Published On: Wed, Dec 12th, 2012

“A Dream Come True: Building A New Country On A Sound And Solid Foundation”

Speech of the Prime Minister of St. Maarten Honorable Ms. Sarah Wescott-Williams at the PAR fundraising dinner at WTC.

WILLEMSTAD – I wish to express my appreciation to Emily and the PAR organization for the invitation to speak at this fundraising.

When Emily called about one month ago, I did not have to think long before accepting.

Some of my advisors were a little apprehensive, but they quickly   realized that I would not let an opportunity go by to talk about the constitutional changes that we have undergone during especially the past decade.

It has been a long time since I had the opportunity to hold a public discourse on any of the islands of the former Netherlands Antilles.

I am honored to be on Curaçao.

Yes, there was some apprehension in my internal circle about my participation... as a politician.

However, politics is not only part of our lives, it determines the direction of our lives.

You heard my introduction, for me, it is my life.

I always say I have no side function. While there are some people who feel they can do both or triple, and I respect that.

A totally different thing would have been to interfere in your local politics.

As you can imagine and I hope appreciate, I do however have some very pronounced positions on matters that affect us.

Given our historic ties and shared cultures, many of these very same things affect you too, so I will not hesitate to share them.

And not everyone will agree and that is ok too.

The Dream

Hearing that introduction of me by ........., it must've been evident to you that for many years, St. Maarten yearned for a constitutional status that would allow us more autonomy in deciding our own affairs.

When we first started on that quest in the 1980s, it was an all-out desire for political independence.

Several missions to The Hague were undertaken with this goal in mind.

Coupled with changes such as the first short-lived coalition government for St. Maarten in 1991, what eventually happened was the imposition of higher supervision on the island territory that lasted several years.

St. Maarten's political situation was quite turbulent.

It is in those times that I assumed political office. I believe that every station is a platform of learning.

If I was to distinguish periods in SXM modern political history, it would be the 60s, moving away from isolation (desolation); the 80s: explosive economic growth and less attention for constitutional matters; the 90s: politically volatile and,

the first decade of the 21st century, one of major political change.

I need not in this context remind any-one of the reasons for St. Maarten seeking a break with the Antillean system, and I use the word system very consciously.

It was not the union of the islands, it was the system that governed the union. Others would say, "No, it was the politicians in the system."

The discontent of S. Maarten and other island territories lead to a federally coordinated referendum in 1993 and 1994. The result is history, but 4 years later, a renewed attempt was made, which eventually resulted in the referendum of 2000 on St. Maarten.

In English we have a saying: "paddling one's own canoe".

Having to paddle our own canoe after hurricane Luis in 1995 and facing the national austerity measures of 1996, were driving stimulants for the outcome of the 2000 referendum on St. Maarten.

Was It A Dream? 

Initially yes, we could only dream of one day becoming a country in the Dutch Kingdom, especially coming out of higher supervision and several high profiled cases of alleged corruption.

Notwithstanding what some considered wishful thinking on the part of St. Maarten, it soon became a common goal across political divides.

Sixty-nine point 9 (69.9 %) percent of the population of St. Maarten in 2000 voted to become a country within the Dutch Kingdom.

The dream had become a goal.

A goal that was pursued with a passion.

I often times have compared our process with that of Aruba, also hard fought for over a long time.

Only in the early eighties the round table conferences started in quick succession and Aruba's coveted "status apart" became a reality in 1986.

On St. Maarten, all political parties were on the same page as far as the constitutional future of St. Maarten was concerned.

At that time, there were 3 political parties. That of the late Vance James, William Marlin and my own.

The dream had now become a necessity.

Of course, you also had a few critics, who criticized the political process as a pet project of primarily the politicians and those persons praised the Netherlands Antillean constellation.

Far be it that the Netherlands Antillean constellation did not have its benefits.

We, who had been forced into a relationship coming out of colonial times, had created a social and historical  linkage, that today is still  not sufficiently appreciated.

Or maybe we have not yet had the time to reflect sufficiently on that part of our political inheritance.

An inheritance of strong family ties, going back to the hay days of Shell and our remittance economy on St. Maarten.

But also when the tables turned and in the eighties and nineties, the tourism industry on St. Maarten attracted many Curacaoleneans, Arubans and others.

Our people are family, our businesses are aligned.

We are a fortunate set of people, if you really look at it.

I believe that it is because of our historic bonds, that even after the changes per 10-10-10, we have managed without major upheavals.

And we are still fortunate.

