Wouter Veenendaal (l): ‘Policy is determined here, where there is little knowledge, and has major consequences there. And the islands have no say. That’s a democratic hole.’Statue Jiri Buller

    They have been connected with the Netherlands for almost four centuries (much longer than Limburg), but the connection has never been smooth. You will not soon hear anyone seriously arguing for the dumping of Twente because of underprivileged young people, or for the divestment of that part of Drenthe where the poorest people live and the land yields the least. While at the end of the 19th century there were already voices on the North Sea side to put the Caribbean part of the kingdom – six tropical islands – up for sale. Get rid of it. An inspiring example was Denmark, which sold its Virgin Islands to the US for a fair price.

    Subsequently, the former Indies wrestled from the colonial yoke, Suriname bumped into independence and the last remnant overseas kingdom stood proudly: the six Caribbean islands.

    And that will remain so, say Wouter Veenendaal and Gert Oostindie firmly. In this century, a Dutch politician may occasionally honk ‘put them on Marktplaats’ (PVV), or campaign for a commonwealth (VVD, SP), or say things like ‘If you call tomorrow that you want to leave, we will arrange that immediately’ (Prime Minister Rutte). But if you ask both scientists, they say: not going to happen.

    The interests on the Caribbean side are too great for that. Moreover, there are now 170,000 souls of Antillean origin living in the Netherlands, which is more people than living on the largest island, Curaçao. Oostindie calls them ‘the seventh island’. “For this reason alone, it is unthinkable that you would cut the ties.”

    About how it came to be – with a history of conquest and human trafficking – and how it should continue – no, shouldn’t, could be, because they don’t want to give the impression that they prescribe something as makambas – they wrote a book with a title that nicely sums up the marriage: Discomfort.

    Wouter Veenendaal (1986) is a political scientist, teaches in Leiden and studies how politics and democracy work in small (island) states. Historian Gert Oostindie (1955) has spent a lifetime studying colonial and postcolonial history.

    ‘The islands’ used to be one country, the Antilles. Twelve years ago, on October 10, 2010 (also: ‘tientientien’), that country broke up into three countries (Curaçao, Sint Maarten and the previously separated Aruba) and three ‘special municipalities’ (Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba, or the BES). The BES is inland, just like Delft or Amersfoort.

    They have big ideas. Such as: give the three large islands seats in the Dutch parliament. Enter citizen forums and draw. And the Netherlands: be more responsible, and more generous.

    At the back you write that ‘certainly on this theme two white men from the Netherlands on the North Sea alone cannot have a monopoly on wisdom’, and thank your Antillean colleagues for critical reading. Would you have done the same ten years ago?

    Oostindie: ‘I might have been shy about that in the past.’

    Veenendaal: ‘Gert is thirty years older than me. That matters, yes. When I first came to Curaçao, I was very aware that I am a white Dutchman who is not naturally welcomed with open arms. Curaçao fellow political scientists complained: you fly in with a big research grant, you will leave later to make your research beautiful elsewhere and we will never hear from you again. There’s a term for that: drive by research. That is why I make data and results widely available locally.’

    Oostindie: ‘It also has advantages to be an outsider. The great Curaçao writer Boeli van Leeuwen once accused me of arrogance because I had stated that the islands are of little importance to the Netherlands. He later came back from that and said, “You can say painful things that we can’t say out loud ourselves.”

    Why is there so little love in the Netherlands for a territory that has been forcibly annexed and has been part of it for four centuries?

    Veenendaal: ‘It is disinterested. The BES islands have been inland for twelve years. But in ministries here the institutional memory is weak and policy is imposed thoughtlessly. There’s something really wrong. Then the Netherlands will set up a new fire station on Bonaire with central heating, because this is stated in the building regulations. While it is always 29 degrees there.’

    Oostindie: ‘What also plays a role: skin color. And language.’

    Veenendaal: ‘The islands want to stay in the kingdom out of pragmatism, not out of love. The developments in Suriname after 1975 are not an advertisement for sovereignty.’

    Oostindie: ‘The ties with the Dutch East Indies were always strong. On the eve of the Japanese occupation, 100 thousand Dutch people lived there. There was also an affinity with Suriname, because that country is very Dutch, still, also because of the language. With the Antilles this was less. At most a few hundred Dutch people lived there. After the slavery period, the islands went their own way and the Netherlands thought that was fine.’

    You would almost think that only the king loves the overseas part of the kingdom.

    Veenendaal: ‘And vice versa! The royal family is more popular there than in the Netherlands. For the royal family, it is part of the power base. The Dutch passport is extremely important to the population. That opens doors and makes carefree travel possible.’

    Boeli van Leeuwen once wrote: had Johannes van Walbeeck, who conquered Curaçao from the Spaniards in 1634, but sailed on, we would never have ended up in this cold relationship. But you advise not to become independent.

