State Secretary van Huffelen looks back at ‘very special’ visit to islands. By Suzanne Koelega
She made quite an impression on the islands, new State Secretary of Kingdom Relations and Digitisation Alexandra van Huffelen. She greeted everyone with enthusiasm, introducing herself by her first name, listening carefully and asking many questions. She had people admire her colourful, stylish wardrobe, yet she put on her flat shoes if the terrain got rough.
You have just spent 14 days in the Dutch Caribbean on your introductory visit. What is your overall impression of this first visit?
It was very special. Back in the ’90s, I went on vacation to Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire. That was a long time ago, and so much has happened. It was so good to talk to so many people. The documents I read before coming here, on poverty, waste management, sustainable energy. All these subjects I got to see in practice, and that makes it more tangible.
What was your impression of the people you met? People in the Caribbean tend to be warmer, friendlier, more hospitable. Did you experience that too?
Absolutely! Warm, relaxed, and they love a party just like me. People are more social and look after each other even in districts where people are having a rough time. People told me they got closer to each other during the pandemic, which hit the islands hard because they are so dependent on tourism. In St. Maarten, the pandemic, in combination with the devastation of Hurricane Irma — things are extremely hard. Still, people remain optimistic. There is a lot of resilience.
Many people endure poverty on the islands. You made clear during your visit that you want to really tackle poverty, reduce the high cost of living in any case in the Caribbean Netherlands, the islands that directly fall under the Netherlands. How do you intend to do that?
I have not only seen the figures, but I have also spoken with people here on Saba and on the other islands, who earn too little to sustain themselves. The electricity company in Saba, SEC told me that people can hardly pay their bills and that they live from pay cheque to pay cheque. The Dutch government has said that something needs to be done about this. Structural funding, 30 million euros, will partly go towards this for the Caribbean Netherlands. With all the information that I have gathered during my visit, I will be discussing with my colleagues how to deploy the funding to tackle the poverty issue. We want to look at multiple elements; not only look at subsidies for electricity and water, but also how to arrive at a higher minimum wage. We are looking for a combination to make steps as soon as possible to improve people’s financial position — the young single father whom I spoke with in Saba and who has to survive on some US $1,000 per month, of which $500 goes towards rent. Then there is the electricity bill and other costs … He just can’t make ends meet. I went to the supermarket in St. Eustatius and Saba, where I saw that a jar of peanut butter costs $8.65 in St. Eustatius and $11 in Saba. The cost of fruits and vegetables is very high too. We have to consider how we can tackle the cost of living. Growing your own produce is an important element in that. I saw the hydroponics farm in Saba, an agriculture project in St. Eustatius, a city garden in Curacao where they farm on a small scale. Initiatives like these create job opportunities and mean less transportation cost.
We are now talking about the Caribbean Netherlands which, as the Netherlands, you are responsible for. But St. Maarten is a country with its own responsibilities. How do you look back on your visit to St. Maarten and the huge challenges that it faces? The challenges are enormous, varying from poverty issues to the landfill in the middle of town and the large amount of work that still needs to be done as part of the recovery efforts after Hurricane Irma, and the airport restoration project that needs to be completed. For a large part, St. Maarten carries its own responsibility, while we also carry some responsibility in the reconstruction process. We have been providing financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we did tie a few things to this. We reached an agreement with St. Maarten that will strengthen the basis of the country, the economy. Whether it is reducing poverty, investing in education, tackling the waste management issue, we hope that this will result in the country making steps forward. Mostly I saw the wish to continue the cooperation. Despite the desire to be proud and autonomous, which I also saw in Curacao and Aruba, I got the impression that the countries also find it important to work together on implementing the country packages and to carry out the necessary reforms, which were drafted in consultation with the countries.
St. Maarten has been a bit sceptical about the relations within the Kingdom. Negotiations were tedious at times, also with regard to the Caribbean Body for Reform and Development COHO. How do you see this, and are you going to work on improving the relations?
That is very important. One of the objectives of this visit was to get in touch with people, to not only see what the problems are, but to see how we can work together. I am convinced that things can’t work out if you don’t have a relationship that is mostly based on trust. The relations have been sluggish at times, and sometimes they still are. But if we don’t keep focus on the joint goal, namely, to make sure that things get better on the islands, you cannot accomplish anything together. And accomplishing this is what I really want to do. But that requires effort; there has to be a balance between what we do together and what the countries do themselves. I totally understand the theme of autonomy. As a woman, I also find it important to decide on my own fate and future. At the same time, I think that we should see the cooperation more, as the Netherlands also needs the European Union. And yes, the European Union keeps financial supervision on the Netherlands. We get funding for projects, but we have to meet the requirements. A collaboration like this within the Kingdom is more productive, but I understand the vulnerabilities. The slavery past also still plays a large role, as does the desire to stand on one’s own feet, which I totally support. But at the same time, it is important that together we get to work.
And this requires supervision by the Netherlands?
If you spend money of the Dutch taxpayers on projects, you need to meet certain requirements. That goes for projects in the Netherlands and also on the islands. And yes, that includes supervision. On the issue of whether the COHO comes at a right time, almost everyone in the close proximity of politics that I spoke with, said: get it done, it is so important that we reform our island. Whether it is St. Maarten or Aruba, they said that it is important to have a solid financial sector, to have good governance, that taxes are being paid — that there is not only a tax system, but that it works and that taxes are collected, because those revenues are needed. There is also support, and I am content that this decision was taken by the Kingdom Council of Ministers. I look forward to making this a success together.
What is your view on how St. Maarten’s reconstruction has been progressing? Many say that things are not going fast enough, that the process via the World Bank takes too long. Are you going to keep the pressure on so projects can be executed?
This topic will remain important. St. Maarten and the Netherlands have been working together to get things done. I am happy to see that much has been done already. Of course, there is still work to be done, for example, the airport project which still needs to be completed. A right balance is important in this: you want the projects to be carried out and that requires a thorough preparation. Projects have to be tendered, comply with requirements, and that takes time. It is important to learn lessons from this process so when a next hurricane comes, we know how to speed up things. Building back better is not a matter of just stacking building blocks, it is about using the momentum to really make things better, rebuilding in a resilient manner. We certainly need to learn lessons from this process, also to accelerate where possible, but I also see that a lot of hard work is being done and that all effort is being made to complete the last projects.
There is much work for you as new State Secretary, but you seem enthusiastic.
Yes, I am really happy to do this.
The Daily Herald.