By Troy Torres
(Tumon, Guam) I wonder how many kids went through Saipan Sales perusing the earbuds and headphones that cost less than $40 so they can tell their struggling parents that's what they want for Christmas.
I wonder how many kids in Guam are looking forward to their first Happy Meal, because the toy inside is the only Christmas gift their parents will afford.
If you don't believe this is the real Marianas, you're three things: 1) disconnected; 2) part of the minority; and 3) part of the audience that needs to keep reading this article.
This evening, as the children of the Marianas anticipate Santa's visit just as hard as their parents hope for a cash miracle, Typhoon Ursula is staring violently down the Visayas in the Philippines. Christmas may be a day of disaster recovery for our brothers and sisters of the Philippine Pacific. Sometimes perspective helps us to remember our humanity, no matter the borders or seas that separate us.
What of the divide in our beloved Marianas? What of the storm that has torn apart families and left so many destitute and on the edges of hope?
The governors of both our islands have been lauding their accomplishments in improving the economies of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. For the most part, they're right; the economies have improved. But who benefited?
According to the U.S. Office of Economic Adjustment reports on gross domestic product show that Guam is 20 percent richer than it was 10 years ago. The Commonwealth is 45 percent richer. Guam GDP in 2008 was $4.6 billion; by 2018, it had skyrocketed to just shy of $6 billion. In the Commonwealth, GDP in 2008 was $939 million; by 2018 it had reached more than $1.3 billion. GDP generally is the measure of an economy's strength. It is the value of goods and services produced by the economy less the value of goods and services used up in production.
Residents of Guam: this Christmas, would you say you're 20 percent financially richer than you were a decade ago?
Residents of the CNMI: are you 45 percent financially richer than a decade ago?
The data reveals that the answer for the majority of residents in the Territory and the Commonwealth is a big fat 'no.' In Guam, despite the rising economy, more of our residents are eligible for and recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps); more than 44,000 out of about the 170,000 population. A comparable number of people are covered by the Medicaid and Medically Indigent Program, giving island leaders a fair impression of the growing problem of poverty in Guam.
In the CNMI as of the 2015 Medicaid and CHIP (Child Health Insurance Program) Enrollment Report, 19,076 people who fell below the federal poverty line availed of public health insurance. Around 7,500 active government employees and retirees and their dependents have insurance. A much smaller percentage of private sector employees have coverage. What of the rest of the Commonwealth's 53,000 residents?
Like tens of thousands of Guamanians, they have no coverage whatsoever. So many have died and so many more suffer through untreated diseases and debilitating and painful conditions.
Yet, the government of Guam believes it is fine and dandy to withhold the payment of tax refunds to fund a politically-charged race to pay war claims even if a federal answer is right around the corner. Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero is looking to piss away $700,000 in travel costs for 100 people to attend FestPac 2020 in Honolulu, complete with a fancy reception party.
A law that flew in the face of Guam's anti-trust laws was passed that threw $20 million in anticipated health insurance savings down the drain. The biggest corporations making the most money on this island off the backs of the people of Guam are skating on paying more than $100 million in taxes annually, while the rest of the people and the smaller companies foot the Legislature's tax increase bill.
Sound familiar, CNMI? That's because the plunder of Guam by the richest and most powerful is a replica of the political class's scheme with the casino to plunder the CNMI.
While the casino posted 2017 Saipan revenues of $1.7 billion, the CNMI 2017 gross GDP was only $1.6 billion. How is total CNMI GDP lower than the amount of money that one Saipan company made? Simple, $1 billion was taken out of the Commonwealth that same year; the amount was netted from personal consumption calculations.
That means that the politicians's beloved casino idea, which promised so much wealth for the people of the Commonwealth is doing the exact opposite of its purpose and promise. It is sucking the life out of the NMI through the arrogant increase of corruption and crime while injecting less in value to the people of the Commonwealth. The capital being made is leaving the country, literally, and benefiting the very few who are paid off to keep the scheme going.
While more and more money flows through our islands than ever before, more and more of the people of the Marianas struggle; many having to enter the public rolls of welfare and assistance to supplement incomes that aren't keeping up with the cost of living.
The disconnect between our political leaders and the people whom they are supposed to serve is glaring, to say the least. All the first-class travel, the personal expenses on government dime, the amount the taxpayers of both Guam and the CNMI pay for bodyguards and state-sponsored dinners, the alcohol purchases and fireworks displays, and the blatant misuse of public money as the peoples of the Marianas fall deeper into debt and poverty is criminal.
Christmas in the Marianas with respect to the number of presents under the tree (or for that matter, the presence of Christmas trees at all inside homes) isn't what it used to be. And that's because the people are becoming poorer and poorer while the rich get richer.
But in the ways that matter and that call to mind the reason for the season, hearts are growing stronger in our islands. More people are finding the courage to speak up and stand up to social injustice and political corruption. More are opening their eyes to the truth and taking notice of the suffering that silence has caused. Parents may not be able to buy their children what they want, but by standing up for them and taking the first steps to reclaiming their power over the political class, they are giving their children something far more valuable: a brighter future, and a moral compass.
Merry Christmas, Marianas. Christ's coming means the Light comes into the world. His other name is Justice.