Recognize for example that our financial system did not crash, even as we continued with the old Antillean currency and a monetary union that 2 years is still  struggling along.

This bond and inheritance must be respected, regardless of the politics of the day.

It is pure coincidence that I took over the leadership of the Democratic Party in 1994, but in retrospect, a year that was a turning point for St. Maarten in so many ways.

I can still hear the nay-sayers, who actually sneered at the outcome of the referendum of 2000.

We were the only island that had the referendum in that year and until about 2004, not many outside of St. Maarten believed that the choice of the people would materialize into anything.

But we persisted. We tried moving forward with the other islands, but to no avail. The argument being that they had not consulted their populations.

We tried with the Kingdom, read the Netherlands, who were convinced that it was an impossible and unnecessary undertaking.

Do you know that for some time after 2010, I had to tell myself that we had finally achieved our goal and that I could put down the  political armor.

The constitutional realignment in the Dutch Kingdom was a necessary change whose time had come. At least for St. Maarten.

It was evident that not all islands shared this sentiment and not all wanted the same relationship or status for that matter.

But again, for us the dream had become a necessity!

In was not until 5 years later that the last islands St. Eustatius and Curaçao had their referenda and the negotiations started in earnest.

That was the year of the famous "Hoofdlijnen Akkoord", followed by the year of the "Slot Conclusies" and several more.

But in many ways, the biggest challenges were yet to come!

The following year (2006) was also the year I personally faced my greatest challenge in the middle of all it; the totally unexpected death of my husband.

In retrospect, no, more than retrospect, I must recognize that I had so immerse myself in this process of constitutional change, that I forgot everything and ....everyone else around me in pursuit of a goal that I had so come to believe in, it seemed unnatural.

But back to the early 2000s:

I know I am treading on thin ice here, but during the last years leading up to 10-10-10, in most parts of the Dutch Kingdom, women where in charge of the constitutional process.  We all concurred that we needed to solve the impasses.

There was no turning back.

That is another area where the former Netherlands Antillean islands can be proud.

We have been an example of gender equality in holding the highest political offices.

Today I tip my hat to those women, who have held the office of prime minister and minister in the Netherlands Antilles.

That is a fact that stood out in the Caribbean region.

Maria Liberia-Peters, Suzie Camelia-Römer, Mirna Godett, Emily de Jongh-Elhage,  ..... (Have I missed any-one?)

This should stand testimony for young women, who today ask themselves, what can I do for my country?

These same women have been heavily criticized for what they have accomplished. And indeed, if one compares with the Aruba story, we can ask ourselves, have we been sold out?

How much autonomy have we given up in exchange for debt relief? Have we "short changed" our citizens?

Before going further, I want to draw a parallel or rather a contrast between Curaçao and St. Maarten.

One of my greatest challenges during the constitutional process was the heterogeneity of the St. Maarten population.

Because of that heterogeneity, there was not that shared passion for change. There was not that shared "fire in the belly".

On the other hand, because of that same diversity neither was there the polarization that can occur in a more homogenous community, where we all think we know it best.

So in those rather calm waters, the process of constitutional change was completed on St. Maarten.

My perspective of Curacao was one of much nationalism and love for country. But that too has been a process.

On the one hand, the St. Maarten of the future has to be one of a coming together of all on St. Maarten for the benefit of St. Maarten, and Curacao must find a way to harness the vast potential it has.

And potential you have!

There is a delicate balance that our countries find themselves in following October 10, 2010.

Some say that Curacao has been more prepared for the new status than St. Maarten was.

That might be true in terms of government structures and institutions, but have we paid sufficient attention to the Yiu Corsow or the St. Martiner of the future?

We built the country, but now the people to inhabit the country.

And mind you, systems are important.

Law and order are indispensable, less we land in anarchy.

And we are going to go through many ups and downs before we have a collective set of values and are one in purpose.

Have We Gotten A Bad Deal?

The process to arrive at where we are today is proof of the interdependent world in which we live.

Both the terms interdependent and independent have become extremely relative.

And the more we move into the regional and international arenas, the more obvious that fact will become.

As I contemplated on this speech and reminisced about the path we traveled to be at this point in our existence as a people, I metamorphosed it as "Out Of The Shadow". (Foi Schaduw)

Out of the shadow is invigorating at the beginning, but daunting as you realize when you are out of the shadow, you are in plain view and under the scrutiny of practically the world.

There is no retreat, because shadows move as real life moves.

As small islanders, we tend to forget this sometimes.

The politics of the past need to make place for these new realities.

A Reality Of Relativity!