    Veenendaal: ‘Saint Kitts is the last Caribbean island to become independent, in 1983. That is not without reason. The difference between sovereign and non-sovereign small island states is huge. In prosperity development, in military protection, in resilience against major crime, in protecting civil rights, in access to higher education. In many ways, small islands are better off staying connected to a former colonizer. The benefits of postcolonial status are so great that Antillean politicians sometimes say they want sovereignty, but never now. Always later.’

    Surely there is also a Dutch interest in the kingdom?

    Oostindie: ‘In the perception of Dutch politicians, there are mainly risks associated with the contract. The policy is aimed at minimizing this, with a strong focus on financial soundness. It is a value in itself if you have been together for four centuries, you also say that about a golden marriage, but Dutch governments are unable to give it a positive spin. And there are no strong geopolitical interests.’

    Veenendaal: ‘In France people think with pride: we are a world power, the French flag is flying everywhere. In the Netherlands we say: as long as it doesn’t cost too much.’

    Oostindie: ‘In the 1990s, it became apparent in the Dutch administrative system that you may not impose independence legally or under international law. Then it was said: fine, we’ll stay together, but there are rules in the kingdom and you must abide by them.’

    And those rules lead to permanent quarrels.

    Veenendaal: ‘Policy is determined here, where there is little knowledge, and has major consequences there. And the islands have no say. That’s a democratic hole.’

    Oostindie: ‘That is why you should give them three seats in the Dutch parliament, so that representatives of the people can influence the debate. About kingdom affairs, foreign policy, justice; everything that touches her.’

    Veenendaal: ‘Greenland and the Faroe Islands have two representatives in the Danish parliament. It’s about making the perspective of a forgotten group visible.’

    And then the mutual irritations are gone?

    East India: ‘Ha! No. Both sides have a story that is true. The Netherlands says: we have been investing in the islands for decades, we do so out of commitment and all we ask is that the receipts are correct. Viewed from the islands, the Netherlands has been limiting its autonomy for decades and is sticking its nose in everywhere. In their administration, on their island. Both stories are true.’

    Veenendaal: ‘And everyone is entrenched behind the concept of autonomy. The Netherlands demands financial discipline, but if there are problems with refugee reception or with the polluting oil refinery on Curaçao, the Netherlands shouts: ‘Yes, but autonomy!’ The islands also like to be autonomous when it suits them.

    ‘After 10pm there was enthusiasm. Now there is frustration. Sint Maarten received generous money after Hurricane Irma, but a control circus was added. Aid funds for the covid pandemic were a gift in Limburg and a loan in Curaçao. That’s bad blood.’

    Oostindie: ‘In all three countries people are very busy safeguarding autonomy. This leads to conflicts with the Netherlands. I think the island governments are playing with fire. Because there are simply integrity problems.’

    Veenendaal: ‘On Sint Maarten, the population is a victim of this. Much aid money after Irma cannot be spent, because the local politicians did not agree to the conditions. Sint Maarten then went to the United Nations to indict the Netherlands for racism. The money stayed on the shelf.’

    In Curaçao, they complain that the Netherlands insists on inconvenient moments and makes it impossible for governments that are really okay to operate without being called the squawks of the former colonizer.

    Veenendaal: ‘You cannot implement a different policy in The Hague depending on which government is there. But leaving capable administrators – Prime Ministers of Curaçao such as Eugene Rhuggenaath, Miguel Pourier, Etienne Ys – out in the cold is stupid and clumsy.’

    Oostindie: ‘The Netherlands always draws the wrong lesson. After tenteen Gerrit Schotte became prime minister in Curaçao. A man with dubious contacts who was later convicted of money laundering and fraud. If the Netherlands had demanded a thorough integrity investigation, it would not have happened. But they didn’t want to be the neocolonial.’

    You are even proposing a completely different political structure on the islands.

    Veenendaal: ‘The current structure has been copied from the Netherlands, with coalition governments and political parties. It has never been considered whether this is appropriate for small island states whose small scale makes them susceptible to clientelism and concentration of power among politicians who have been pulling the strings for decades. Then drawing lots, in which citizens alternate on the board, can work well. Political parties are not necessary for a democracy. In Rotterdam there is also a lottery for the neighborhood councils.’

    Oostindie: ‘And there is a shortage of professionals. Already judges and prosecutors successfully rotate through the kingdom. Such an exchange can be done in many more areas. And no, they don’t have to be white Dutch people who come to play the smartass just like in the past.’

    In the end, it always ends up being too little money.

    Oostindie: ‘We believe that the Netherlands should invest much more. On the autonomous islands and on the BES. In climate, in education. If the Netherlands had seriously invested in schools in Curaçao and Aruba 25 years ago, there would now be fewer young people who are underprivileged there and without a chance here.’

    Veenendaal: ‘It’s really bad at the BES. The Netherlands made mistakes there by refusing to align the level of facilities with the rest of the Netherlands. Poverty on Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba is indefensible. And what does it cost to build decent roads on St. Eustatius? Nothing! It is smaller than Oegstgeest.’