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Henny Eman: Country status gives tools to build economy

~ As does ties to the Netherlands ~

PHILIPSBURG--Becoming a country within the Dutch Kingdom gave Aruba the tools it needed to turn around its flagging economy, Aruba's first Prime Minister Jan Hendrik Albert "Henny" Eman told Members of Parliament and the Council of Ministers on St. Maarten's Constitution Day observed Thursday with a special session of Parliament. The same holds true for ties to the Netherlands, he noted.

Governor Eugene Holiday also was present for the session.

Eman, the keynote speaker at the session, said Aruba attaining "status aparte" in 1986 had coincided with the oil refinery stopping its operations. That created unemployment of more than 30 per cent for the new country within the Dutch Kingdom. "The government lost half of its income and we did not get any debt cancelation from Holland."

Aruba had a prevailing "atmosphere of despair" from not knowing what to do to bring change.

"If it was not for the Status Aparte, Aruba would not have succeeded to overpass the big crisis. The Status Aparte gave us the tools we needed to turn around things. We now have it in our own hands to turn the developments in a better direction," Eman said.

He said Aruban People's Party AVP, which had fought for the new status, had "felt double responsible to make it a success." A study by the party of the situation led to the development of a programme called "Plan di Rescate" that described how to handle the crisis.

The Netherlands' and the International Monetary Fund's reaction to the crisis was that Aruba "should be aware of the new reality" – an Aruba without the oil wealth that had served as its only economic pillar for 60 years.

The "general opinion" was that Aruba, with a closed refinery and without any natural resources, could not maintain its level of wealth.

Eman said, "We were alerted that we should take into account the competition. Our level of salaries was based on the oil time and therefore too high. Also the minimum wages were too high." Aruba therefore, would not be able to attract investors "without lowering our level of wealth."

Now that the government had lost half of its income the expenses should be adapted to this lower income as fast as possible by, among other things, closing schools, taking tax measures and firing civil servants, he recalled.

As a backdrop to this, Arubans were leaving the island to look for a better future in the Netherlands and the islands of the Netherlands Antilles.

To best illustrate Aruba's situation in 1986, Eman said that during the tripartite parliamentary meeting the Dutch delegation, after serious research, had come with the suggestion that Aruba develop an agricultural policy that would create some 300 jobs and activate the fishing industry more.

"Probably the Dutch had in the back of their minds the fact that Aruba would become independent in 10 years, releasing the Dutch from every possible obligation towards Aruba. That was the factual financial, economic and social situation in Aruba and that was the opinion of Holland the day we got our Status Aparte."

He added that a well-known banker in Curaçao also had declared in those days that "Aruba would come back to Curaçao on its knees in a very short time."

"What did we do? Exactly the contrary of what Holland and the IMF wanted," the country's first prime minister said. "As an opposition party, we had already made a plan, an ambitious but practical plan to get out of the crisis. The plan was based on the service industry of which tourism is an important part. We did this based on the talents and capacity of our own people."

Outside the box

Aruba introduced a new retraining institute "Enseñanza pa empleo" to retrain the refinery workers for the tourism industry.

Aruba's leaders used the new avenues created by country status within the kingdom to obtain millions of dollars of investments without lowering the minimum wages.

In a short time, the country was faced with "the problem of too few workers." The policy of attracting big hotel chains with guaranties of the Aruban government to finance construction of new hotels was "an enormous success. This was only possible because of our new constitutional status."

Aruba had a yearly growth of the economy from 1986 to 1990 of double digits and the per capita income became higher than when the refinery was still operational.

"The Status Aparte beginning in a crisis gave us the tools to get out of the drop and get back to an acceptable level of wellbeing."

Hotels in Tokyo

Eman added, "The Status Aparte gave us the instruments like the foreign service of Holland to get important things done."

Tapping into the Foreign Service networks of the kingdom, Aruba realised the establishment of United States immigration services its airport. "Until today it is hard for many to believe that this small island managed to get this American immigration, which was later followed by the presence of the American Customs on our airport."

To arrive at such a success involved the then Dutch ambassador in Washington D.C. "If we had to pass through Willemstad, we would still be standing in a line to be heard by the ministers in Curaçao and at the end get a negative reaction."

The financing of the Hyatt Regency Hotel was agreed on at the Embassy of the Netherlands in Tokyo, Japan. "It was the Dutch ambassador in Tokyo who explained to the investors how the Kingdom of the Netherlands was functioning and this opened the way for the financing of the construction of the Hyatt Regency in Aruba," Eman pointed out.