The new Yiu Korsow and new St. Martiner must be un-dependent. Not dependent. Un-dependent makes one independent.

Both in my opinion are a state of mind.

A state of mind that the leaders of our countries need to nurture.

I hate to, but I have to, say that there is a certain degree of truth to the perception that "we zijn met ons zelf bezig".

So we came out of the process of constitutional change. For St. Maarten, after 10 years of relentless negotiations, setbacks, disappointments, triumphs and some defeats.

A block on our feet, the huge debt, was lifted in the process.

Did we have to give up too much in return or was it that we jointly consented to relinquish some autonomy for the prospect of getting more than we had?

Looking back, are we proving our critics right? Those who said we were not ready? Those who said we did not have it in us?

You can imagine my satisfaction when today, albeit reluctantly, many of the critics of St. Maarten in the Kingdom admit that despite it all, we did not go off the deep on October 10, 2010.

We kept our heads above water, well above water.

Overall I think we sell ourselves short too often. We complained how long it took, now we complain it's not enough.

Politics will be politics, on St. Maarten, Curacao, the Netherlands, the US of A, you name it.

But how often do countries get the opportunity to start afresh, without a revolution of sorts?

A new opportunity to draft a own constitution, draft new laws, discard old ones, merge laws, merge systems and institutions?

I wish we would have had the time during the process to be more inventive and creative, to change more profoundly some of the governance aspects of our country.

Admittedly, we were constricted by time and a certain reluctance to venture out of familiar territory, namely the Dutch Kingdom.

A perfect example of this is the drafting of the new constitutions for the countries.

It was unimaginable to think outside of the proverbial box.

St. Maarten learnt that the hard way with matters like cataloging our human rights in our constitution, our referendum clause and our constitutional court. These innovative ideas were challenged, going and coming.

The time we spent defending our positions, could have been much better spent on the creation of the un-dependent St. Martiner or....... Yiu Korsow.

While I would be the first to admit that structure was and is important, that lawfulness is the foundation of any society, I believe much too much time was spent during the constitutional process on perfecting the structure and the products of the structure.

In this rapidly changing world, it is more important to have your society at the level that you can anticipate and prepare for change, than it is to be at the perfect state at any point, because that is an illusion.

More thought could also have been given to our new (but still old) political and electoral systems.

On St. Maarten during the process of constitutional change we started that discussion about the most appropriate political systems for our young country, but abandoned such in the interest of time and conformity.

Conformity: another relative word in the context of the Dutch Kingdom; uniformity or concordance.

Yet we see today local politics in the countries of the Kingdom dictating matters like residency for other Dutch residents.

I believe, although no in depth study has been done, that St. Maarten has maintained the most flexible rules for persons of former Antillean islands.

With all due respect for our legal system and in my opinion the right decision to maintain pretty much the legal status quo as we knew it in the kingdom, in some matters, there must be appreciation for

  1. the culture (beliefs, values and norms) of the people of the islands and
  2. the level of development.

We can not in all instances be measured by the standards of the Kingdom, a democracy born centuries before ours.

Clearly, the people of our islands, politicians and constituents and now I speak for St. Maarten specifically, need to reassess the manner in which we give content to  the new dualistic form of government.

I go further; it is my conviction, again speaking for St. Maarten that going forward, we should reconsider our electoral system, providing more accountable governance.

Our countries are in dire need of a clear platform, a focused and realistic direction, governments that sets out a direction, pursue it and judged on the basis of the execution of that platform.

This will encourage and engage civil society. Something that is a must if we wish to make steady steps forward. Coming out of the shadow, we want to show how we are moving our people forward.

Since October 10, 2010, I have often contemplated that St. Maarten is blessed, and that I owe my country something because of that.

How  often is it that in a new situation like we had on St. Maarten, a prized title like that of Prime Minister is given up or rather not taken by the largest party, following an election?

Not only once, but twice!

That tells me something and it tells St. Maarten something.

It says something for the 2 leaders of the other political parties and the parliament of St. Maarten.

But it places a tremendous burden on me, because I am constantly occupying myself with the thought that there must be more to it than just being able to put in a future CV that I held the position of the first prime minister of St. Maarten.

Maybe it's because of my Christian faith and belief.

But I feel strongly that the chance we had at 10-10-10 to do right, to redo whatever wrong, to venture out of the box, is not yet lost,  but the events of the  world are quickly catching up.

I also believe that this action by the parties of St. Maarten has raised the image of St. Maarten in the eyes of many. An image that we need to do everything in our power to protect.

