Curaçao: small island, big problems

Curaçao gained autonomy from the Dutch in 2010, but it hasn’t been a smooth transition.

By , Correspondent

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    Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands inspects an honor guard upon her arrival at the Curaçao International Airport in Curaçao November 2011. In late 2010 the Dutch kingdom granted this small southern Caribbean island more autonomy than it ever held before.
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Optimism ran high here in late 2010 when the Dutch kingdom granted this small southern Caribbean island more autonomy than it ever held before.  

The Dutch wiped clean 80 percent of Curaçao’s debt and handed over control of most government functions to local leaders. For the first time since Spaniards arrived in 1499 and quickly enslaved the indigenous, the island controlled its destiny.

“10-10-10 presented a real opportunity for us. We were confident that we were going to have this perfect future,” says consultant and political analyst Michiel van der Veur, referring to the date – Oct. 10, 2010 – when the transition took place. “Obviously, it has not exactly worked out that way.”

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Instead of celebrating its newfound freedom, the island finds itself wading through a political crisis. The murder of a leading politician in an unprecedented act of violence against a public official capped a string of events that has left the young country questioning its future.

Its stability is of far-reaching importance: Located just off the coast of South America, Curaçao has become a significant piece in the relationship between Venezuela and the United States, which keeps a US military installation on the island as part of its anti-narcotics mission. Venezuela has accused US planes stationed in Curaçao of violating its airspace and spying.

The instability began nine months ago when the country’s first prime minister was ousted in what he called a bloodless coup d’état. Since then, three prime ministers have taken office, enacting sweeping policy changes to the sales tax and public pension and health care systems.

The country hit a previously unthinkable low point in early May. Sen. Helmin Wiels was murdered while relaxing at a popular beachside pier in Willemstad. Mr. Wiels, an outspoken advocate for independence from the Dutch and an anti-corruption crusader, led the Pueblo Soberano (Sovereign People, in English) political party and was seen as a hero by his largely poor political base.

“It’s a very bad situation that we are in,” says Gerrit Schotte, the first prime minister who was removed from office last year, and now serves as a senator. He was often at odds with Wiels, who called Mr. Schotte a sociopath apparently over differing opinions on policy, despite the fact that the men had formed a political coalition.

Schotte, who shortly thereafter dropped out of the coalition, says, “People are tired of not getting what they voted for. They see that our system is not working.… Unfortunately, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

While Wiels’ murder remains unsolved, theories as to why he was killed have abounded, with many residents believing he was the target of an international crime ring. Before his death, Wiels made enemies at home and abroad, denouncing everything from local corruption to the presence of the US Military installation, which he believed was used to control, not eliminate, the flow of drugs north.

'In the middle'

With only 145,600 residents and a reputation as a cruise and SCUBA-diving destination replete with colorful Dutch-style architecture and brilliant underwater seascapes, Curaçao would seem to have little international import. But the island has played an outsized role in hemispheric affairs in recent years.

The US military has kept unarmed planes and dozens of military personnel at a Curaçao airport since the two countries signed an agreement in 2000. The US Air Force, which flew some 800 flights out of the location in 2010, said the operation is key in the regional anti-narcotics fight.

But due to its location, just 40 miles northwest of the Venezuelan coast, the installation drew the ire of late Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, who alleged that the US had used those planes to violate Venezuelan air space.

A confidential diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks said that Mr. Chávez would not consider supplying Curaçao with petroleum under preferential repayment terms – as it does to many Caribbean countries – as long as it allowed the US to operate its planes from the island.

Under a contract in effect until 2019, Venezuela’s state-run oil company operates a refinery in Curaçao that employs some 1,500 people. But the country does not get cheap gas from its South American neighbor. The US continues to fly its missions from the island.

“Obviously our location makes us important. But we don’t want to get in the middle of something like this,” Schotte says, referring to US-Venezuelan relations. “We’re a small country, so it’s important that we stay neutral.”

Unpopular changes, a murder

Wiels, the senator killed earlier this year, was anything but neutral. He talked openly about corruption and the importance of autonomy. That extended to the presence of US military personnel.

“The American presence is not to combat drug trafficking,” Wiels told a Venezuelan broadcast news station last year. “The American presence is to serve their policy on trafficking, on transit, it is there to say which drug, which cocaine shipment, can enter the United States and which one cannot.”

Meanwhile, he alienated many supporters when he helped push through unpopular changes, including raising the age for public pension withdrawals from 60 to 65 and raising the sales tax from 5 percent to as high as 9 percent on some products, and overhauling the health care system, requiring citizens to pay higher premiums. His supporters rallied in the streets against the measures.

Wiels was not afraid to throw barbs at his fellow politicians either, speaking out about alleged corruption and ties to the criminal underworld.

By April, he was telling supporters that his life was in danger. He was right. On May 5, armed assassins pulled up on Wiels, shot him five times, and fled in a gold-colored Kia Picanto.

Police say two men have been arrested, but they are not disclosing the motive or the suspects’ identities, as the case is still open.

“It was a shock. We never had seen this type of violence before, although political violence has been increasing since 2005,” says Miguel Goede, a political strategist and former rector of the University of Curaçao, referring to taunting and rhetoric, not violent crime. “He had warned that he had received death threats, but I don’t think we knew how to respond. We had no context for this type of crime.”

'A voice'

Few expected this level of uncertainty less than three years ago when the Dutch dissolved the Netherlands Antilles, thereby making Curaçao a self-governing country. The Dutch retained control of some functions and oversaw the country’s finances, but the excitement was obvious. People gathered in city streets to celebrate, hoisting the white, yellow, and blue flag for the first time and ushering in a hopeful period for the island.

They had reason to be optimistic. Without the debt that burdens many other Caribbean countries, Curaçao could focus on growing its tourist-heavy economy.

Some 400,000 tourists visited the island last year, according to the country’s tourism board. Cruise ships dock regularly near a new Radisson development downtown, where cheerfully painted buildings line a busy water passage transited by ocean liners.

The tourist version of Curaçao, however, masks the reality on the island, where a spike in street crime and persistent unemployment in poor neighborhoods have left many feeling abandoned by their government.

The political party Wiels founded elected a new prime minister, Ivar Asjes, who was sworn in on June 11. But Wiels’ death continues to sting residents here.

“We thought that for the first time we’d have a voice in the government. Wiels was our voice,” says Robert Flores, who is unemployed. He spoke on a seaside street in Willemstad near a house marked with graffiti that read “R.I.P. Wiels.”

“We don’t have much hope for what will happen next.”

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