The ongoing struggle with the colonial past

4 June 2009

The ongoing struggle with the colonial past

On 15th May the inhabitants of Curaçao voted 'yes' in a referendum proposing a new set of administrative arrangements with the Netherlands. The island, in common with its neighbour Sint Maarten, will become an independent country within the Kingdom. SP Member of Parliament Ronald van Raak is pleased that the population of Curaçao has opted for continued cooperation with the Netherlands, but warns also that, in relation to good governance and sound finance, a great deal of work remains to be done.

by Ronald van Raak, Member of Parliament for the SP

Ronald van RaakIn the seventeenth century the Netherlands became a major colonial power. The Dutch Republic established trading posts in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The United East India Company (VOC) ruled over large areas of what is now Indonesia, while the West India Company (WIC) brought Surinam and the Dutch Antilles, amongst other areas, under its control. In the twentieth century our country underwent a painful process of decolonisation. Just after the Second World War the people of the Dutch East Indies fought two wars to win their independence, after which relations cooled considerably. In 1975 the Netherlands gave every support to Surinam's independence, but the young country continued to experience many problems following its achievement. Many of its inhabitants decided to migrate to the Netherlands to look for a better future.

A forced marriage

It seemed obvious that the colonies in the Caribbean region would also gain their independence or seek an association with a neighbouring country such as Venezuela. The Dutch Antilles, however, preferred to remain within the Kingdom. According to the Statute of the Kingdom, adopted in 1954, the Dutch Antilles would retain the option of withdrawing, but the Netherlands would not be permitted to secede from the forced marriage. The administrative relations within the Dutch Antilles remained poor, however. The island of Aruba seceded from the Dutch Antilles in 1986 to become an autonomous country within the Kingdom. Curaçao and Sint Maarten are now looking to follow suit. The smaller islands of Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius, on the other hand, want to become overseas local authorities with a direct affiliation to the Netherlands.

A neoliberal paradise

The Dutch Antilles are not poor, but there are indeed many extremely poor Antillians. The average income per head, around €12,000 p.a., is higher than that of Romania. But income differentials are extremely wide, so that in the Antilles there are numerous very wealthy people, most of them foreigners, many extremely poor people, and widespread unemployment. 30 percent of the population have to get by on less than €215 per month. The De Antilles are, moreover, very small: Curaçao has just over 140,000 inhabitants, Sint Maarten 40,000, Bonaire 12,000, Sint Eustatius 2,700 and Saba 1,500. In addition, there are many undocumented residents, as the Antilles are in a region marked by extensive labour migration. The islands are also weighed down by violence and criminality, much of it associated with the smuggling of arms and drugs or with financial crime. .

The Dutch Antilles are a paradise for rich foreigners and for multinational corporations. Tax evasion is general and tax revenues small. In addition, the islands count fifteen special economic zones, where hundreds of firms are established which pay no tax other than a levy on profits of 2% - as against the 25.5% rate in the Netherlands.

Government supervision is often extremely weak. The SP has been campaigning since 2003 against pollution from the ISLA refinery in Willemstad, Curaçao's capital, which emits poisonous smoke into the working class residential areas of Otrabanda and Punda. Too many decision-makers are more concerned to promote the interests of their family or social group than the general wellbeing. Policy is neoliberal in the extreme, with many public services being left to the market to provide. Poor people in the Antilles are trapped in social backwardness. The islands have huge debts, with too little having been invested in education and health care. Local workers have to compete with migrants from Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela, and many young people leave for the Netherlands, where a poor grasp of Dutch and a lack of education mean their prospects are generally not good.

Should we be interfering in the Antilles?

Ank Bijleveld, Secretary of State for Relations within the Kingdom, is currently conducting negotiations over a revision of these relations. During a round table conference in November, 2005, it was agreed that the Netherlands would help the islands to discharge their debts, for which purpose a sum of €1.7 billion was reserved. The Netherlands also wants to help with the necessary investment, in education and health care, policing and justice. But if the islands are to be offered a new future, rather more than this is needed. It has been agreed that their executives must draw up sound budgets which offer the prospect of financial independence. Corruption will be tackled and regulations put in place to combat nepotism.

To date, the negotiations have been somewhat stilted The original deadline of December 2008 has been extended, but the new target date of the end of 2009 will not be achieved. An important point of dispute is the question of how far the Netherlands should be permitted to interfere. The islands' rulers insist that the Dutch Antilles are autonomous countries within the Kingdom and are in no way answerable to the Netherlands. According to the Statute of the Kingdom, the Netherlands does, however, have the responsibility of guaranteeing human rights and freedoms on the islands, as well as the rule of law and the soundness of their administration. The Dutch government has thus far been extremely reticent when it comes to intervening in the administration. The SP wants to see more clarity over when the Dutch government might, in the future, make use of this power. .