At the same time, however, St. Maarten too is faced with the challenge of formulating a collective and transparent vision and develop a system of economic coordination on the basis of that vision.

In the reality of party and personal politics, this is no easy undertaking. Ministerial responsibility is a near sacred clause, but it can undermine a collective and transparent agenda.

Our parliaments too need to fully understand and appreciate their role.

Campaigns are too bitterly fought to have them going on more often than every 4 years.

Governance is year round, full-time; politics is seasonal or it should be.

The new era in the Dutch Kingdom we had hoped for 2 years ago did not fully materialize.

The calm we anticipated did not fully come.

The political system of the Kingdom is not conducive to the new constitutional realities.  We use terms like democratic deficit and the like, but there is work to be done in this area.

Hence, the constitutional process in the Dutch Kingdom is a dynamic one.

You see this manifested in the uneasy relationship between the Dutch chambers and the governments of the Caribbean countries. Much emphasis was placed on the (in)famous articles 43 and 51 of the Kingdom charter during the constitutional negotiations.

But what is really the clout of those articles?

What will the Kingdom government do and who decides the context and scope?

Currently, the relationship is based on respect for the rule of law and for one another.

The same could be asked for all other guarantees that we have given voluntarily in the context of constitutional change, financial supervision, joint agreements, you name it.

What if not? What if we don't comply?

Not only in terms of the measures the Kingdom can or cannot take, will or will not take. But also what happens to our societies in the process?

Much of what happens in the world today, especially in financial markets, revolves around confidence. Confidence in systems, confidence in markets, and in leaders, political and others.

The foundations for our young countries are only partially built. We have made sure that most basic legal parameters were clearly defined, but we still have a long way to go.

Who said there would be no growing pains, who said the road would be easy?

The challenge is and will always be where we want to be collectively as a country.  Getting to that shared vision and common purpose is easier said than done.

And even when that is mapped out, the way to get there will be one of political and social discourse, but that is part of a vibrant society.

Constant discord is lethal.

In their book " Why Nations Fail", Acemoglu and Robinson make a compelling case that history and geography are not the primary factors for deciding if countries progress, especially after major changes, such as the industrial revolution in Europe, but rather that the political and economic institutions, their evolution,  their form, their goals, are what make or  break nations.

Curaçao has an arsenal that if effectively utilized, can achieve great things. That arsenal is your human resources. Your people!

St. Maarten is building that arsenal. Because that is the foundation.

Structures are important, systems are paramount and we need institutions, but in and out of all of these, you need the people with the right mind sets and attitudes.

We need to promote this in the schools and in the wider communities.

We need to remind our people that there is pride in being a Yiu Corsow or a St. Martiner.

This Yiu Corsow or the St. Martiner is a product of the legacy left behind by our forefathers, a legacy of strength, determination and resilience and adaptability.

And WE need to set an example of leadership that the coming decades will demand of all who profess to be part of a country.

Not necessarily a country within the Dutch Kingdom, but a country.

That we have relationships in the Kingdom context is a historical reality. It could be any relationship.

But what are we doing about being a country, coming out of the shadow, positioning ourselves slowly but surely on the international stage?

Thinking outside of the boxes we created ourselves.

How do we, today, nurture that kind of Yiu Corsow or St. Martiner?

How do we get the blood of our people not only flowing in their veins, but pumping with passion and love for country and fellow human beings.

I guess it's the same on Curacao like it is on St. Maarten, and that is that there is always competition for who did what project, who started and who finished it.

Well, as I always say, I don't have projects persé, but I have people.

People who by example, you want to encourage to step up to the plate and do their part, lay their block in the building of their country.

Youngsters who you want to encourage that their circumstances should not dictate who and what they can become in life.

Mothers you want to remind that they hold the key.

Nobody said it would be easy.

But that makes life challenging. It's about falling and getting up, and... not falling in the same spot again.

I wish this country's leaders much success and wisdom.

I wish the women, the mothers, the hands that rock the cradles, much strength as you think about your country, your country's children and their future.

We have built our country, we laid the foundation, now lets build the nation. There is a difference, a marked difference.

It is my true belief that Curacao has potential yet untapped.

In this volatile world we live, where nothing can be taking for granted, our islands can be an oasis for our own people and for others. Like we have been in the past.

With 14 days away from Christmas, I wish all of you a most blessed Christmas season and a new year that brings a re-awakening of the spirit of "country above self and above all else".

God bless you..... and the beautiful  nation of Curacao!

The pleasure has indeed been mine.

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