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Watson Faces Big Changes in Micronesia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What does Micronesia, a chain of steamy, impoverished islands in the far South Pacific, hold for a powerful, cosmopolitan, liberal, feminist from Los Angeles like state Sen. Diane Watson?

The nation of 607 islands--perched almost on the equator and with names such as Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae--is so remote that it takes 22 hours by air from Los Angeles to reach the capital of Kolonia.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 08, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 8, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Micronesia ambassador--A June 29 story in The Times about the nomination of state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) as the American ambassador to Micronesia misidentified the country’s location. It is in the North Pacific.

Television from the outside is limited and delayed; there are no daily newspapers or movie theaters; an evening out might consist of supper at a diner.

“People don’t know about Micronesia because they cannot find it on the map,” said Watson, who is President Clinton’s newly nominated ambassador to the former trust territory known as the Federated States of Micronesia, population 107,000.

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Originally, Watson had sought appointment as ambassador to South Africa. It didn’t work out. Neither did a foreign posting in Lesotho, another African country, or in Bermuda.

Watson better be prepared for dramatic lifestyle and cultural changes in Micronesia, says her predecessor, former Ambassador March Fong Eu, a retired California secretary of state, who resigned from the post two years ago.

“You don’t have all the excitement of what you have in California,” Eu said, noting that “I just made myself keep busy. I kept busy in the [Embassy] garden and raising chickens.”

Although Eu indicated that there is no overload of official duties, she said Watson will take over at an important time because the United States intends to end its financial support of the nation.

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Micronesians are doing their best to become self-sufficient, Eu said, but “it is going to be very difficult. They don’t have the resources to do it.”

At 64 and prohibited by term limits from running again for the office that she has held for 20 years, Watson wants a new career as a diplomat.

Now that she has Clinton’s nomination, she must stand for confirmation by conservative Chairman Jesse Helms and his Foreign Relations Committee and then by the full Senate. A spokesman for the Foreign Relations Committee did not return calls about Watson’s nomination.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of confirmation,” said Watson, who in 1978 became the first African American woman elected to the state Senate.

She said she is preparing for Helms, a powerful North Carolina Republican who earlier this year had sunk Clinton’s nomination of Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld to be ambassador to Mexico.

“I hear he is very courtly, wise to the old ways of the South,” Watson said. “So, how do you come before a chairman like that? Well, you don’t come in there with this ‘slick, Western feminism,’ as they call it.”

Watson intends to focus during confirmation on her own “family values,” starting with the fact that her father and other relatives were law enforcement officers.

“What can he say about me?” Watson said. “I represented my people. . . . I’m the best advocate and supporter they’d ever find for America.”

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She said she intends to resign from the state Senate when the Legislature adopts a new state budget, perhaps next month.

Sometimes abrasive, always energetic, she landed in a state Senate dominated by an elite hierarchy of mostly white men.

At that time, she was considered radical by some colleagues as she staked her political turf. She is strongly pro-women’s rights, including the right to choose an abortion; she backs affirmative action, and fights for better education of children and improved public health.

She is an outspoken enemy of tobacco, guns, cuts in welfare benefits and the death penalty.

Along the way, Watson regularly stirred controversy. In 1989, she defended now-outlawed legislative perks, such as the practice of lawmakers accepting money from special interests for making speeches. She argued that legislators were entitled to special treatment because they were not “ordinary people.”

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Watson represents more than 800,000 constituents in a racially and economically diverse district that stretches from USC to Culver City, including Rancho Park, Century City, the Crenshaw district and Exposition Park.

As chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, Watson is one of the most powerful figures in the Legislature.

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Bureaucrats return her calls immediately. Aides rush to help seat her. Staffers make sure she gets to the airport on time.

If everything works out, she soon will have to adjust to a new lifestyle on a group of islands that were fought over bitterly in World War II and whose neighbors, Bikini and Enewetak, were blasted to smithereens in the 1950s by American nuclear weapons tests.

English is widely understood among the indigenous people, who speak several local languages and have varied cultures.

Far from a travel poster fantasy of a Pacific paradise, Micronesia is a poor nation where about eight in 10 people are employed by the government, which is heavily subsidized at the rate of $130 million a year by the United States.

There is virtually no manufacturing. The economy depends on subsistence levels of fishing and the farming of crops such as sweet potatoes and betel nuts. The World Bank estimated Micronesia’s gross national product in 1995 at $215 million, most of it in U.S. aid.

The year-round temperature averages 81 degrees, but the region each year spawns typhoons.

At her comfortable office in the state Capitol, Watson was asked how she--as a politically powerful, urbane black woman from Los Angeles--expects to fare in Micronesia.

“They are people of color. I can relate to them,” she said.

“It’s the challenge of how you change your lifestyle,” she said, noting that in the early 1960s she taught school for two years at an American military base in Okinawa. “I’ve always wanted to go into the diplomatic corps. That’s what I set out to do.”

Her No. 1 assignment, she said, will be to help negotiate the end of a long-standing compact between the United States and Micronesia. The United States intends to withdraw its financial support of Micronesia in 2001.

In the meantime, Watson said she must try to help make the tiny country self-sufficient by finding ways to boost the economy.

“I’m excited about the challenge of focusing on business and industry,” Watson said. She suggested that Micronesia might be a good spot for a Pacific Rim global communications center or a strategic manufacturing site for far-flung pharmaceutical markets.

For former Ambassador Eu, who now commutes among homes in Singapore, Los Angeles and Sacramento, Micronesia is for “people who like a slow pace. It is quite a nice country. It is quiet . . . it’s out of the way, so [Watson] won’t be bothered by a lot of visitors.”

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However, Eu added, Watson will take over the vacant post at a crucial time.

“I used to think if the taxpayers ever knew about [how much the U.S. subsidizes Micronesia], they’d probably jump in horror,” Eu said. “I hate to say this, but I don’t think we are very good colonists. We have not really helped them to become self-sufficient,” Eu said.

Historically, the islands have had little experience at independence, having been occupied first by Spain and later by Portugal, Germany and Japan. It was a U.S. trust territory until 1983, when the free association compact was implemented.

Eu, an artist and self-described activist, said Micronesia is suited to a more sedentary lifestyle.

“We did get a San Francisco television channel, but it was one week late. There are no newspapers. If you like to swim, there is a lot of swimming, fishing and deep sea diving.”

For entertainment, Eu said she would occasionally borrow films from a small U.S. military post “and invite the Americans to come to a ‘movie night’ at the ambassador’s residence.”

To maintain her contacts outside Micronesia, Eu became an expert in e-mail correspondence on the Internet.

Watson said she thinks that she will get the hang of that too. “Know what? I’m not much of a television fan, [but] I’m going to get real good on the Internet.”


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