The tensions between the administrators on Statia and those in The Hague are flaring up again, and we are afraid that this time around not even that sweet tune of the Mighty Shadow, “Ease the Tension” can calm the hearts and the modernday chiefs in Statia and the Netherlands. The Dutch Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations, the honourable Dr. Ronald Plasterk, has made it clear that he has had enough of what he considers the inept and corrupt local government on the Caribbean island. Higher supervision it is! Statia’s Coalition Leader, the honourable Mr. Clyde van Putten, has responded in kind calling the Dutch administrators racists who continue to act as colonial overlords. Massa day done!
The question on many persons’ minds, those who aren’t hastened to judge or choose sides immediately, is what must be done? But, behind that question is actually the question of what exactly is the matter at hand? Only by answering the question behind the question can we hope to ease the tension in the Kingdom.
As this is not the way most persons living in the constituent states of St. Maarten, Aruba, and Curaçao understand the matter, it would be a mistake to argue that the scuffle between Plasterk and van Putten is solely an affair between Statian and Dutch politicians. The multitude we are referring to the views of the average John and Juliana who do not spend their happy hours at Mark’s place or watch BVN TV regularly. Let us stick to the country we know best.
The common sentiment on St. Maarten is that the BES is a mess (the political arrangement within the Dutch Kingdom, since 10-10-10, whereby Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba have become overseas municipalities of the Netherlands in the Caribbean Sea). The BES has become synonymous with the Invasion of sabe todo expats, soaring cost of living, and a nightmarish sense of a return to the time when Dutch Caribbean islanders were considered lesser Dutch while residing on the rocks where their ancestors worked the land and picked salt.
The BES islands, with Statia figuring large these days, are seen by most St. Maarteners as places were the small man and woman is taxed to death for daring to display entrepreneurial skills. Selling mauby or Johnny cake on their porch is inviting the tax man to teach you a lesson; this, whilst these small cottage industry initiatives are being promoted on many other Caribbean islands and are seen as a stimulus for the local economy. And worse yet, the major employer of the small man and woman is the government with a Dutch taxman acting as an overseer for chief Plasterk!
It is of little consequence to squabble over the truth value of this sentiment about the state of the BES. Demonstrating that behind the sentiments, The Hague is investing heavily in the infrastructure of the islands is unconvincing. Sentiments are rarely about truth, they are about what people consider valuable.
For many St. Maarteners the BES operates as an omen of what would supposedly happen to them if The Hague took full control of their island. It makes them cherish, even more than they otherwise would, the autonomy they enjoy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Autonomy is a value not to be taken lightly.
What binds St. Maarteners, Statians, Sabans, Curaçaoleneans, Bonaireans and Arubans, despite their many differences, is their vivid memory of gaining the right to exercise some political control over their destiny after legally having been treated as second-class persons up until 1954. Who does not appreciate the power of the value of – political – autonomy, does not understand the Dutch Caribbean islanders. In fact, such a person has little appreciation of imperial history. What’s more that person is out of touch with his or her own human condition – the yardstick to come to terms with social life and act in a humane way.
What humans want individually, and as members of national communities, is to be able to exercise some control over their lives and livelihood. Most of the time they are aware that full command of the future-in-the-making is an illusion. Hence, they create satisfying stories that appease what is beyond their sphere of influence. You may call this an indirect way of controlling realities they cannot control directly. The quest of groups for political autonomy (not to be confused with the fantasy of absolute sovereignty) is grounded in our existential desire to have some say and ability to manage our individual lives.
Sometimes the stories groups tell, and believe, about the powers beyond their direct control are not of the self-gratifying variety. They are tales that refer and construct a menacing “Other” that prevents their actions of direct control from being effective (this big Other is a group that has more power). Now we hope that you understand this rather complicated piece of reasoning, actually much more simple than we have jotted it down here, is a truism of the human condition that holds as much for Statians as it does for persons in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, the menacing Other is the EU representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg that are supposedly making the lives of the Jan and Joke’s miserable and eating away at their political autonomy.
Only by acknowledging the importance of political autonomy can politicians in the Netherlands and those on Statia, and those governing on the other islands, begin to have respectful working relationships. Only then they can act justly based upon common human longings while being mindful of the economic, cultural and social differences that make the Kingdom of the Netherlands what it is.
These commonalities, however, are only recognized when our storytellers, artists, educators and intellectuals come up with a credible and satisfying Kingdom story based on the value of political autonomy of all for all. Then, perhaps, just perhaps, the chiefs will recognize (or be obliged to recognize) that every political act should be informed by an ethic of safeguarding an individual’s sense of self control, and reducing the abuses of power of the powerful without causing the small man and woman affiliated to national communities within the Kingdom too much harm.
It is time to ease the tension.
Dr. Francio Guadeloupe, Dean of Academics/Interim President, USM
Mr. Erwin Wolthuis, Division Head of the Business & Hospitality Program, USM
Mr. Pedro de Weever, Lecturer, USM
Ms. Sharelly Emanuelson, filmmaker & guest lecturer, USM