The Americas — this appeared in the 14 March, 2021, print edition of the Washington Post and at <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/coronavirus-sint-maarten-netherlands/2021/03/10/d2f58bea-80e9-11eb-81db-b02f0398f49a_story.html >
Racial reckoning in the Caribbean: Former colony confronts the Netherlands over coronavirus aid conditions
Sint Maarten Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs and Curaçao Prime Minister Eugene Rhuggenaath speak to reporters after the weekly council of ministers in The Hague in July as the Caribbean former colonies sought a coronavirus aid package. (Bart Maat/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)
By Anthony Faiola and Ana Vanessa Herrero
March 10, 2021 at 12:39 p.m. EST
Inside the prime minister’s office in the Caribbean nation of Sint Maarten, the walls of paradise were closing in.
In the former Dutch colony renowned for fish stews and rum cocktails on Great Bay Beach, the coronavirus pandemic had ground tourism to a halt, sparking a financial crisis akin to the aftermath of a hurricane. By December, Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs said, public coffers were so low that she didn’t know how she could continue to cover the government payroll.
She needed a financial lifeline. Four thousand miles away, Mother Holland was prepared to throw one — but with strings attached. What followed would be a racial reckoning in the Caribbean: a bitter dispute between Sint Maarten’s Dutch overseers in Europe and local politicians representing an island populated predominantly by Afro-Caribbeans and other people of color.
“This top-down approach definitely feels like reverting back to colonial times,” Jacobs said.
The pandemic has upended the economic fortunes of billions of people worldwide, exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones. In the case of Sint Maarten and the other Dutch autonomous islands in the Caribbean — Aruba and Curaçao — the economic upheaval has gone much further.
Broad demands from the Netherlands in exchange for millions of dollars’ worth of emergency aid are threatening to shift the balance of power between the former empire and its former colonies, reimposing the kind of oversight that the islanders thought they had left behind when they gained autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010. Last week, Sint Maarten lawmakers filed a petition with a U.N. special rapporteur on racism accusing the Netherlands of “racial discrimination” and “violations of international rights.”
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Philipsburg, the capital of Sint Maarten, is pictured with Salt Pond in the foreground and Great Bay and the Caribbean Sea beyond. (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The filing Tuesday, which seeks monitoring, documentation and action against alleged racist policies, comes two months after the Dutch government fell in a scandal involving the alleged racial profiling of benefits claimants in the Netherlands.
The fundamental claim now is that the Dutch government is using the pandemic to turn back the clock on colonial rule.
“They are trying to take full control of our democracy,” said Grisha Heyliger-Marten, the senior member of the Sint Maarten parliament who helped lead the petition effort. “They have for far too long ran with the narrative that our people are corrupt and incompetent.”
“It’s like Black Pete,” she said, referring to the blackface Christmas character still popular in the Netherlands. “They say that’s not racist, but it is. Just like what they’re trying to do to us now.”
The Dutch, however, see a problem that needs fixing, with the pandemic presenting an opportunity to overhaul islands that they say just don’t work. In exchange for millions of dollars in aid, they’re insisting on cuts to state salaries and benefits. They’re also demanding broad, long-term changes to local tax laws, labor codes, border controls and the education and health-care systems that could forever change the way of life in Sint Maarten, Curaçao and Aruba. All is to be done under the watchful eye of the new Caribbean Entity for Reform and Development, whose members will be appointed by the Dutch government in “consultation” with the islands.
Paul Blokhuis, the Dutch state secretary for health, welfare and sport, left, and KLM chief executive Pieter Elbers check an aircraft loaded with coronavirus vaccines leaving Amsterdam Airport Schiphol last month for the islands of Aruba and Bonaire. (Koen Van Weel/AFP/Getty Images)
Dutch officials say the pandemic has pulled back the curtain on years of mounting problems since autonomy was granted — including excessively high salaries for lawmakers and government ministers. In Sint Maarten, with a population of about 40,000, members of parliament earn upwards of $10,000 a month — amounts Dutch officials say are higher than comparable salaries in the Netherlands. (Officials in Sint Maarten say the claim does not take into account the extra benefits and allowances granted to their Dutch counterparts.)
For the Dutch, it feels like 2017, when Sint Maarten was devastated by Hurricane Irma. The country, which shares an island with the French overseas collectivity of St. Martin, needed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Dutch officials say taxpayers in the Netherlands are again being asked to open their pockets for islands that are meant to be self-sustaining. Since the pandemic reached the Caribbean, they say, they have been feeding thousands of islanders through food programs and offering medical equipment and coronavirus vaccines through grants, in addition to tens of millions of dollars’ worth of loans for fiscal support.
