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HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (July 27, 2000 – PIDP/CPIS)---During a talk in Waikiki earlier this month, Guam Congressman Robert Underwood talked about the lack of international interest within the U.S. Congress, especially in matters of the Pacific Islands region. Following the speech, Underwood spoke with Pacific Islands Report’s Craig DeSilva. Underwood said Pacific Island leaders have a fresh opportunity to catch the attention of a new Administration in Washington, D.C. this year after the presidential election. Underwood also talked about the Hawaiian Recognition Bill now before Congress and its chances of passing.

You talked earlier about the U.S. Congress’ lack of interest in the Pacific Islands region. How can you get the Congress interested?

I think we get them interested by demonstrating that there are some key issues that are important to American values such as democracy, such as respect for cultures. We also point out that there are many opportunities out there for trade, telecommunication, and to look at the Island Pacific as the nexus between the Americas and Asia and to use that and to utilize that. I think that’s where we have to help make that case and refine that case. I think those of us in the Island Pacific spend a lot of time almost whining for attention, rather than making the case for attention.

How can just one person like yourself and a few Pacific Island delegates do that?

Well, it’s very hard. But it’s not insurmountable. A lot of it has to do with thinking military strategic issues. Those are opportunities to continue to make the case. At the end of the day, with a new president, it’s a real opportunity to rekindle and strategically work that out. And I think the governors of the islands and the heads of states from the independent countries should be working together on how to strategize this for a new administration. Because that will bring in some new ideas and some new state department administration and new opportunity to draw attention.

How has the mentality toward the Pacific Islands changed since you’ve been in Congress?

I’ve been there eight years. I think initially I came in during the end of the Cold War where there was a general feeling of withdrawal into America and looking into more domestic issues and less concern with strategic and international issues. And it’s taken us some time to understand that the end of the Cold War doesn’t mean the end of foreign relations. The end of the Cold War actually brings additional commercial opportunities that present new challenges to relating internationally. So I think we’re working that out now. I think it’s very important we get our foot in the door in the new Administration.

Which presidential candidate, Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore, would be an advantage or disadvantage to issues relating to the Pacific?

Well, of course for me Gore would be an advantage. I don’t want to see a second Bush Administration (laughs). But you know, either one you would have to work with. That’s reality. There are Pacific Island interests in both parties.

How difficult do you think it would be to get the Hawaiian Recognition Bill, introduced by Sen. Dan Akaka and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, passed in Congress?

As long as the Hawai‘i state delegation hangs together, I don’t think it will be that hard. And the fact that they worked it out sounds pretty good.

You mentioned even Native Hawaiian issues are not of high concern in the Congress.

That’s right. But Hawai‘i has great advantages over other areas. The fact that the delegation is strategically placed in the right committees for these issues and the state makes it an excellent opportunity to pass this.

How much of an understanding is there of the sovereignty issue?

For that it will be an uphill struggle. You’re never going to get a deep understanding of it. But as long as there is a general consensus in the state and among the delegation, I don’t think it would be difficult. But it’s not going to happen this year. That’s for sure.

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