St. Maarten’s three years country status: Stumbling from crisis to crisis

POSTED: 10/10/13 12:08 PM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – To stumble: to miss one’s step in walking or running; trip and almost fall. This characterizes the first three years of St. Maarten’s adventure as an autonomous country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The island obtained country status on October 10, 2010, and since that date not much has changed: the entry into the promised land brought little change in the position of citizens and it also did not lead to a better political culture. On the contrary, almost from the beginning the young country has been haunted by scandals, culminating in the recent instruction by the Kingdom Council of Ministers to Governor Holiday to order an integrity investigation. Today marks the first anniversary of a country that still has quite some trouble standing on its own two legs.

In December 2010 it was already bingo: hardly two months after the festive arrival of country status a scandal came to light that forced the Minister of Public Health, Social Affairs and Labor Maria Buncamper-Molanus to step down. Together with her husband Claudius the minister had sold the economic ownership of a parcel of land it held in long lease for $3 million to the bogus company Eco-Green N.V. A criminal investigation will possibly begin in the next couple of months.

It was the precursor of a restless history whereby the country lost more face with every subsequent scandal. In January 2010 it appeared that an investigation into voting fraud that had come to light before 10-10-10 and that involved several police officers had stalled,. This rather simple investigation has never resulted in a court case.

In April new scandals came to light through the dismissal of Bas Roorda, the head of the finance department. Roorda went to the Public Prosecutor’s Office with accusations about embezzlement at the Tourist Bureau by – amongst others – director Regina Labega and former Tourism Commissioner Frans Richardson. Nothing was done with this investigation either. Labega was later appointed director of the airport and Richardson remained a Member of Parliament.

For the rest of the year and the first months of 2012 things remained seemingly quiet until – in the night from April 27 to 28 three Members of Parliament – Romain Laville, Patrick Illidge and Frans Richardson – bring down the first Wescot-Williams cabinet. Theo Heyliger, leader of the UP and the biggest vote getter during the elections lost his position as minister of public housing and had to wait at the sidelines for better times. Two weeks later the second Wescot-Williams cabinet was sworn in.

In June there was an incident in front of the parliament building whereby Romain Laville – former faction leader of the UP and in the meantime an Independent MP – threatens his former fellow faction member Jules James with the death. James filed a complaint but nothing has been heard since about the investigation. The parliament elected Laville simply as its first vice-president.

In November a civil court case brought to light that Justice Minister Roland Duncan maintains close ties with the prostitution sector. Politicians do not react at all to this news and Duncan remained at his post.

In December the former Minister of Finance Hiro Shigemoto – a son-in-law of Justice Minister Duncan – was arrested on suspicion of fraud, forgery and money laundering. Before Christmas Shigemoto was released again. The completion of the investigation so far has not resulted in a court case.

In January 2013 Minister Duncan was seriously embarrassed by reports that BMS, the system for managing border security does not function anymore. In the same month the financial supervisor Cft issued a negative advice about the 2013 draft budget and from The Hague the first reports about a possible instruction from the Kingdom Council of Ministers arrived.

In March things went from bad to worse. The Telegraaf reported about a bribery video showing the Independent MP Patrick Illidge taking money from Bada Bing-owner Jaap van den Heuvel. A day later the video appeared on the internet. The National Detective Agency raided the homes of Illidge and Van den Heuvel and later interrogated the Ministers Duncan and Pantophlet (Economic Affairs) as well as UP-leader Theo Heyliger. So far there has been no court case – those involved claim that there was no bribery and that Van den Heuvel was repaying a loan.

In the same month this newspaper published a series of articles that established being the shadow of a doubt the deep involvement of Justice Minister Duncan in the prostitution sector. Again politicians did nothing. Duncan even told a reporter in Curacao: “Where does it say that I am not allowed to have a brothel?”

Duncan’s standing in The Hague deteriorated further, also because he expressed his dislike of the Coast Guard in April by repeating that he wants to get rid of the service. To add insult to injury the Cft shot down Duncan’s $100 million plan for a Justice Park in Cay Hill.

In the beginning of May the second Wescot-Williams cabinet fell and again Romain Laville was one of the instigators. The three MPs that were involved in the first cabinet-crisis parted ways: Laville and Illidge chose the camp of the new coalition of UP and DP and Richardson found shelter with the opposition. The reasons for the cabinet’s fall remain to this day a mystery. A period followed of chaotic meetings in parliament, but the call for dissolving the parliament followed by elections came too late. Mid June the third Wescot-Williams cabinet was sworn in.

Also in July, a scandal at the National Security Service VDSM came to light. Reports suggested that $800,000 from the VDSM-budget had disappeared. The head of the VDSM was in the end suspended but no further announcements about the case were made.

In the same month the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte visited St. Maarten. Again controversy: Rutte said that St. Maarten only has to give him a call if it wants to become independent and he announced that he wanted to instruct the governor to conduct an integrity investigation.

In September the government finally managed to guide an amendment to the still not ratified 2013 budget through parliament. The government also announced an integrity investigation by Transparency International – at least: its intention to have this done. At the end of the month it turned out that this was not enough: the Kingdom Council of Ministers instructed Governor Drs. Eugène Holiday to order an independent integrity investigation.

Three years of country status, in short, seems for the time being no reason for an exuberant celebration in Philipsburg.

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