Friday, January 7, 2011

Horses, Lechon and um, is that Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico?

After a night of not feeling too great in the belly, and still not quite up to par, I had to go see what I could see of the Three King's Day goings on. Lots of kids/families at the playground...the horse carriage...but no paso finos! I went home. But the siren pull called...the horses...the lechon (which I've not had all holiday season, and this was the last chance!).

There were the horses! um, wait...they...have their saddles off...everyone is drinking beer and listening to's OVER and I missed it! Stamping my dainty little foot did nothing to change that but I did feel better when Jo Ann let me know it was a) late and b) not really scheduled for any time anyway, as usual. We've now signed a pact (ok, I'm going to set some sort of internet alarm to remind me to remind her) that next year she will call me when they actually hit the road.

You might think the idea of lechon and a dancing tummy would be incompatible. If so, you obviously do not understand the power of lechon to some people, one of whom would be me! Maybe it's the once a year-ness, but...I don't think so.


I got an email from my friend in Majuro, in the Marshall Islands yesterday. Both stories he related were so familiar sounding, I thought I was having an out of country experience. Luckily, we've, so far, avoided the first half of this scenario. But not by much.

A Darker Side of Paradise

We've got two threads running in the local rag this week... They are not necessarily linked together but it's interesting to see them side by side as they make up a small part of the whole cloth that is the Marshall Islands. The first is the New Years Day sinking of a 150 foot ship belonging to the Marshall Islands government and the second is a case of massive fraud and grand larceny within government ministries.

Nobody died. However 17 people spent 12 hours in sinking liferafts and finally clinging to floating debris. What a way to start the New Year! The Captain of the ship is being recognized as a hero for his cool under extreme pressure and for his ability to keep his crew and passengers together and in (relatively) good spirits during the ordeal. Another hero is my friend Wally Milne, a member of the Marshall Islands Billfish Club, who took his 35 foot fishing boat the 90 miles to the site of the sinking in rough seas (for a 35 foot boat) to rescue the people from the ocean. The government search and rescue vessel and patrol boat, the “Lomor”, arrived on the scene many hours later, well after dark. It seems that it did not have any fuel when it was notified of the sinking although it always has plenty of fuel to take government officials to the out islands for high school graduations and building dedications. It doesn't ever seem to have enough fuel to enforce fishing regulations in the region, either...

The government shipping agency owns four ships (now three) to service the far flung islands and atolls that make up this island nation on the edge of the world. These ships are the main connection between the out islands and the capital island of Majuro. The ship that sank, the “Jeljelet Ae”, was a landing craft and primarily used to carry cargo and equipment for out island projects. On its final voyage the ship was loaded with construction materials and equipment for work on an elementary school on Likiep Atoll. The other three ships, the “Aemman”, the “Langdrik”, and the “Ribuuk Ae”, (the names are great, aren't they?) routinely carry cargo and hundreds of passengers. If one of these sinks you'll hear about it on the international news because there will be major loss of life. And the chances of one of them sinking is very high! Let me quote the headlines of the local newspaper “The Marshall Islands Journal” in this weeks edition... “Desperate need for the dry-docking of vessels”, “Trouble 'predicted'” and “I hope it doesn't happen to other ships”.

The fact of the matter is that the government does not maintain its equipment. The chairman and the manager of the government shipping agency have been pleading for years for the necessary funds to maintain these vessels but their pleas fall on deaf ears. The local rag reported in June of last year a quote from the shipping company chairman, Alson Kelon. “Marshall Islands government ships are in dire need of dry-dock overhauls but the MISC (Marshall Islands Shipping Corporation) has been told to prepare for budget cuts. The government has told us to dry-dock the vessels in two years. But we're already three years behind schedule for dry-docking”.

The ships are kept together with snot and baling wire. $300,000 has been set aside for the maintenance of these ships for this year. 300 grand is nothing for the annual maintenance of 4 ocean going ships. A drop in the bucket! The fact that these boats continue to run at all is amazing! It is a tribute to the manager of the MISC that he can maintain any service whatsoever to the out islands. The same government officials who complain of lack of service by the shipping corporation to the out islands are the same officials who routinely deprive it of funding for routine maintenance. The “Jeljelet Ae” sank in not abnormal winter conditions because it literally fell apart. End of story.

By the way, the Marshall Islands government is petitioning the government of Japan for a gift of new ships. The government of the Marshall Islands routinely votes with Japan against international whaling regulations and Japan is the biggest market for the dwindling stocks of tuna from this part of the ocean. This is called “checkbook diplomacy”. Even so, Japan has asked to see the operating logs and maintenance records of the government fleet before commiting itself to that multimillion dollar donation. It will be interesting to see how this plays out...

The second thread is all about massive fraud and outright theft within the government Ministries of Health and Finance. It seems that for years that local businessmen have been submitting fabricated invoices to the government and that their cohorts inside the government facilitate the payment of these invoices. We're talking big bucks here. The tip of the iceberg shows the outright theft of tens of thousands of dollars and according to some government insiders it has been going on for a long time. They are now just concentrating on the last 6 years because that is the extent of the statute of limitations!

Although it is acknowledged that the massive fraud has been taking place for many years it is just now appearing in the judicial process. In Marshallese culture it is considered rude and ill mannered to publicly embarrass the ruling class by accusing them of anything bad whether it be the theft of government monies or misconduct by themselves or by members of their families. Crimes committed by the ruling class are swept under the rug. That rug is getting very lumpy!!!

From the darker side of paradise...
Cheers and Carry On!

Even the newspaper article on the ship sinking sound familiar...I had to search pretty far to find any article on our local ferry that even mentioned the fact that it had undergone 'repair' fairly recently. The powers that be/repair do as lasting a job as the promises in September for rebuilding the ferry dock. State of the art, I hear (which I translate to mean, someone politically connected architect/solar company/government official(s) is making money off of this somewhere, even while we're not seeing any improvements).

Ah well. In the meantime, we will enjoy the beautiful side of Paradox, as I know they do in Majuro. Maybe that is the kicker...such incredibly beautiful places beset by the scrabbly bits of politics just jars the senses. And yet, it is a world wide issue, staining the face of the planet where greed of the few overcomes the plights of the multitudes that could be remedied, and yes, I believe this, if compassion were the driving force rather than self gain for those in power who are swayed by profit rather than their supposed position to serve. Ok, fixed that one! Next?

(I know, talking cats are a lot more fun!)

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