The Hyatt project stimulated other hotel chains to establish in Aruba.

Due to new status, Aruba founded an investment bank to finance the big investments necessary to build the fledging country. The bank has proven to be "the solution for the problems of a small island" like Aruba to obtain financing for larger projects.

The investment bank is involved in almost all large investments in the country, from financing the water and electricity plant to building a new hospital and investing in new infrastructure, among others.

Aruba was the one that convinced the Dutch Government of the need for a Coast Guard to assist in patrolling its coasts against the drug traffickers. The new status brought with it government's responsibility to secure the coasts and waters. "We had to seek for solutions and the logical way was to convince the Dutch government to involve the Dutch military. No way could Aruba do this on its own."

Cutting aid

Aruba has chosen to stay in the kingdom to have a strategic partnership that is a "win-win" for both countries. In that context, Aruba initiated conversations with the Dutch Government to stop the development aid (ontwikkelingshulp).

Aruba petitioned for a study called "Op eigen benen" – (On our own legs). That study showed that if Aruba continued in the same direction in which it had been going 10 years before, it could stop receiving Dutch financial support. It was agreed and executed. The financial aid to Aruba was stopped after 10 years, Eman told MPs and members of Government.

At that same time, Aruba convinced the Netherlands that it wanted to continue with its country status and had the Kingdom Charter (Statuut) changed to remove its date of independence.

Good governance

"Even though no one could deny that Aruba was experiencing impressive economic growth, there was still a dark cloud hanging over our island. Then [Dutch – Ed.] Member of Parliament Frits Bolkenstein called Aruba a "roversnest" with an economy based on drugs. According to that theory, Aruba had fallen into Mafia hands," Eman said.

Good governance is in the self-interest of Aruba and for rules in connection with good governance to be effective they must take into account specific factual and social circumstances; those of a small Caribbean island, he added.

Aruba "had enough" of the Dutch eagerness to introduce Dutch rules that would "not be effective."

"So what did we do? We organised a big conference about good governance in small countries." Experts of various countries were invited to make contributions on the topic.

After this, Aruba made a report called "Calidad" – a short and effective report to promote integrity and good government. Several laws were introduced based on this report to make, among others, the ministers responsible for acts against these new laws.

The Netherlands backed up this report and it was one of the few reports ever mentioned in the Troonrede of then Queen Beatrix.

But this did not solve Aruba's problem. It was now the year drug lord Pablo Escobar was organising the drug route to the Netherlands and the United States. The shortest route available to him was through Aruba.

Many Colombians were arrested in Aruba, but the country did not receive any recognition for those arrests, Eman said. The drugs movement in Aruba was proof for the Dutch "that Aruba must be involved."

There were "controlled drugs transports" through Aruba of which the Aruba Justice Minister knew nothing. "We demanded an investigation and the De Ruiter commission was nominated and came with the report 'Met alle respect.'"

That "very profound report" was based on a study of all documents in Aruba and abroad "that came to the conclusion that the government of Aruba was to be trusted completely."

Staying put

Aruba has chosen to stay in the Dutch Kingdom, "which means that we accepted some basic rules. ... We are responsible to have good governance, but the Statuut makes the Kingdom, read Holland, responsible for the control of this good governance," Eman said. "In Aruba, we acted severely to comply with our obligations as government ... towards our citizens, but also to comply with basic rules in the Kingdom that we have accepted."

He added, "No more than we wanted to stay in the kingdom because of these rules. That is why Aruba opened doors and windows to have investigations take place to be sure that everything was in order. We believe that this is reasonable for the well-going of our country."

About the talk that the Dutch government is practicing neo-colonialism that is not acceptable in St. Maarten, among other places, Eman said. "Here we have to remind everyone that Holland wanted to get us out of the kingdom."

The Dutch "did not want the responsibility any more" for Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles. The political climate in those days in the Netherlands was to make those two countries "independent as fast as possible. They explicitly did not want to have the role of neo-colonialism."

Suriname was thrown out of the kingdom in "a shameful way" and it was the then prime minister of the Netherlands Antilles who stopped the Dutch from doing the same with the Antilles.

"So when looking at the actions of the Dutch, we must be aware that it is possible that an incorrect motivation lies behind the actions, but that the other side is that we have decided to accept the rules of our Kingdom," Eman pointed out.

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