PHILIPSBURG:--- As we mark the 10th anniversary of the day St. Maarten became “an autonomous country within the Kingdom of The Netherlands” on October 10, 2010, otherwise known as “10-10-10” that Chinese saying comes to mind: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”
How far have we traveled on this journey? What is our destination? And when and why did we take that first step? We would have to search our history to find the answers to these and other relevant questions. But let me say, without any fear of contradiction, that we have journeyed far, however, we still have much farther to go, if we are to reach the Promised Land.
Contrary to what some people might argue, our journey as a nation did not start with the two referenda we held in 1994 and the year 2000 respectively: it actually started over 400 years ago when our ancestors were kidnapped, uprooted from their motherland and forcibly brought here to the New World as enslaved labor.
We have been struggling since then for freedom and have scored some significant victories that allow us today to contemplate the future with hope. This is not dwelling on the past; this is agreeing with Marcus Garvey’s warning that a people without a knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots.
Permit me, therefore, to run through some important events in our recent political history. When, on January 1, 1986 Aruba left the then six-island constellation of the Netherlands Antilles, the intention was that 10 years later it would become an independent country, a choice expressed by the people of Aruba in a prior referendum.
The seeds of the disintegration of the Netherlands Antilles were sown then. Some of you might recall the former Prime Minister of the Netherlands Antilles, Juancho Evertz declaring that six minus one equals zero, in an obvious reference to Dr. Eric Williams’ ominous statement regarding the West Indies Federation.
The subsequent political patchwork carried out to keep the so-called Antilles of Five together, didn’t work. While Curacao claimed that it had been saddled with the heavy load of carrying the rest of the smaller islands, it became increasingly clear to St. Maarten, which had similar grievances as Aruba had, that its future could not be guaranteed within the Netherlands Antilles.
Even attempts by then Dutch Minister of Kingdom Affairs, Prof. Hirsch Balin to introduce a model that would group the ABC and SSS islands as two separate constitutional entities within the Kingdom did not gain much traction. Discontent with the political structure led to Curacao organizing its first constitutional referendum in 1993. This led to the emergence of the Partido Antiya Restruktura or PAR party led by Miguel Pourier which, as its name indicated, promised a “restructured Netherlands Antilles.”
St. Maarten followed suit in 1994 with its own referendum in which the people decided to give the Netherlands Antilles a chance. The Curacao-led “restructuring” effort however failed woefully, resulting in St. Maarten deciding after six years, to hold another referendum in 2000, when almost 70% of the people chose for Option 3, St. Maarten becoming an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
It was only when Mr. Richard Gibson was appointed Minister of Constitutional Affairs that the proverbial Constitutional Train started moving. We also insisted that Curacao hold another referendum, as the politicians were rooting for the breakup of the Netherlands Antilles, while in the last referendum the people of Curacao had voted to remain in the Netherlands Antilles.
It took in total 10 years of arduous, stop-and-go negotiations to finally get the Dutch Parliament to approve the new constitutional status for St. Maarten and Curacao. I am honoured to have been Commissioner of Constitutional Affairs in the final stretch of the negotiations.
In order to achieve the new “country” status, the legislatures of St. Maarten and Curacao had to agree to give up certain authorities to the Kingdom Government in the form of the Rijkswet Financieel Toezicht (The Financial Supervision Law). In accordance with the consequent Consensus Law, neither “country” would have access to the financial markets without the prior approval of the CFT.
All of this because the main reason for the collapse of the Netherlands Antilles was its huge debt. It must be clarified here that at the time, the island government of St. Maarten did not have the authority to incur any debt. However, it was made to share in the debt of the Netherlands Antilles, but the debt relief or cancellation promised by the Dutch government upon the attainment of country status did not materialize. That was strike one for the new autonomous country of St. Maarten.
Although the island had to build several institutions from scratch such as the Parliament, seven Ministries, the High Councils of State, Central Bank, SVB, Tax Office, Prosecutor Office, etc., Curacao did not have this handicap as all these institutions were seated there with the requisite staffing and infrastructure. This was strike two.
