Journal Staff


In her interview with the Journal, days after returning to Kolonia in the Federated States of Micronesia, U.S. Ambassador to the FSM, Carmen G. Cantor, reflected on the relationship between the two countries, which dates back to the era of World War II.

“We’ve been working together strengthening those relationships for many, many years,” she said.

A significant milestone was the onset of the Compact of Free Association on Nov. 13, 1986, with renegotiation of certain terms at mandated times.

Until now the Compact has economic ramifications for the FSM. 

“The United States provides over $110 million in assistance every year, along with a variety of federal programs and grants and services,” Cantor told the Journal. “This is supposed to go on until fiscal year 2023. That includes dedicating a good money into the jointly-managed Trust Fund.”

The Ambassador emphasized the continuation of the relationship. “Many people don’t realize that the Compact in itself does not expire — it’s only certain economic provisions that are expiring in 2023,” she said. “Those are the ones that are being negotiated.”

Grant assistance currently focuses on six sectors: education, health, infrastructure, public sector capacity building, private sector development and the environment.

“We are focusing on all those and negotiations continue. We don’t have a timeline at this point; we all agree we want to restart as soon as possible,” Cantor said.

The FSM is facing about $400 million in construction work; U.S. funding from the Compact of Free Association and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program is providing more than $280 million through 2023, with other funding coming from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The FSM will need to rely heavily on outside construction firms due to a scarcity of local contractors with the experience to handle large projects.

Cantor said typically the Embassy would aim to help. “This is part of the work that we do; we try to promote American businesses.” However, she said, “This last year, we all had to shift our focus on what we were working on.”

Most of the Embassy’s focus in 2020 was on COVID-19 preparations, she said. These included provision of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits. “The United States included the Freely Associated States and citizens of the FSM have received benefits from the PUA program.”

Also, Cantor said, “The three Freely Associated States have been receiving vaccines since late December, way before many countries around the world.

U.S. Ambassador Carmen G. Cantor returned to the Federated States of Micronesia from Guam on May 13, on a U.S. Coast Guard flight. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Kolonia, Pohnpei.

“In addition to the COVID testing, the ventilators, the equipment, the training, the CARES [funding] and the PUA assistance, we offered the vaccines. Thousands of doses of the Moderna vaccine have been sent to all four states of the FSM,” she said.

The vaccine donations brought with them some concerns at the beginning, she said. 

“One of the questions that was raised at the Embassy was, ‘Is the United States using the Micronesian countries as guinea pigs?’”

In a short virtual meeting in January with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Cantor said, “I asked Dr. Fauci that specific question.”  She also raised the question of herd immunity, since President David W. Panuelo had talked about wanting 100% of the population vaccinated before re-opening the boarders.” Fauci told the Ambassador that 70% to 85% was the estimate for herd immunity.

“After the interview, President Panuelo reconsidered his decision and changed the goal to 70%,” Cantor said.

Cantor first arrived in January 2020 and was able to visit Chuuk before the pandemic hit and scheduled visits to Yap and Kosrae could not go ahead. “I had the opportunity to work for about eight or nine months before I traveled to the mainland in late 2020 and had to wait until [May 13] to enter the country.”

In addition to helping the FSM prepare for any potential entry of COVID to the country, Cantor said during 2020, she was able to focus on other areas, since the FSM was and remains COVID-free. “We have been working on expanding economic opportunities in the FSM; we have been working with them on cyber security, sea-bed mining, [and] building renewable water sources,” she said.

And while the pandemic may have shifted the focus initially, Cantor said, “We look to increase global trade and investment, especially with U.S. partners.”

Additionally, work on environmental issues take place, she said. “On a small scale my team and I have worked with local NGOs in the FSM — especially in the state of Pohnpei.” Initiatives included several trash clean ups, raising awareness of food environmental practices and observing Oceans Day, she said. “We continue to work with the FSM on supporting their efforts on countering climate change and emergency preparedness.”

Among the passengers on Cantor’s flight to the FSM was “our first ever US AID country director. His name is Roger Garner,” she said. “He’s going to be working on several portfolios — health and education, but also emergency preparedness and climate change.” Garner will dedicate his efforts in those areas, she said, working closely with the FSM government. The United States Agency for International Development is an independent agency of the federal government that is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance.

 An ongoing area of concern is the promotion of a “free and open Indo-Pacific. We’re going to continue working on that,” she said.

Cantor noted that the FSM Congress has no female legislators, nor does Panuelo’s cabinet have female members. The only exception is the postmaster general, she said. “There are some women in the state legislatures, but not at the national level. I focused a lot of my attention in the last year on empowering women and girls in the FSM.”

The Ambassador helped re-start the Pohnpei Girl Scouts two months after she arrived in the FSM. (She is a former Girl Scout.) “We also participated in #BlackoutviolencePohnpei, a campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence and gender-based violence issues.”

Campaign members walked around Pohnpei last year and wore black to raise awareness every Thursday in April, for the second year in a row. While in Guam, Cantor met with several federal agencies that joined her in wearing black, she said. “We have donated books to the Pohnpei State Library, the Chuuk Women’s Council and several high schools in Pohnpei. I also hosted a couple of panel discussions for FSM stakeholders where we discussed youth and women’s empowerment in the FSM.” The Embassy has been active in this area, Cantor said. “Teaching girls and women how to economically develop and leadership skills would go a long way.”

The three Freely Associated States recently received a $2.2 million grant for women’s economic development. “We are working very closely with our partners in [the Marshall Islands] and Palau and also with the International Organization for Migration; they’re the implementers,” Cantor said. The loan is a combination of education, micro-loans and projects, and also allows for administrative overheads, she said.

In addition, the ambassador is focusing on the many U.S. military veterans in the country “to get them as many programs and services as we can get them. Right now, we are planning a town hall meeting with veterans, and that’s just one example.”

Cantor’s career has taken her into a variety of fields, to include appointments at senior levels of government — human resource management, cultural affairs, counter terrorism and equal opportunity and more. She holds a bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez and a master’s in labor relations from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico. She had studied widely and is an alumna of the National Hispana Leadership Institute and the Aspen Institute’s International Career Advancement Program.

The Ambassador has found another way to develop relationships with a wide audience in the FSM, many of whom have lived in the U.S. mainland and are familiar with American music — as a weekly radio show presenter of themed American music on the Embassy’s broadcast of America Waves Radio on, which reaches all four FSM states, and beyond.

“It never crossed my mind that I would be a radio show host, but there are silver linings in what the pandemic has taught us; now we’re using all these platforms that we didn’t use much,” she said.

Cantor’s family flew to the FSM with her in May, for the first time, due to the pandemic. “The entire time that I spent in the FSM in 2020, was by myself. They were waiting as many people were waiting to enter the country. Now they’re here,” she said.

The role of Ambassador has the potential to make use of many of Cantor’s skills and interests. “I feel like I prepared all my life for this one job,” she said. When you look at my career highlights — and even being born and growing up in Puerto Rico – an island, a U.S. territory. … I feel and I felt when I was nominated for this position, everything brought me to where I am now.”

Cantor said she believes her experience and background have prepared her well for the ambassadorship. She said, “I’m still very excited to be doing this job — a year and a half in. I’m very happy to be here.” mbj