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The Federated States of Micronesia is a small, poor country consisting of 607 islands of the Caroline archipelago in the northern Pacific Ocean between Guam and Honolulu. Sighted by Portuguese and Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century, the Carolines eventually came under Spanish control and, by the mid-nineteenth century, began attracting growing numbers of missionaries and coconut traders.
Following its defeat in the Spanish-American War, Spain sold most of the Caroline Islands to Germany in 1899. Japan seized the islands in 1914 and ruled them from 1920 under a League of Nations mandate. U.S. and Japanese forces fought bloody battles for control of the Carolines during World War II, with the islands becoming part of the U.S. Trust Territory for the Pacific after the war.
The country's road to independence began in 1978, when four districts of the trust territory--Yap, Chuuk, Kosrae, and Pohnpei--approved a constitution setting up a federal republic. Micronesia achieved full independence in 1986 under an accord with the United States in which Washington agreed to provide around $2 billion in aid through 2001. Under the accord, known as the Compact of Free Association, the United States also maintained responsibility for the country's defense and has the right to set up military bases.
Micronesian voters in August 2002 rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have introduced direct elections for president and vice president. Under the current system, Congress chooses the two top officeholders from among its ranks. Thirteen other proposals also failed to garner the 75 percent approval needed to amend the constitution. These included proposals to give the four states control over land and water issues and the right to levy their own value-added and goods and services taxes.
Meanwhile, the government of President Leo Falcam continued to negotiate with Washington over the terms of renewing the Compact of Free Association. Renewing the Compact is critical for Micronesia because U.S. aid is equivalent to about one-third of the country's economic output. A deal on favorable terms will boost Falcam's chances for reelection in balloting due in 2003.
A typhoon that swept across Micronesia in July killed more than 40 people and left up to 2,000 Chuuk Islanders living in emergency shelters.
Micronesians can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The 1979 constitution created a single-house, 14-senator congress. Each of the four states elects one at-large member for a four-year term, with the remaining 10 senators elected from single-seat districts for two-year terms.
The president and vice president are chosen by Congress from among its four at-large members. By informal agreement, these offices are rotated among representatives of the four states. The three smaller states, however, complain about the alleged political dominance of Chuuk state, which has nearly half of the country's population and a proportionate number of congressional seats.
The government does not prevent Micronesians from forming political parties, although none exist. Political support is often based on clan, family or religious ties.
Micronesia's judiciary is independent, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. Cultural resistance to dealing with serious crime through the courts has allowed some suspects accused of sexual and other assaults, including murder, to be released indefinitely and to avoid trial, the report said.
The media are free and consist of governmental newsletters, several small private papers, television stations in three of Micronesia's four states, radio stations run by each of the four state governments, and one radio station run by a religious group. Satellite television is increasingly available.
Micronesian women are increasingly active in business and hold some mid-level federal and state posts, but they face "extensive" discrimination in mainstream society, the U.S. State Department report said. Reports of spousal abuse continue to rise, and officials rarely prosecute alleged offenders vigorously, the report said. Victims often decide not to press charges because they are pressured by family, fearful of further assault, or convinced that the police will not take action in what are widely seen as private matters. Cases of physical and sexual assault of women outside of the home are also increasing, the report added.
Micronesians are free to set up civic groups, though they have formed few nongovernmental organizations except for a handful of student and women's groups. Religious freedom is respected in this mainly Christian country.
In a society where most private sector jobs are in small-scale, family-owned businesses, Micronesians have not formed any trade unions, although there are no legal barriers to association. No laws specifically regulate working hours, recognize the right to strike or bargain collectively, or set standards for workplace health and safety. The economy is dependent on U.S. aid, tourism, fishing, and subsistence agriculture.