The third strike would be, in my humble opinion, the generally sour relations with the Kingdom government which, instead of cooperation has seemingly opted for a different strategy of exploiting our weaknesses, even during times of disaster like Irma and the COVID-19 pandemic, to impose conditions on St. Maarten that I have described, in 2017, as an “indecent proposal”.
Permit me to elaborate on this point further.
In 2005, the Netherlands signed the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness which requires donor countries’ to commit to aligning their policies with the partner countries’ national development goals.
It does not speak of imposing conditions but rather of a partnership that respects local leadership.
The Dutch government has in my opinion, openly disregarded the stipulations of this international covenant where it concerns emergency assistance to St. Maarten.
We are all witnesses to the fact that St. Maarten was forced to accept the Kingdom government’s draconian conditions, the Dutch Trust Fund, which it brought the World Bank to manage. In three years, it all yielded very paltry results in terms of the post-Irma reconstruction of the island.
We see a similar story unfold with the response to the financial pressures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with financial loans tied to the establishment of an all-Dutch controlled Caribbean Reform Entity (CRE) which would have no accountability to St. Maarten, but rather only to the Dutch government, which claims, inaccurately in my view, that the island(s) cannot handle their financial autonomy.
At this juncture, with your indulgence, I would like to quote lavishly from an Opinion piece by Dr. Emsley Tromp, the former President of the Central Bank of the Netherlands Antilles, which was published in the online news publication, StMaartenNews.com on the eve of 10-10-10.
In the article, the learned economist recognizes that “the Dutch government is duty bound, according to the Rft, (the Financial Supervision Law) to lend the two governments money to finance their capital expenditures under the same terms Holland itself borrows, consequently guaranteeing that both Curacao and St. Maarten would have unhindered access to the financial markets.”
He, thereafter, notes that “the subsequent staggering increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio of both Curacao and St. Maarten was possible only with the explicit authorization of the Dutch government after due regard of the consent of the CFT. Therefore, the argument advanced now that the islands could not handle their financial autonomy is more a verdict on the failure of the Dutch-engineered governance structure and the laxity of those entrusted with the compliance thereof than of the policymakers of the islands.”
I don’t want to belabor this point, but it is important to note that it calls into serious question the guarantee function and the supervisory role of the Kingdom government.
I must add that this has become a customary pattern of Dutch policy failures toward the island, which are blamed exclusively on St. Maarten politicians. And the main reason for this is because the whole structure is based on a colonial system. This colonial system is not working. Higher Supervision, imposed on the island in 1994, following the Pourier Report, did not work.
The Technical Assistance program, meant to improve government administration, did not work. Financial Supervision, (CFT), set as a condition for country status, is obviously not working. The Integrity Chamber isn’t working, neither is the World Bank, brought in to manage the Dutch Trust Fund post-hurricane Irma. What makes anyone think then that the CRE would work?
I say this, not to absolve our political class of their responsibility in the current financial, economic and social malaise of the island. There is surely enough blame to go around. But what we have seldom focused on is that the system we are operating under was never designed to make us independent.
We are all familiar with the issues of so-called political “instability” that has dogged us since 10-10-10. But it might be instructive to see what has happened historically in this respect in other parts of the world.
In the almost 50 years from the end of World War II, Italy, for example, had no less than 61 governments! Subsequently, in the seven years after 1994, it had 6 governments, the same number of governments it has had from 2011 up to 2019.
Japan, another industrialized democracy, had six governments in five years between Sept. 26, 2006 and Sept. 2. 2011, while Greece had four governments in four years from 2015 – 2019.
In 2017, it took current Dutch PM Marc Rutte some 8 months to form a new coalition government (225 days to be exact). Now, had that been St. Maarten…
So, the issue of political “stability” as a condition for national development, is shaky at the very best and cannot be applied solely to a colonized territory like St. Maarten, while it is seldom invoked when it concerns countries with hundreds of years of experience as democracies.