Intervention by the Netherlands would be necessary in cases where things go badly wrong. A rapid end must be put, for example, to pollution from the ISLA refinery, which, according to a 'Strategic Orientation Study' conducted by the island's executive, is responsible for up to eighteen people a year dying and thousands becoming ill. The Netherlands should also be asserting its rights when it comes to improving the Bon Futuro prison on Curaçao, in order to put an end to the degrading conditions there. In some policy areas continuing involvement will also be needed, for example in combating corruption. June 2007 saw a successful protest when members of the island council of Sint-Maarten wanted to increase their already ample expenses reimbursements by 50%. In December 2008 these same politicians wanted to give themselves a very attractive pensions hike, a move which once again was scuppered by the SP.

Is the Netherlands becoming a tax haven?

An important precondition for aid in paying off the huge debts should be, in the SP's view, that the islands themselves address the problem of ensuring sufficient income. This means that the taxes imposed must also actually be collected and an end put to the tax advantages available in the special economic zones. In February of this year Finance Minister Wouter Bos gave his support to plans to tackle tax havens within Europe, by which he meant countries such as Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Bos, who is also leader of the Labour Party (PvdA) could set a good example by tackling the Dutch Antilles' special economic zones. A small increase in taxes for these zones in Curaçao, where firms as things stand pay almost nothing, can prevent the island falling back into financial difficulties in the future. For the tax havens on Bonaire and Sint Eustatius, the Dutch finance minister has a particular responsibility, because these islands have opted to become an actual part of out country. If Bos does not intervene, it will mean that in the near future we will see tax havens on Dutch soil. .

The ‘BES’ islands - Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius – are small and isolated. They have opted to become 'public bodies' within the Netherlands, each a sort of overseas local authority, governed by special rules. After a transition period, precisely what these rules will be, which rules and which laws will be adopted, will be examined. Former minister Ank Bijleveld has been appointed commissioner responsible for supervising the transition on behalf of the Dutch government. A College of Financial Oversight will supervise the financial policies of the BES islands, and the Dutch government will be able to intervene if things go wrong. Rules have been established for good governance, with particular attention being paid to the problem of nepotism. There will be a common police force and Court of Justice. But the islands lie at a great distance from each other and cooperation will therefore be difficult.

Sint Maarten is in part Dutch, in part French, with the French section forming an Outremer, an overseas department under the direct rule of France. The Dutch Sint Maarten has opted to become an autonomous country within the Kingdom. Its executive is frequently under fire for corruption and nepotism. In 2007 an official report concluded that the island is in the grip of organised crime, offering a haven for money launderers, drug smugglers and arms traders. The College of Financial Oversight will also supervise finances on Sint Maarten, but in an autonomous country will have less competence. Sint Maarten will have its own police force and Court of Justice, but the island seems much too small to have any chance of combating international criminality. In the SP's view, it would be better were Sint Maarten to accept the same 'public body' status as have the BES islands. .

Curaçao has, on the face of it, more potential to join Aruba as a country within the Kingdom. On Curaçao, however, there is a great deal of opposition to the conditions placed by the Netherlands on the proposed debt forgiveness. On 15th May a small majority voted despite this to accept these conditions. For Curaçao, the same financial supervision must be applied as in Sint-Maarten. This would mean that in the first instance the island would itself be responsible for balancing its budget. One positive is that from now on real budgets will be drawn up, rather than as previously, when sums were listed with no clear view of how these had been spent and what had been achieved through this spending. Curaçao will have its own police force and Court of Justice, but the question again arises of whether these will be capable of effectively tackling the violence and criminality on the island.

As long as the Antilles do not vote for independence, the Netherlands will retain a responsibility for the islands and the historic task of offering their people a better future. More interference now can prevent our having to struggle for even longer with our colonial past. The SP is therefore against a too hasty closure of negotiations. Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius can quickly be made overseas local authorities of the Netherlands, on condition that good governance is assured and that the islands arrange sufficient income for themselves, including by taxing the special economic zones. Sint Maarten is still a long way from greater independence, and would be better served for the time being by opting, as have the other small islands, for more oversight by the Netherlands. Curaçao has a better future as an independent country within the Kingdom, but in this case too the conditions for good governance and sound finance must be created.

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