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By Lindablue F. Romero

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (December 17, 1998 - Saipan Tribune)---President Bill Clinton's special representative to the Section 902 consultations, Edward B. Cohen, will be arriving in the Northern Marianas on Jan. 18, 1999 to finally find a solution to problems that have strained CNMI-US relations.

According to Lt. Gov. Jesus R. Sablan, CNMI's chief negotiator, Cohen has sent a letter informing him of his intention to resume the stalled bilateral talks which have been postponed twice.

"We are now preparing to convene the negotiating team to meet again and discuss the areas which we need to emphasize," said Sablan. He said the CNMI panel will meet today to finalize the issues which will be covered in the meeting with Cohen.

In the scheduled talks, Sablan said he wants to find out how Washington can assist the CNMI government, which has been reeling from the effects of Asia's financial crisis. He cited Section 701 of the Covenant which calls for the federal government to help the Northern Marianas improve the people's standard of living.

"The decline of the economy here necessitates federal assistance since we have been subjected to the Asian economic problems . . . specifically the crisis in Japan," he added.

The informal talks, Sablan said, will also focus on the minimum wage, immigration and customs associated with the local garment industry. Local officials also want to include waiver of the matching requirement for Covenant funds, military land use, sovereignty over submerged lands, the 200-mile exclusive economic zone and the non-voting delegate status in Congress in the scope of the discussion.

Both governments were to have resumed discussions last September, but the Commonwealth aborted the meeting due to what it claimed intransigence on the part of the White House to accommodate its suggestions on the agenda.

This led Cohen, who was offended by the decision, to accuse CNMI officials of rejecting efforts to thresh out problems straining ties between the CNMI and the U.S., the islands' main economic provider.

He had wanted to limit bilateral talks to labor, customs and immigration -- issues which have been the subject of several federal takeover proposals pending in the U.S. Congress.

Senate President Paul A. Manglona said he is looking forward to the scheduled meeting with Clinton's representative so that both parties can finally move on to settle the issues which have affected the relations of the two governments.

"This is an opportunity to inform them about the progress we've made on labor and immigration issues," he said.

For additional reports from the Marianas Variety, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Marianas Variety.

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