Majuro Recap

Where to begin about the Marshalls???

For starters, I didn’t explore Majuro as much as I did other cities I’ve visited. I put 20% of the blame myself spending too much time catching up on photos and blog posts and 80% of the blame on Majuro for being an uninteresting place with nothing to see.

I try to put a positive spin on places I visit. If you read my first post from Majuro you can see the positive impression I had in my first hour after arriving. However, the view was very different on the drive back to the airport. Sunshine will do that. (One of the nice houses I thought I saw on the drive in from the airport at night turned out to be the US Embassy…)

The Marshall Islands is an independent country. They have a seat in the UN, other nations have official relations with them, and they issue their own passports. They are however independent in the same way a 20 year old college student who has their parents pay for all their bills is independent.

Talking to people in both FSM and here in the Marshalls, I can only conclude that the only reason the Marshall Islands exists as a country, and not part of FSM, is to maximize the benefits and pay-outs it can get from the United States. I do not believe that statement is in any way an exaggeration.

There are a few things I need to establish before I talk any further about the Marshalls and its current situation. These things fall under the category of tragedy. The present day situation falls under the category of farce.

– The Marshall Islands are one of only four countries in the world which are made totally of atolls. (Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives are the others). Atoll countries have zero resources. They have no minerals (unless calcium carbonate suddenly becomes a valuable mineral). They have no timber. They have little land to grow crops. They have no source of fresh water other than rain. They are isolated from major population centers. They have small, rather uneducated populations so they have very little human capital. Developing an economy beyond the subsistence level which existed before the arrival of Europeans is almost impossible without outside assistance. In sum, atoll countries are screwed and there is little you can do about this condition. (I have not even factored in potential sea level rises. The highest point in any atoll might be 10 feet at best. Most of the land is at the same level as a beach)

– The United States detonated nuclear weapons on four different atoll groups in the northern Marshalls in the 40s and 50s. The population of those islands were removed and relocated to Majuro or other islands in the Marshalls. The most famous example was Bikini Atoll which had 127 residents moved in 1947. While the islands have for the most part recovered, there are still some lingering effects. People can live on Bikini (and a few do), but you can’t eat any food grown on the island. You can eat fish, but not plants. There were health issues which resulted from the tests including increased rates of thyroid cancer, miscarriages, and other problems which were not handled well by the US. The US did cause serious upheaval and problems in the Marshalls and has an obligation to make it right. Detonating nuclear weapons can do that…

– The Marshalls, from the end of WWII to the 90s, was part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific. Along with the states of FSM (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae), Palau, and the Northern Marinas, they were, as a single unit, made the responsibility of the US by the United Nations. They were treated for all practical purposes as a US territory during that time being integrated into the US Postal System and other federal agencies.

In the 80s and 90s, the question of what to do with the Trust Territories of the Pacific came to a head. There was a great deal of debate among the different islands as to what they were going to do. The Marinas decided to stick close to the US and become a commonwealth on a par with Puerto Rico. Palau decided they didn’t want the baggage of the other islands and went it alone, becoming one of the smallest countries in the world at the time of independence (~12,000 people). The Marshalls had to decide if they wanted to become a state in the FSM or go it alone. In the end, they decided that they didn’t want their biggest assets (an Army base on Kwajalein and nuclear reparations) to be diluted by other islands, so they went it alone.

While the official population of the Marshalls is about 60,000, the actual number is probably much less. I have heard estimates of maybe 50,000. That 10,000 represents an exodus to the United States. Citizens of the Marshalls, FSM, and Palau can all work in the US without green cards and without limit according to the terms of the Treat of Free Association they have with the US.

About half of the population lives in Majuro and a quarter lives in Ebeye. Ebeye is on Kwajalein atoll and is one of the densest places on earth with about 15,000 people living on 1.5 square miles of land. I was told by the travel agent I booked tickets with I could not visit Kwajalein if I wasn’t in the military, so I can’t visit Ebeye, but I have been told by several people it is a slum and probably the worst city in the Pacific (having been to Honiara, that is quite a statement). The rest of the people are scattered on the atolls in the country, living mostly without electricity and eeking out a subsistence living.

The benefits to the original 127 Bikini residents has bloomed into about 3,200 people. Clearly this many babies, even over several generations, did not come from 127 people. I was told the story of one woman who’s mother was moved from one of the test islands and has never set foot on the island. She married an American man. Her, her husband, and their children, none of whom have ever been on the island or have any desire to ever live there, can get all their health care paid for, housing, and a stipend. Factoring in all the people who receive benefits, it is a significant part of the population.

The tragedy of the nuclear tests had led to the farcical situation where the fact that nuclear weapons were blown up on their country is now perhaps the single largest asset of the Marshall Islands. Re-read that last sentence closely. If there had been no nuclear testing done 50 years ago, the Marshalls would be a poorer place and probably wouldn’t even exist as an independent country. That is messed up.

Reading the local paper, its seems to be nothing but a list of various scandals by government officials. There was one case of someone creating a blog which criticized a local official. A complaint about the blog was raised, not on the factual basis of the claims made, or because of slander or libel, but on the basis that if someone in the US were to see it, they could get a negative view of the Marshalls and that could hurt they good deal they have going getting money from the US….I shit you not.

The Marshalls is more firmly attached to the teat of the US government than any place I have ever heard of…. and by a wide margin….and it isn’t even part of the United States.

A recent crisis here and in FSM was that they were moved from domestic treatment by the US Postal Service to international. This increased postage costs and everyone flipped out. The USPS eventually reversed the policy. The Marshalls has its own zip code (96926) and state code (MH). Before I arrived a navy ship was here for a week performing all sorts of good deeds on the island, including health clinics and doing repairs at schools. The health clinics I understand. Washing the walls at a high school, however, seems like something locals could have done for themselves. I watched an Army Corps of Engineers group working on installing a basketball court and fixing an elementary school in town. The airport runway is being fixed by the Department of Transportation. A grant from the Department of Education made the newspaper while I was here. The banks are FDIC insured. Citizens can, and do, join the US armed forces.

The total dependence on US money has created a situation where they have paid large amounts to lobbyists because they are desperate to get more money. Sometimes they get scammed.

At some point, I think all of this is going to come to a head. The US will one day say:

“We apologize for what we did decades ago. The land is once again habitable and we have created housing and roads for you to use. The infrastructure is the best it has ever been and we have paid for it all. However, no one wants to move back and leave behind the luxuries they have grown accustom to on Majuro. The people we are paying stipends to are several generations removed from the original people wronged during the nuclear tests. The government of the Marshalls is corrupt and much of the money we provide is squandered. We will be ending the financial support we feel we have been very generous with over the last century. We wish you the best of luck. Sincerely, Uncle Sam”

…weeeeell, maybe it wont go down quite like that, or even all at once. but the fact is the Marshalls are dependent on their sugar daddy. If we did stop or even reduce aid to the Marshalls, they would be screwed. Flat out screwed.

I would not be surprised to see the exodus to the US accelerate in the future. Kids are more aware of the outside world and the limitations they face living on an atoll. I can’t blame them one bit for wanting to buy a one-way ticket to Honolulu or LA. I’d do the same.