MARIGOT – If there is a common thread that runs through the testimony of those from the Dutch side government who knew or had dealings with the late Albert Fleming, former Mayor of French Saint-Martin in the Commune era, it was his unfussy, down-to-earth nature, his dislike of formalities on the local Dutch/French side political scene and propensity to mingle with his people on a whim at any time or place.
It was this latter closeness and connection with his constituents that cemented his enduring popularity, ensuring a remarkable run of 23 years in office from 1983 to 2007.
Ironically, Fleming’s list came last in the first round of the 1983 election, capturing around 900 votes, but in the second round of voting he won the election by joining forces with Louis-Constant Fleming’s list, coming from behind and heading the list. He had already been elected as a Deputy Mayor since 1977.
Most people today believe Albert Fleming was unique and that they will never see the likes of him again.
It was a different time. An island on the verge of a tourism boom thanks to the visions of Fleming and his counterpart the late Claude Wathey. The island was not obsessed then by security or impacted by wars, cyber-attacks and health pandemics as has been the case recently.
United Democrats Member of Parliament (MP) Sarah Wescot-Williams described his tenure as Mayor of St. Martin as characterised by a period of unsurpassed “one-islandness” due to the leadership in Great Bay and Marigot being unwavering in their vision for a St. Maarten/St. Martin undivided and progressive for all the people, both north and south.
“The late Mayor Fleming lived this daily through his enterprises on both sides, in addition to a brilliant political career, that spanned decades. His enduring strength, however, was his unmatched love for the St. Martin people and for his Anguillian ancestral roots. These roots contributed to his humbleness during all stages of his life,” Wescot-Williams said.
“Before I started my political career, I was involved with politics on St. Martin, because of my late husband Louis who was a strong and loyal ally and friend of the late Mayor. Years later I became the “counterpart” of Mayor Fleming as we both led our respective constituencies, always with consideration for one another.”
She said the pair had signed a follow-up to the Treaty of Concordia even when Willemstad, The Hague and Paris thought the move to be “out of line”. Then there was the period in early 2000 that they both fought for more autonomy, eventually leading to the status change for St. Martin and the country status for St. Maarten.
“So while saddened by his passing, I am immensely grateful for his service and contribution to our entire nation. On behalf of the Democratic Party of St. Maarten, my family and myself, I express condolences to the family and friends of the late Mayor Albert Fleming. His legacy will last forever.”
William Marlin at the time was an Island Council Member (1987-2010) and from 2010 to present a Member of Parliament (MP) and on two or three occasions a Minister and Prime Minister of the government of St. Maarten. He was also twice a Commissioner, from 1994-1995 and 1995-1999, and remembers the meetings he had with Albert Fleming.
“We would meet either on the French side or the Dutch side to discuss specific issues. He would drive his own car alone and I would drive mine. We didn’t have drivers in those days and Albert wasn’t into the official stuff,” Marlin recalled. “He was a humble and nice man to deal with. Sometimes we met in restaurants and there was never any of the support staff coming along that you have these days.
“He also use to give me pointers about campaigning as a politician, saying you should always go to funerals and position yourself in the pew to meet and greet people coming in as well as keeping an eye on your opponents. When your opponent visits a house, you do the same, and do it again just before the election.”
Marlin remembers during Albert’s time in office the plaque placed at the border monument in Belvedere around 1994 commemorating the unity between Dutch and French sides, and the Treaty of Concordia commemorations and the first plaque placed on Concordia hill.
“He didn’t care for much fanfare, he was a real people-person and very approachable,” Marlin adds. “His attitude was ‘let’s just do what we have to do’. He touched many people on both sides of the island, as a businessman and a politician.
Another Island Council member at the time, Marcel Gumbs, tells a story of how Albert, who was campaigning in his first election in 1983, waited hours to visit an area in French Quarter where there were 27 potential voters, but his opponent Dr. Petit had got there first.
“Albert waited from 6:00pm to 10:30pm for his turn to try and convince those people to vote for him. He told me afterwards that it was real perseverance on his part to get to speak to those people,” Gumbs related.
Marcel Gumbs and William Marlin remember the whole saga of the gasoline tax and price wars, a defining period that had repercussions on both sides of the island at the time. Aruba had left the constellation in 1986 and pressure came from the Central Government to implement a gasoline tax to fill the coffers and Claude Wathey decided to implement the tax the minute the ship’s anchor was dropped in Great Bay. The French side subsequently began to pay a fuel tax too.
According to Marlin, the French side could only import gasoline from the Dutch side at that time and importers had to pay the tax to the Central Government of the Netherlands Antilles and this caused considerable protests and demonstrations on the French side over gasoline prices. Roads were blocked, tyres set alight, etc.
“It led to the birth of the so called ‘white pumps’,” Marlin explained. “Brand names such as Shell and Texaco were dropped in favour of purchasing fuel on the open market with the flexi-tanks you see today on the French side. Cadisco and Best Buy in French Quarter were the first to bring these in. This development caused strain between the two sides of the island.
“Buses and taxis, and citizens would fill up on the French side only, as it was cheaper. This was one of the things Albert allowed so that his people would not suffer by a decision made in Willemstad. For a while those French importers made a huge profit without paying taxes until regulation was introduced, as it is today. The French side no longer pays tax to Willemstad and since country St. Maarten status has no need to pay tax, providing they don’t fill their tanks on the Dutch side.”
Marcel Gumbs remembers a friendly exchange on the gasoline tax with Albert reminding Claude: “Remember, I’m paying a tax and not getting anything in return,” and Claude replying: “I’m providing jobs for people that do not live on my side.”
“That was the fun side of the relationship between those two political leaders,” said Gumbs. “But Albert was an amazing man, he went bankrupt twice in the construction business on the Dutch side, but always bounced back, always moving forwards. In my case he was always very supportive of my passion for better cooperation and understanding between French and Dutch sides.
“He was very good at time management, especially on Sundays. It is said he would go to two or three church services, visit the Bethany Home, go to a cock fight – his favourite pastime – and find time to go on the field to watch a game. He was not someone who talked a lot, but used his time very effectively.”
Gumbs, who served nine years as an Island Council member before country status as well as holding other high profile roles, and a stint as Prime Minister from January to November 2015, resigned from the World Bank Trust Fund Steering committee on June 1, 2023.
Rene Richardson was another Island Council member and commissioner in government from 1983 to 1995 during the Albert Fleming era, and remembers fondly the St. Martin Day celebrations with Albert on November 11.
“We always got together on that day. Then I remember the Franco-Dutch Treaty that we signed in 1994 in Paris. I was there with Albert and Minister of Traffic and Transportation Leo Chance. Before that we took part in a preliminary study and agreement on the Franco-Dutch Treaty with Ernst Hirsch Ballin who was then Minister of Justice in Holland.”
“On the leisure side, Albert loved to go to cock fights. We met up every Saturday at cock fights and we used to go to Aruba, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. We went twice to Cuba to participate in the Rooster Battles Tournament with other countries from South America. He was a people’s man, he would visit everybody, election or no elections. He was good with everybody.”
Richardson recalls Albert got along very well with his late mother Elisa Brigitta Hyman who passed away last year in French Quarter and who lived behind the church up on the hill.
“He visited her all the time. If she had one photo of me she had five of Albert,” laughed Richardson. “They had a great relationship, she adored him and he would go there to eat her food frequently with his wife Josiane.”