But such double standard is a staple of colonial rule. “Instability” or the constant falling of governments is evidently not, in and of itself, an obstacle to national development. The lack of a plan and consistent implementation is.
Permit me, at this point, a brief reflection on the vexed issue of autonomy and whether the decision taken by the people in the referendum of 2000 was the right one or not, a decision that became reality on 10-10-10.
The way I understand it, autonomy is simply the ability of a people, in this case, St. Maarten, to take decisions and act in our best interest, in other words, to govern ourselves. But how can we claim to be “autonomous” if we cannot exercise our free will? After all, doesn’t autonomy mean that nobody should force us to do what we disagree with?
The Kingdom structure we are in is so lopsided that it begs the question, whose Kingdom is it really? I guess we all know the answer to that. Even attempts to address the obvious democratic deficits in the Kingdom structure, in terms of crisis resolution, for example, have met with a virtual veto from the Dutch government.
Last year was the 65th anniversary of the Kingdom Charter, by virtue of which we are supposed to be “equal partners”. But alas, there is no equality and very little partnership in the present structure.
After 65 years of the Kingdom Charter, it is incredible that “experts” gathered at a celebration last year in Holland, were still saying that the Kingdom could work if we tried to understand and respect each other’s culture.
This is itself a tacit acknowledgement that the Kingdom has not worked. Besides, hasn’t understanding and respect for each other’s culture been the cry of St. Maarten for the longest while?
So, where do we go from here?
Ten years is a very short time in the history of a nation. But I get the impatience, especially of the new generation, for things to move at a more supersonic speed.
It is noteworthy however that when I hear people compare St. Maarten to St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, Barbados or Dominica, they usually forget to add that these countries are all independent states.
In fact, the first, St. Kitts, is the last country in the Caribbean to attain its independence. That was over 30 years ago! In other words, there are two generations of Kittitians who don’t know St. Kitts as a colony.
For me, therefore, the way forward for St. Maarten means we must embark on the next journey towards Independence.
This is why in Parliament, we are making preparations to make our case known before the UN Decolonization Committee to request that St. Maarten be put back on the Decolonization List because, no matter how we twist and turn it, we are still a colony.
The Netherlands never completed the decolonization process as required by the UN. Therefore, we must become more conscious of our potentials and of our inalienable right as a people to be independent. I hope this happens in my lifetime.
I mentioned at the start of my address that our journey to this day began centuries ago when our ancestors were dragged here in chains. All their unpaid labor for 400 years, all their sweat, blood and tears; all the wealth they produced for the slaving nations – The Kingdom of the Netherlands being prominent among these – need to be compensated for.
There is no statute of limitations on stolen wealth. This is why reparatory justice is a universal demand, and particularly here in the Caribbean.
The Netherlands must compensate us for the many years of Slavery and exploitation. It is against this background that I find it rather ironic that those who have enjoyed “free lunch” – with our salt, and forced, unpaid labor for four hundred years – with no apology, and no reparations, would think that they have the moral or other authority to speak about not wanting to give “free lunch” to the descendants of the same people they worked to death to accumulate the wealth they enjoy today.
Besides, they also have a responsibility to assist us to put in place all that is necessary to be able to move forward and join the many other Caribbean independent states.
Before I end, let me stress that the decision of the next step to take must be taken collectively by the people of St. Maarten as they did 20 years ago. Every constitutional change since 1986 has been made after due consultation with the people.
Our journey as a people continues. I am aware that there would be those who would rather not keep moving. That is Ok. The children of Israel literarily rebelled against Moses when they were fleeing Egypt, and many were even ready to return to bondage because they didn’t want to face the challenges they encountered on their journey to the Promised Land.
Moses never reached the Promised Land, it took a new Joshua generation to do that. I hope that in St. Maarten that new generation is ready to assume its responsibility.
I thank you.