Prof. Gert Oostindie: “Antilles are a lasting legacy of colonialism”

POSTED: 10/13/15 5:12 PM



LEIDEN – Gert Oostindie, director of the Royal Institute for Linguistics, Geography and Ethnology and a history professor at Leiden University took a stand for St. Maarten and the other Caribbean Kingdom islands in a column in NRC Handelsblad this weekend. “The Kingdom remains transatlantic and the Antilles are entitled to a Dutch vision that goes beyond the problems of today, no matter how serious they are,” he concludes.

The Antilles are a headache dossier – administrative problems, financial risks, poverty cultural clashes, migration. Politicians in The Hague know darn well that there are no easy solutions, that policy only stands a chance of success if they cooperate with overseas politicians, and that they will always have to provide more money. From an electoral point of view, that is not an easy story. Most Dutch would find it okay if the ties were severed,” Oostindie writes.

The institute Oostindie heads is currently busy with a survey on the islands. It focuses on the relationship between the islands and the Netherlands, local politics and media consumption. The interviews for this survey conclude towards the end of this month and lead researcher Dr. Wouter Veenendaal expects to present his findings in December.

Oostindie’s interest in the Antilles therefore does not fall out of the blue sky. He notes in his NRC column that the six islands consider the ties with the Netherlands as crucial, and for good reasons. “The Hague does not have constitutional or international legislative means at its disposal to break the ties unilaterally.”

“Robust statements by politicians about a farewell are losing air balloons,” Oostindie notes. “They only let them up to smooth talk their own supporters.”

Diving into history, Oostindie notes that the Dutch who visited the islands four centuries ago knew what use the islands were to them: economic gain, geopolitical power. “The Antilles are an unforeseen, but lasting legacy of colonialism.”

“Asking what good the islands are to us has something perverted,” Oostindie notes. “They just, belong, like the Wadden Islands or parts of Limburg that came under Dutch authority long after the Antilles.”

Parliamentary consultations are always about problems related to integrity, budgets or controversial interventions in the overseas administrations, Oostindie points out. “The relationships have soured, and the islands complain about recolonizing.”

Bonaire, Statia and Saba complain that they are being overrun. “These hot topics surface regularly, but thinking about the underlying problems hardly ever occurs. Some of these problems are linked to the small scale of the islands,” Oostindie Writes.

The professor has a message for politicians in the Caribbean too: “Antillean politicians would do well by realizing that intense cooperation with the Netherlands offers sorely needed enlargement of scale and with it professionalizing. Other problems are beyond the local administration and are therefore hardly discussed, even though they are of fundamental importance for the future of the Caribbean islands, but indirectly also for the Netherlands, because every problem in the islands in the end comes back to the former colonizer.”

Oostindie mentions four factors in his column. The first one has to do with the islands’ ecological fragility. “Partially that is a matter of bad luck – global rising of sea levels – but it is also due to decades of the sprawling tourism sector, The Netherlands was there, looked at it and applauded because it resulted in economic growth. Nobody asked critical questions.”

Oostindie says that the economic vulnerability of the islands is unavoidable, given their small scale. “The level of reality of the old Haguean mantra that the islands have to stand on their own two feet is low. This is not only true for the overseas municipalities (Saba, Statia and Bonaire) but also for the autonomous countries Aruba, Curacao and St. Maarten. The upcoming tourism boom in post-communist Cuba is an acute threat, let alone the fact that one terrorist attack on a hotel in Aruba or a cruise ship in St. Maarten would reverberate for years.”

Oostindie notes that immigration is another issue that has been underestimated for years. “The Netherlands complains about the exodus from Curacao to the Netherlands. But in the meantime there was a much further reaching process on the islands. Attracted by employment opportunities in the tourism sector and the stability under the Dutch flag, tens of thousands of immigrants from the region and from the Netherlands settled on the islands. In the meantime, first-generation immigrants make up a quarter to two-third of the island populations. They are indispensable in the economy, but they also cause problems, from matters about naturalization, displacement of local employment and language problems in education, up to high housing prices due to the arrival of well off Dutch citizens. The Antillean population is more multiform that ever, with all the challenges that come with it. Not a single Dutch parliamentarian seems to be aware of this.”

Then there is the matter of education, Oostindie writes. “On all islands the level of education is far below the level in the Netherlands. This is due to decades of neglect, complicate by the language of instruction in the Papiamento-language Leeward and the English-language Windward islands. This does not only result in a moderately educated population on the islands, but also in integration issues in the Netherlands.”

Oostindie notes that since 10-10-10 the Netherlands has taken an interest in education in the3 BES-islands. “But systemic support for education in Aruba, Curacao and St. Maarten remains lacking. Here, also, it is high time for real policy. For too long we are already reaping the sour fruit of looking away, on both sides of the ocean.”

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Comments (1)


  1. John Brown says:

    Thursday, October 15th 2015/23:55
    What part of this essay is really new. In the 200 hundred years of association of different kinds, colonial, autonomous and partially independent. Our former fellow colonized countries Surinam, Indonesia are they well off because of size or are they still struggling to get to belong in a wider world in which they had no part. In all these years of association when would the Antilles in the eyes of the former motherland be looked upon as grown and bearing their legacy as best they could well aware of the limitations they knew and still have for so many years.

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