Ties to US Have Revolved Around Ships, Rubber, Radio

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IF this nation settled by freed American slaves is the most American-like of African states, then the Firestone Rubber Plantation here must be something close to Tara.

Like Margaret Mitchell's fictional Southern plantation, Firestone has been plundered and nearly destroyed by war. Ninety percent of its 60,000 acres has been taken by rebels. Profiteers from Malaysia, China, and India illegally tap the top-quality rubber.

The Firestone plantation was owned by Americans until 1988, when they sold it to Japanese interests. Americans still manage Firestone, but have been able to do little to rehabilitate it since it was overrun by rebels in 1990. At one point, guerrilla leader Charles Taylor set up headquarters there.

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Firestone represents only one of several American interests in Liberia. Over the years, the United States has been linked to Liberia for economic and strategic reasons.

Liberia declared war on Germany and Japan in 1944 in support of the US, which had come to rely on Liberian rubber after supplies were cut because of the Japanese conquests in Southeast Asia. More recently, an airport was built next to Firestone, largely as an emergency landing spot for US space shuttles. It is now in ruins.

DURING the cold war, the US built an extensive communications system in Liberia, including a tracking station for the Central Intelligence Agency and a large Voice of America transmitting station. The sprawling ''antenna farms'' have become home to thousands of displaced Liberians and refugees from the war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

''One thinks that Liberia has always been dependent on the United States,'' says retired American Gen. Robert Yerks, who heads the Virginia-based International Trust Company (ITC) of Liberia. ''Those who say that really have a short memory.''

Perhaps one of the most-striking features of the current American-Liberian business relationship is that a retired American general appears to wield so much power here. General Yerks, a former deputy US Army chief of staff, lives in a luxurious American compound. He regularly advises prominent Liberian politicians on how to move the country's peace process forward.

Yerks runs ITC's bank and administers Liberia's corporate and ship-registry programs. The ship-registry service enables other countries to sail their ships under the Liberian flag.

Because Liberian registry is inexpensive, its fleet has become the largest in the world in tonnage. More than 30,000 offshore companies are registered with ITC. The system generates more than $20 million per year for Liberia, giving ITC a lot of control over the government's spending.

Yerks is quick to note that Liberia has been a strong backer of the US, supporting every American vote at the United Nations on Israel. ''This was at a great cost to Liberia,'' Yerks says. ''As a result of Liberia backing the United States, the Arab states boycotted Liberian-flagged ships.''

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