Dutch Antilles go to polls

Saba, the smallest of the five Caribbean islands that make up the Dutch Antilles.
By our news staff

The Dutch Antilles is choosing a new parliament today – perhaps for the last time.

Father Ramiro Richards calls them the five “immoral laws” the Netherlands wants to introduce in Bonaire: “gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, legalised drugs and legalised prostitution”. And that is not all. “The arrival of large numbers of European Dutch has led to moral decay amongst the island’s populace,” the pastor told NRC Handelsblad recently. Even his church is no longer safe. He slipped a key into the heavy locks guarding the doors. He had recently been the victim of a couple of break-ins. “Bonaire has changed,” he said, by way of welcome.

Bonaire leaders involved in criminal cases

All of the leaders of Bonairean parties participating in Friday’s parliamentary elections are on the justice department's radar.

The Antillean prosecutor’s office is currently investigating whether Jopie Abraham (PDB) paid Anthony Nicolaas of the Lista di Kambio approximately 200,000 euros in local currency to withdraw support to the then government in June 2009.

UPB-leader Ramonsito Booi is a suspect in an international investigation into gold smuggling and drug money laundering.

Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated Abraham's and Nicolaas' legal status. While the two are currently under investigation by the justice department, they have not officially been labeled suspects.

Apart from preaching in his Pentecostal church Baranka di Restorashon, Richards gives voice to the discontent common amongst Bonaire’s population regarding their future status as a municipality of the Netherlands, in three daily television broadcasts.

The last Antillean government

This discontent has become a pressing political issue, as the Dutch Antilles – apart from Aruba - will be going to the polls to elect new representatives this Friday. Bonaire will be sending three delegates to the 22-seat Antillean parliament. The new parliamentarians might not be enjoying their jobs for long, though. Currently, the Antilles enjoy special status as a separate country within the Dutch realm, but, if everything goes according to plan, Bonaire and some other islands will be absorbed into the Netherlands proper on October 10 this year. The parliament will then be dissolved, seven months after its inauguration.

Bonaire is key to the dismantling of the Dutch Antilles. If the pro-Dutch party Union Patriotiko Boneriano (UPB) loses the majority of Bonaire’s seats it currently controls, it will become increasingly difficult to form a government coalition willing to accept Dutch conditions for the dismantling of the Antilles.

In the area surrounding father Richard’s church, the popular neighbourhood of Nikiboko, red banners supporting the Partido Demokrátiko Boneriano (PDB) hang side by side with green UPB flags. The proposed constitutional reforms have created a rift through Bonaire society. The UPB wants to proceed along the lines of the current agreement it drew up with the Netherlands, but the PDB is looking to establish a compact of free association, which will leave Bonaire with more autonomy.

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'Gay people exist here'

In 2004, close to 60 percent of Bonaire’s population opted for closer ties with the Netherlands in a referendum on constitutional reform, but many Bonaireans fear that their new constitutional status will soon become a burden. The introduction of gay marriage is encountering a lot of resistance. “We don’t deny gay people exist here, but they are not looking to get married anywhere on Bonaire,” father Richards said.

The Dutch government, not unaware of the forthcoming crucial elections, is paying heed to the Bonaireans’ feelings. Speaking in the Dutch parliament last Monday, deputy minister of home affairs Ank Bijleveld said that now would not be the time to force civil marriage for people of the same sex upon the islanders.

Many in Bonaire fear that the Dutch population may soon become dominant, a fear fed by the constant influx of European Dutch. A segment of Bonaire’s population, less than 13,000 souls, feels threatened by the Dutch officials, entrepreneurs, holiday home owners and pensioners. “The Dutch have money, brand new homes, and expensive cars. It is a lifestyle new to the island, lived by those who will be in charge here soon,” father Richards said.

At the youth centre, Young Bonaire, an audience, consisting mostly of European Dutch, listened to VVD politician Henk Kamp, currently the highest representative of the Dutch government in Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba.

'This is my island'

A Bonaire woman waved a flyer around with pictures of pro-Dutch UPB members. “Why did you negotiate with the corrupt people,” she insisted fiercely. “Because you elected them, Dushi,” a European Dutch man replied from the back of the room, using a word drawn from the local creole tongue meaning ‘honey’. The woman became livid. “My name isn’t Dushi. I was born here. This is my island,” she said.

Outside, Bonaire’s youngsters hung around clad in red PDB shirts. “Bonaire”, PDB-leader Jopie Abraham said, “has opted for direct ties with the Dutch, not for integration into the Netherlands. Why would the Dutch get to decide on laws governing opening hours for shops that apply here too?”

Since June 2009, the PDB leader has been a part of the island’s governing coalition. The local coalition, which will be unaffected by the Antillean elections, has discontinued negotiations with the Dutch regarding constitutional reform until the referendum in March.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said the former minister of Defence Henk Kamp, “that was a hard blow for us.” In late December the Dutch government stopped transferring money to the island. Renovations to the airport, hospital, police stations and school buildings have since been put on hold. The Netherlands fears that a Bonairean “no” to constitutional reform will delay the process by at least two years.

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