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A rescue plane lands at the Princess Juliana Airport in St. Martin on Sept. 12, 2017, days after Hurricane Irma devastated the island. (Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)
Dutch officials insist that Sint Maarten — whose politicians have been the most vocal among the former colonies in condemning the Dutch demands, and held out the longest before agreeing to them — has not managed to create a functioning and fair society. They say they’re trying to push it toward that goal now. They point to allegations of rampant political corruption and stubbornly high levels of poverty on an island that’s a haven for mega-yachts and the billionaires who love them.
“If they feel colonized by us still today, they could jump out of the kingdom — that’s totally up to them,” said Raymond Knops, the Dutch cabinet minister for kingdom affairs. He said the Dutch demands had to do with guilders and euros, not “racism or post-colonial action.”
“Because of this crisis . . . they weren’t autonomous at all and they had to ask for money somewhere else — in this case, the Dutch government,” Knops said. “That makes this relationship a little bit contentious.” He added that he hoped they could achieve “real autonomy” and that “all these things we’re doing will help them get stronger.”
Sint Maarten voted for autonomy in 2000. The three Dutch Caribbean islands that chose to remain as closer “municipalities” within the Netherlands — Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba — are not being targeted. Critics say the Netherlands is singling out for punishment the islands that chose greater freedom.
Sint Maarten maintains its own parliament and police force; its defense and the judicial system are still run by the Dutch. It rests on an island slightly larger than The Hague. The island was divided in the 17th century between the Netherlands and France, whose relationship with its territory has been markedly less adversarial.
Dutch soldiers return to the air base in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on Sept. 30, 2017, after assisting emergency services after Hurricane Irma in Sint Maarten. (AFP Contributor/AFP via Getty Images)
Dutch officials in Sint Maarten blame hyperbolic politicians for the discord. They say island leaders have refused to recognize the sacrifices Dutch taxpayers have made to support them. Ordinary islanders, they say, understand those sacrifices far better, and crave an end to the inefficiencies and corruption that plague the former colony.
“If you listen to stuff in the newspapers, and the politicians, you’ll hear words like ‘neocolonialism,’ ” all kinds of accusations against the Dutch,” said Chris Johnson, the Dutch representative to Sint Maarten. “But what civil servants are telling me is that they’re excited they’ll be able to look at their institutions and find out ways where they can be more efficient.”
At least some business leaders on the island agree.
“When a country is putting down hundreds of millions in aid, it is going to set conditions,” said Ricardo Perez, secretary of the Sint Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association. “Are the conditions hard? Definitely. But the government has not generated the level of confidence for the Netherlands to say, ‘Take the money and spend it however you want.’ ”
Yet the U.N. petition makes far broader allegations, asserting that racism has stained Dutch policy in the Caribbean.
“Take a look at what the Dutch [government] is doing with respect to its own citizens in Europe, who are overwhelmingly White, in terms of covid assistance, covid relief for small business and being part of a funding mechanism for all of Europe,” said Peter Choharis, the Washington lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of Sint Maarten’s parliament. “Compare that to what they’re doing on the islands, which is, ‘You need to accumulate more debt and agree to our demands.’ ”
Rolando Brison, the head of Sint Maarten’s parliament, said 12 of the 15 members of the chamber backed the petition. But Dutch officials questioned its legality, arguing that its specific language had never been approved in a public hearing. They also said past legal challenges to Dutch fiscal edicts and claims of neocolonialism have been struck down by local courts.
“At the end of the day, sides will always have opinions on who is right and who is wrong,” Johnson said, “but it is the people that should be allowed to make the final call, so maybe we’ve reached the time for a constitutional referendum that asks the question: Independence, yes or no?”
Sint Maarten officials say they tried to avoid asking the Netherlands for fiscal help, but had no choice after Dutch officials effectively blocked their attempt to float a private bond offering last year. Dutch officials say they frowned on that deal because it smacked of “self-interest” for the politicians involved, and would have saddled the island with worse financial terms than zero-interest Dutch loans.
“You cannot come and use your money as a whipping tool to recolonize my country because a pandemic has put us in need,” Heyliger-Marten said. “You took everything from us already during colonization, and you left us with nothing. You guys were the pirates, you guys were corrupt. Don’t blame us now.”
Her husband, a former politician, was jailed on corruption charges. He denies the charges and is appealing them.
Jacobs, the prime minister, said she was grateful for the pandemic aid provided by the Dutch. She declined to say whether their demands amounted to racism.
“What it feels like, though, is a lack of respect, whether it’s because of race or whether it’s because we’re a small island,” she said, adding, “Draw your own conclusions.”
Correction: Grisha Heyliger-Marten’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.