By Graham Earnshaw
MAJURO, Marshall Islands, Aug 31, Reuter – Robert Reimers, the richest man in the Marshall Islands, is a mirror of just about everything that has happened in this strategically- placed Pacific island group in the past eight decades.
In his lifetime, the Marshalls have been ruled by the Germans, the Japanese and the Americans and he has a debt to each, particularly the Americans, whose liberal grants of aid to the islands over the years have made him rich.
He’s a big fish in a small pond perhaps — the far-flung islands of the Marshalls, half way between Hawaii and the Philippines, have a total population of only 40,000.
But he said he estimated his total assets at around 25 million dollars, which includes 99-year leases on almost the entire town centre of Majuro, the country’s capital.
Reimers, who has eight children, 67 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren, claims to be the Marshalls’ biggest private employer, retailer, shipping agent, car, boat, real estate and insurance dealer.
He says his company also pays about half of all the tax the Marshall Islands government takes in, although he has gained no political leverage from his economic power.
“Things are a little different here because all the money comes from Uncle Sam,” he said. “We pay about one million dollars in taxes every year, but that’s peanuts compared to what they get from Washington DC.”
The Marshalls nominally gained their independence from Washington in 1986, but the United States continues to bear responsibility for its defence, and pays almost all its bills.
There are huge aid payments, land rental payments by a U.S. missile testing base on the Kwajalein island group, and compensation money paid out to former residents of Bikini Atoll, site of 23 atomic bomb tests between 1946 to 1958.
Reimers, 79, told Reuters in a recent interview that it would have been impossible to build his company without the infusions of this U.S. money over the years.
“What makes us profitable is Kwajalein land money and Bikini radiation money,” he said. “We have taken the money and rotated it. The U.S. federal grants provide good opportunities for business.”
Reimers was born in 1909 when the Marshalls were ruled by Germany, the son of a German accountant and a local woman. The Japanese took over the islands in 1914 and Reimers worked for many years as a clerk for a Japanese trading company.
He also learned boat-building, a trade which gave him a start after the Americans replaced the Japanese in the Pacific following World War Two — the U.S. Navy employed him on Kwajalein to build boats to give to the island people.
His Japanese came in useful one day four years after the war ended when his woodcutters reported sighting a Japanese soldier on an island near Kwajalein.
Two marines sent with Reimers as interpreter found the straggler, and Reimers shouted that the war was over. The soldier fired and the marines shot back, hitting him in the stomach. They wrestled his rifle away as he tried to disembowel himself.
“On the way back in the boat, I tried to talk to him, but he just kept his mouth shut and wouldn’t say anything. By the time we reached the dock he was dead. Two American guys fishing on the dock saw him and asked us to give them the body for bait.”
In the early 1950s, the U.S. administration was transferred from Kwajalein to Majuro, and Reimers followed. He set up a boat shop, but the bottom fell out of the business when the U.S. Navy stopped financing boats for the islanders.
So Reimers went into the retail business instead, opening a store on Majuro and using the wooden boats he had been unable to sell to open up trade among the islands.
He built his business up from there, with a big boost from a loan of 250,000 dollars from the U.S. government in 1979.
The old man now spends most of his days sitting in the downtown area of Majuro, dominated by a huge sign reading “Robert Reimers Enterprises”.
Does he consider the Marshall Islands, with their palm-fringed islands and turquoise seas, to be paradise?
“No,” he replied instantly. “Honolulu is paradise.” REUTER GAE MH NNNN