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Aruba Reaches Out but has Problems

Bert Wilkinson | 7/24/2014, 4:06 p.m.

Just last weekend, the Aruban prime minister, Mike Eman, other cabinet ministers and high officials ended a week-long hunger strike to protest what authorities said were efforts by the Netherlands, the island’s so-called mother country, to sabotage the 2014-15 budget.

The hunger strike had much to do with different approaches to what austerity measures the budget should contain. The Netherlands wants the administration of the island of 102,000 people to implement tough measures, similar to those imposed by the International Monetary Fund on economically ill third world countries. The cabinet resisted, arguing that it had its own independent approach to correcting an underperforming economy and would not bow to Dutch dictates.

The standoff led to the Hague advising the island’s governor, Fredis Jose Refunjol, not to sign off on the estimates, forcing officials to spend contingency funds at levels similar to those of 2013.

The standoff came as the idyllic Caribbean tourist island just north of the Venezuelan coast began a spirited campaign to reach out to its English-speaking Caribbean neighbors. Officials in Eman’s government say they want people from the region to take advantage of the island’s superdeveloped infrastructure and enjoy its mix of sun, sand and sea, along with its ecotourism offerings. Land tourism arrivals are expected to reach a million visitors by next year, to go along with approximately 700,000 who disembark from cruise ships annually.

But even as the outreach is going on in earnest, there is the simmering row between authorities in the capital, Oranjestad, and Holland. Despite Aruba having self-governance, similar to what British colonies in the region had in the 1950s and 1960s, the Netherlands is still responsible for immigration, defense, foreign affairs and some aspects of the economy.

Outgoing Finance Minister Juan David Yrausquin vowed that authorities would not back down and allow the Hague to “tell us which path and measures to take in order to secure sustainable public finances. This is a totally autonomous affair over which the Dutch government has no say according to our constitution and the charter of the kingdom of the Netherlands.”

The island has enjoyed its current form of autonomy since 1986. Its neighbors, Curacao and St. Maarten, achieved similar status only in October 2010.

Yrausquin said that the Netherlands is determined to have more than its mandated say in island affairs and suggested that they want “to treat us in the same way that they do St. Maarten and Curacao. It is an attempt to recolonize us. That I will say, but 33,000 Aruban voters gave us a near two-thirds mandate in elections last year, and we will do what they tell us to do, not the Netherlands.”

The minister admits that the economy is carrying a budget deficit of $230 million, accounting for a large chunk of its gross domestic product. He also said that this figure will come down to 3.7 next year and to 1.4 in 2016, if there are no major variations from the program.

Still, approximately 400 opposition supporters marched on parliament and the minister’s office Friday, protesting the state of the economy and the government’s handling of it and calling for adequate corrective measures.

Retired hotel worker Sergio Silva, 61, speaking as he held a protest placard during the demonstration, said the government has cut pensions and other benefits,“and that has made us all poorer.”