federal budget deliberation, “Give Us American Money” appears to be the motto of every single government entity and jurisdiction in the U.S. It is also not true that there have been no improvements in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Far from it.

Those who claim otherwise are likely to be unfamiliar with NMI history, which for many of us consists of World War II, garment factories and yesterday’s local newspaper headlines. What happened before the war? Japan was in charge. And before Japan, there was Germany, briefly, and before Germany, there was Spain. And that’s it. NMI history.

Not a lot of us remember what happened during the post-war period, the Naval administration or the Trust Territory government.

Under Japan, the NMI economy flourished. A fact that even the U.S. had to acknowledge. Says a 1966 report commissioned by the U.S.-administered TT government: During the Japanese administration, the islanders “enjoyed a wider variety of goods and services, greater sources of income, and greater opportunities to develop abilities, and to get jobs than they ever experienced before or, in many instances, since.”

Most islanders “became accustomed to manufactured and processed goods, including tools, chemicals, foods, utensils, equipment, materials, machinery, fuels, power, toiletries and cosmetics, and many kinds of services, including medical and health, education, sanitation, transportation, communications, and restaurants, retail stores, and movies. In fact, the [islanders] located near the centers of activity generally had access to most of the kinds of goods and services available to the small-town farmer or fisherman in the industrialized nations of the world during the 1930s.”

But after the American invasion of the NMI, the “thriving and prosperous agricultural and industrial enterprises on Saipan, including the major sugar industry, commercial fishing, and many other enterprises, and most of the people, were gone…. Not only the businesses and the people, but most of the infrastructure — the roads and causeways, community facilities, electric and water systems, harbor and other facilities — were gone…. The physical structure of the former economy had been destroyed. Worse still, the entrepreneurs, capital, managers, supervisors, technicians and almost all of the labor were no longer available. Thus, all of the elements which had conceived, financed, and operated the economic units suddenly disappeared.”


Reviving the local economy was a frequent topic of discussion during the islands’ post-war years under direct U.S. rule, but the economy remained miniscule and propped up mainly by government employment and spending. Under the U.S., the local people became government wards.

When the Commonwealth government was inaugurated on Jan. 9, 1978, the local economy consisted of several stores and two hotels, one of which had two stories. The minimum wage rate was 80 cents an hour (worth about $3.95 today), and the first CNMI administration’s proposed government budget amounted to $29 million (worth about $143 million today) of which $9 million  (worth about $44 million today) was local revenue — the rest would come from the feds.

About two-thirds of the local population received free food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The roads were bad. It seemed that there were fatal auto accidents every week. The communication system was primitive. The schools were shoddy and overcrowded. The lone hospital was substandard and ill-equipped. Indoor plumbing was a luxury for most local residents. Many of them could not afford typhoon-proof homes.

The crime rate was high, and a lot of the burglars and petty thieves were juveniles. The jail was not secure. Littering, illegal dumping and stray dogs were major concerns. The main source of power was a 46-year-old power barge provided by the Navy.

My future employer, Marianas Variety, was a 12-page weekly newspaper, which sold for 15 cents (worth about 74 cents today). At one point, it had to stop printing for three weeks because it couldn’t immediately replace its reporters who had decided to return to the U.S.

Besides an awful economy, the CNMI took over a big (and broke) government apparatus left behind by the U.S. administrators of the Trust Territory government.

The Northern Marianas under U.S. administration from 1945 to 1978 was an economic backwater. Thanks to the Covenant, which NMI leaders negotiated with the U.S., they created a self-governing Commonwealth that, over 10 years later, was already enjoying economic prosperity.

Local folks back in the day could only dream of the many things CNMI residents take for granted today. Paved roads, typhoon-proof homes, multi-story hotels, various restaurants and stores, a modern telecommunication system, utility services (power, water, sewer), a modern hospital, a U.S.-accredited community college, U.S.-accredited schools, scholarships, homesteads and an economy that can thrive once again as long as politicians — including and especially from the U.S. — would just leave it alone. And if not?

Well, unlike their grandparents in the TT days, local residents of the CNMI are U.S. citizens who can vote with their feet and head to any of the other states and territories of their great country.

Which is another happy fact made possible by the Covenant that was ratified by NMI voters, approved by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Jerry Ford on March 24, 1976.

Happy Covenant Day, CNMI!

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on

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