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OPINION: A contract between unequal powers

FOLLOWING a whim a few days back, I pulled a thick green book from the corner of my uncle’s bookshelf, intrigued by the golden-lettered title: “An Honorable Accord: The Covenant between the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States.”

Supported by meticulous research and written in clear, clean prose, An Honorable Accord explains how the CNMI came to be. Authors Howard P. Willens and Deanne C. Siemer offer historical context dating back to WWII, then recount the twists and turns of negotiations between the Marianas Political Status Commission and the U.S. federal government in the early and mid-1970s. It’s a must-read for anyone sick of stumbling in their explanation of what exactly the CNMI is in relation to the United States.

That said, it’s worth mentioning that, as U.S. District Court Judge Gustavo A. Gelpi pointed out during a recent lecture at American Memorial Park, commonwealth status remains confusing to this day, even to the legally educated. Time and time again, disputes erupt over who can make which decisions here in the Northern Marianas; immigration, ancestry-based plebiscites, and increased militarization are a few recent examples.

And in these debates, it is perhaps not the Covenant itself which is most important to understand but rather the method by which it is interpreted: in federal courts, by federal judges, appointed by a president and legislators for whom CNMI residents have no capacity to vote.

For me, the situation brings to mind a line from “A People’s History of the United States,” in which Howard Zinn describes the contracts between indentured servants and their masters in 17th century Virginia:

“As in any contract between unequal powers, the parties appeared on paper as equals, but enforcement was far easier for master than for servant.”

Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to learn how the Covenant came about, and the different approaches adopted by both sides. Of particular interest to me were the negotiations revolving around Tinian.

The U.S. wanted to purchase the entire island for military use, their bargaining chip being a promise to build a base on Tinian which would be of mutual benefit to military personnel and Chamorros. According to U.S. diplomat Franklin Haydn Williams, who presented the proposition to the wary Marianas Political Status Commission in 1973, those benefits would include “first preferences for employment for Tinian residents, new business opportunities outside the base complex, and improved infrastructure and services characterized by a sharing between the base and local community” along with “the sharing of educational facilities by military and civilians alike, the availability of other educational and training programs, and the emergency medical service that the military presence would ensure.”

Willens and Siemer said the idea was shocking to the commission.

“The members were deeply offended by the U.S. proposal for Tinian — especially its concept of a ‘total military reservation’ for the island and its disregard for Tinian’s people,” they write. “Yet at the same time they recognized that Tinian had long been a priority objective for the United States; they knew that successful completion of the negotiations required good faith bargaining on the subject.”

“Some commission members were dubious that the economic and other benefits would ever materialize,” the authors add. “One suggested that they needed ‘to have a guarantee that there’s going to be a military installation,’ which would generate the promised financial and other benefits. But the polished presentation of those benefits by the American delegation convinced other commission members…that the Tinian base would be built in the near future.”

We now know, of course, that while the commission ultimately agreed to lease the northern two thirds of Tinian to the military, the base was never built. So much for good faith bargaining.

Fortunately, the commission didn’t buy the military’s justification for relocating all of Tinian’s 800 residents “because of safety concerns associated with the loading and unloading of munitions from ships in the harbor.”

Gone are the days when the U.S. government pretended to be worried about the danger of unloading supplies near Chamorro villages. Only a few years ago, they requested to use the northern two-thirds of Tinian as a live fire bombing range, as detailed in the  CNMI Joint Military Training or CJMT proposal.

So yes, on paper, according to the Covenant, the NMI and the U.S. federal government entered into a unifying treaty as equals, and allegedly in “good faith.” But how does that power dynamic function today, in real time?

Another way of asking the question is this: if the U.S. military redrafts the CJMT (which it is allegedly doing) and demands the right to bomb Tinian regardless of the residents’ wishes, what, realistically, could any of us do about it?