The Daily Herald writes about comments on the document presented to officials in the Netherlands last month.“People on the island feel like the Dutch are not paying attention and in the long run it will cost them more to rebuild the economy,” said SBA President Wolfgang Tooten. “On a small island like this, you can’t implement all the same laws you have in Holland. Here, we are all importers. Their concept is that everything has to be uniform, but we are not on equal ground. We are 1,500 people in the middle of the Caribbean ocean. I would never have to import anything in Holland. I can just go to the next supplier and buy it.”
That critique of the lack of on-the-ground economic realities was the central message of the 10-page document outlining the economic plight of local businesses and residents alike. The document gave an overview of the local socio-economic realities that business leaders feel were either overlooked or ignored in establishing the original constitutional structure when Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire became official municipalities of the Netherlands back on October, 10, 2010, with the dissolution of the former Netherland’s Antilles.
The document asserts that local economies have been strained to breaking point because factors like how an import-based economy drives up inflation, how a lack of public subsidies for transit among local islands has devastated the tourism sector, how prioritising extraction of local tax revenues continues to handicap local businesses, how the refusal to extend Holland’s social services to local residents has wiped out the purchasing power of local consumers, and how basic services like water, telecommunications and electricity cost more for inferior quality.
Frustrated by a perceived lack of responsiveness from government representatives, SMA President Kelly Johnson submitted the document directly to the Dutch Second Chamber where the correspondence was acknowledged. According to Johnson, the group’s concerns will be brought before the chamber in September. “I bypassed everybody and sent it straight to the second chamber,” she said. “They surprised me because they answered and said they will bring it back up on September 10 when the recess is over. I’m hoping we can finally get somewhere because they don’t normally just answer you like that. They said they are going to look at it. “The fact that they actually responded could mean that we are getting somewhere. We would like for the (local) government to involve the business associations more in their decisions. They are making decisions that affect us and we don’t have no say so in them.” Items such as local business development, health care, labour and immigration were also addressed in the document. Members of both groups emphasized they felt it was unfair for local businesses to bear the burden of funding health care. “The ones who are coming from abroad, they are getting a free ID card and are getting free health care. That’s wrong,” said Cornell Johnson of the SMA. “There is a hole in the system and they need to fix it. Only the businesses which have employees are paying into the system. Everybody else is walking away clean free. They can go to Columbia and they haven’t paid one cent into the system. That’s wrong. If you want health care, then you have to pay.”
Business leaders also called on local government officials to work with the local business community on finding creative ways to diversify the local economy. They say focusing strictly on adding additional bars, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and dive shops at a time when so many are failing and consumer purchasing power is diminishing makes no sense. Instead business say initiatives like the Social Economic Initiative are needed. “(Statia) uses the Social Economic Initiative with the funds they got from Holland to do that,” Kelly Johnson said. “They have an economic development team that works with the chamber of commerce and other business associations there. Anytime a development project comes up in the community they meet and they can say what’s good and what’s bad for the community. “We don’t have decision making power here. Holland does it all. Whereas in Statia, it has the Statia development plan. They can decide this area is so big and we can allow this many businesses in it.”
Additionally, local business leaders are calling for an economic summit prior to the upcoming re-evaluation period for the constitutional agreements. “That’s one of the things we would like to suggest,” Tooten said. “The problems are not going away by not responding to them. They are just getting worse. We need to sit down with the finance ministers on the island, and the commissioner of economic affairs and with the Dutch officials. Then it would be easier to explain it face to face. If they are really interested they will say let’s come together and figure out what the problem is. We need politicians who can make decisions and not just civil servants.”