Published On: Tue, Aug 15th, 2017

Opinion: The circling of vultures

hospitalOn Augustus 11, 2011 an agreement was reached between the government of Curaçao and SONA for the construction of a state of the art new hospital for the island. The present hospital has been there for almost 150 years as one of the mission endeavours by the Roman Catholic Church at that time. The present hospital is almost an antiquity and suffering in so many ways of overdue maintenance, the new project was long overdue and was received with lots of enthusiasm in all the sectors of the local community.

The project was commissioned to SONA (Stichting Ontwikkeling Nederlandse Antillen), a foundation that was established in the year 2004 by the Dutch government for the purpose of executing Developing Aid projects financed by the Dutch Government. SONA was deliberately established with the objective to put the developing and executing process of all these projects into the hands of a non-political and independent institute with the intention to minimalize any political involvement. SONA also enjoys a spotless reputation when it comes to financial accountability and project compliance.

The new hospital project (called “HNO-project”) had an enormous impact on the island’s economy as it entailed a total investment of 430 million guilders provided by means of a debenture stock loan by the Dutch Government to the government of Curaçao (to put this gigantic financial influx into perspective, the total government budget amounts to more or less 1,8 billion). It is obvious that this huge investment has caused a shockwave that had exited the community of local entrepreneurs and consultants to go after a piece of the pie.

However being in charge of the project, SONA had engaged Berenschot BV, a Dutch consultancy firm with whom SONA entertained a long lasting working relation, as their project-manager for the construction of the new hospital.  A management-agreement was closed between the two parties. But it so happened that during the year 2015 the relation between SONA and Berenschot became sour due to Berenschot’s structural non-compliance behavior with regard to financial accountability and progress reports, as well as due to Berenschot being involved in devious and unauthorized meddling in claims imposed on the project by the construction company Ballast-Nedam.SONA had therefore started up a process to terminate the management agreement, which resulted to be an extremely difficult exercise due to the fact that Berenschot, during their time of engagement with the project, had developed a very powerful lobbying network that applied almost every trick in the book to avoid Berenschot’s exit out of the project. The plot also entailed the setting up of a report that was most devastating for SONA concluding that SONA should be removed at once from the project and replaced by Berenschot.

While it is considered to be normal business practice to provide the company in question with an opportunity to comment on the findings and conclusions as stated in a report, this basic and essential right was refused to SONA. The makers of the report also refused to submit a copy to SONA, up to this day SONA has no knowledge of the contents and the arguments that were used to blacken SONA in every way possible. The apparent defamation of SONA in the report seems to be even more odd now that facts show that the construction process is going very well which makes it almost certain that SONA will meet the delivery deadline in time, which deadline is set for august 2018. Up to now, it is also prognosed that the overrunning of the HNO-budget will not exceed an amount higher than 15% which percentage is quite common in projects of this magnitude.

So all this plotting against SONA has nothing to do with the interest of the project or with the interest of the island citizens, the project is going well. The meddling by the vultures therefore only serves the filling of their pockets.

Mobilizing all their contacts and skills the lobbyists were even able to convince some high officials and former ministers that it would serve the interest of the project and the people of Curaçao to have SONA removed form the project and to re-install Berenschot in its role as the project-manager. That scenario would have provided Berenschot and its business allies with all the space and freedom to bleed dry the project for their own benefit.

With determination and a strong will to project the interest of the local community SONA, fortunately, was able to beat off this devious agenda which, in case it had succeeded, would have increased the project-budget with tens of millions more and would have plunged the finalization of the project into a dragging and fierce sparring match between the vultures fighting to satisfy their selfish greed. These events show once again the importance of having and independent non-political body to be in control of such high-impact community projects. But the fight is not over.

Since Suzy Camelia-Romer took office this year as the new minister in charge of Healthcare, the tensions between SONA and the lobbyists have sparked off again. While it is not clear what exactly triggered the new minister’s dislike of SONA it is obvious that as from the start she could not appreciate SONA’s strict position taking in matters about the project, which behavior she considered as being haughty. Once again the pace was set for antagonism.

Mrs. Camelia-Romer almost immediately appointed her life long friend, ex-lieutenant governor and ex-prime minister Mr. Stanley Betrian, as the governmental director for the HNO-project intending to provide him with far-reaching authorities to meddle in matters of the project. Mr. Betrian immediately took action although at that time the governmental decree on which his appointment and authorities should have been based was not yet signed by the Governor.

Up to this day, it is not clear whether this decree has been established or not which raises question marks about the legality of his actions and about his powers to act on behalf of the government. But this apparent trivial matter in his eyes (although Mr. Betrian is very well educated in legal matters) has not stopped Mr. Betrian to go on a mission to Holland to start negotiations with Berenschot to see how the exit-procedure initiated by SONA, can be stopped and reversed. Besides that, Mr. Betrian also has tried to engage in negotiations with the construction company Ballast-Nedam on the matter of their imposed claim, all this without any involvement of SONA who actually is the contractual party in the agreement with Ballast Nedam.

Up to this moment Mr. Betrian has not contacted SONA which on itself seems to be rather awkward bearing in mind that SONA is the one that is actually in charge of realizing the HNO-project.  Instead he has gathered in his team all the lobbyists that were previously also engaged by Berenschot and has started up meetings with the main stakeholders in the project accept with SONA. It is therefore clear that once again there is a strategy in the make to at least isolate SONA. Based on the threatening and accusing tone-setting of minister Camila-Romer’s latest letters to SONA, it is also clear that legal preparations are in the make to seek termination of the HNO-contract as closed between the government and SONA.

So it seems that after SONA had almost succeeded in shifting the danger of Berenschot’s groping about for the HNO-funds, SONA is presently facing an even bigger challenge, that of the local vultures who have apparently started up their circling routine. Where this will end is not foreseeable at the moment.

Whatever the outcome of this renewed plot against SONA will be, it is sad to realize that the present government, by taking a passive and  distant position in the matter, is providing minister Camelia- Romer with sufficient space to let these vultures roam and feed on a project that is meant to serve the wellbeing of the people of Curaçao.

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