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By Howard W. French

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (June 30, 2001 – New York Times)---What to make of a collection of dots in the Pacific Ocean whose crescent-shaped main island is so slender that a boy can stand in the lagoon on one coast and throw a baseball clear across into the shimmering turquoise sea on the other?

And what if the dots are strewn over an area equivalent to about one-third of the United States, but amount to only 70 square miles total? Add to this that the main employer is the United States government, and that the second largest source of jobs is Tyson Foods, in Arkansas. What does one call a place like this?

Less than convincingly, since 1979 the 50,000 or so residents of this gaggle of atolls that hug the north side of the equator have called their home, the Marshall Islands, an independent nation.

Since then the main business, if one can call it that, of this country has been American aid. Apart from a 15-year assistance package totaling $1.1 billion, including rent for the United States’ use of its largest atoll for missile testing and compensation for harmful effects of radiation from American nuclear testing from 1946 to 1962, the only local industry here of any size here has been the farming of copra -- dried coconut meat, the source of coconut oil. With world prices badly depressed, it's a huge money-loser.

In recent months, like some alarm clock devised by Rip Van Winkle, the coming expiration in October of the 15-year pact has been awakening people here to the yawning chasm between their dream of autonomy and a reality of almost total dependence.

Nowadays, the country’s predicament is heard in the words of its highest officials and lowliest citizens alike. "The people of the Marshall Islands want to be the sole masters of their own situation, of their own destiny," said Alvin Jacklick, the country’s foreign minister. "On the other hand, the reality is that we have become totally dependent on the United States, even in our mentalities."

In Laura, an achingly beautiful beach at the end of this island, where men with fishing nets waded out to sea at low tide under a sunset exploding with colors, much the same view was heard. "How many people here still know how to fish like this?" asked Moses Jikit, 27, a stocky fisherman. "We all want to be independent, but most people have even forgotten how to fish. How can we fend for ourselves?"

The story of this country’s dependence is a mixture of breezy callousness of American policy driven by security considerations and of good intentions gone awry. From the Marshallese side, it is also a tale of bounty squandered.

America’s debt to this country has its roots in the 66 nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands. Their total yield was 128,000 kilotons, roughly the equivalent of 10 Hiroshima-sized weapons per week throughout the testing period. Although residents were moved off Bikini Atoll, which was the first and most frequently used test site, little heed was paid to the safety of people living as close as 100 miles away on atolls like Rongelap and Utirik.

For years afterward, radiation sickness cases, from grossly deformed fetuses and birth defects to thyroid glands swollen to the size of a papaya, spread through the neighboring atolls. Land was also contaminated.

In 1986, as part of the so-called Compact of Free Association, which formally tied the country’s foreign and defense policies to those of the United States, Washington made amends by paying $150 million in damages to the victims and establishing funds for people from the affected islands.

Under the original disbursement plan, the islanders were expected to live off the interest from this lump sum payment. But a stock market crash almost immediately after their investment fund was set up, and a population boom, driven in part by the windfall, have cut deeply into the principal and the expectations that went with it.

Now, with Washington reportedly looking for ways to reduce its financial commitments here, Marshallese are pressing new claims, ranging from a suit against the American tobacco industry to pressing claims that past damage awards did not take into account loss of land use.

But even Marshallese will tell you that no matter how much money they ultimately receive, the way they have handled their affairs in the past has been corrupt and wasteful. Almost anything built by the government or received from abroad in the last 15 years is in ruins. Exhibit A is a hospital built by the United States several years ago that has been so poorly maintained it looks as it has been through a war.

"What happens when you send a state-of-the-art bus here?" said H. Dee Johnson, a justice of the high court of the Marshall Islands, who was recruited from the Texas bench. "It is fairly predictable. Within three months the bus is going to be broken down and the driver and his extended family are going to be living in it."

Judge Johnson’s presence here reflects another kind of dependence in this society, which has grafted American-style laws and lifestyles onto a bunch of tiny slips of sand in the mid-Pacific. A half-century of American presence here -- accountants and lawyers, doctors and judges -- has failed to generate an indigenous professional middle class.

"The U.S. has created deep turmoil in the lives of the people here, and to say we’ve done enough, its time to scale back now would be extremely selfish," said Alfred Capelle, president of the College of the Marshall Islands. "But rather than giving the priority to financial support, they should help us educate our people so that we can modernize in a Marshallese way. In fact they should have helped create a body of educated people before we even talked about independence.

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