Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren at the Coast Guard station in Simpson Bay.
By Jacqueline Hooftman
SIMPSON BAY--Kajsa Ollongren (1967) has been Minister of Defence in the Rutte IV cabinet since January 10, 2022. Before that, in the Rutte III cabinet, she was Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations. In 2017, after Hurricane Irma pummelled St. Maarten, Ollongren helped decide on the allocation of 550 million euros in emergency aid for reconstruction efforts.
Although closely involved in the decision-making, determining the future of the island, it was not until January 2023 that Ollongren, then Minister of Defence, would pay a working visit to St. Maarten, on a tour of the Caribbean part of the Kingdom. However, this trip was cancelled at the last minute when it turned out that the Defence aircraft, a Gulfstream IV, had to remain on the ground due to technical defects.
Four months later, Defence in the Caribbean can count on the minister’s presence. The working visit coincides with the hurricane exercise HUREX, an emergency relief exercise for which 500 military personnel travelled from Curaçao and Aruba to the Windward Islands. On Sunday, Ollongren witnessed a rescue operation at Divi Little Bay, where “a gas explosion” had occurred and soldiers evacuated wounded victims in a swift manner.
On Monday, Ollongren attended a meeting of the hurricane coordination platform, where the militia, local authorities, medical services and aid organisations coordinate necessary actions. In the afternoon, The Daily Herald (TDH) spoke to Minister Ollongren at the Coast Guard Station in Simpson Bay.
TDH: “It’s your first time on St. Maarten, what is your impression of the island?”
Ollongren: “It is a beautiful place with incredible people, very engaged, and for us – for me, as minister of Defence, and for the Dutch military that work here – it is very important to have a cooperation with all the local authorities and partners that we need. That is the impression that I got today, that everybody is doing their best to engage and to cooperate with us, to prepare for hurricane season – that everything is in place and everyone knows what needs to be done.”
TDH: “Your visit coincides with the Hurricane Exercise, what have you experienced?”
Ollongren: “The Hurricane Exercise, which is still ongoing, is very important. Yesterday [Sunday – Ed.] I saw part of it, and also today [Monday]. It is a very serious exercise, you have to
know how to be prepared, to make sure that communication is in place and everyone knows what to do, how to cooperate with the local authorities and NGOs.
“There are quite a lot of organisations involved. I get the impression that we are very well positioned, in case a crisis unfolds, to get the work done and to be there for the people that need help.”
TDH: “We would like to ask you about some pressing matters on the island. St. Maarten has a huge sewage problem. With 1.6 million visitors in 2019, and tourist arrivals climbing again after the pandemic, sewage from hotels, restaurants, and even from the hospital, ends up in open water, in
trenches, affecting wells and underground water. After a hurricane, when water lines are cut, people depend on well water for domestic use. How can calamities be prevented?”
Ollongren: “This is a very important issue, of course. People on St. Maarten being aware of the problem is the start to the solution. There are other places in this region with the same issue. I would say that it is very important to have the right expertise in place and to work on this issue and try to solve it, because you know it is going to be a problem if a next hurricane hits the island. As Minister of Defence I cannot say what the best solution is for this, but being part of the crisis management, for us it is also important to have this issue solved.”
TDH: “What can the Ministry of Defence do to help prevent, for instance, an outbreak of cholera after a hurricane? As seen in Haiti after the earthquake?”
Ollongren: “Trying to learn from crisis situations that have happened elsewhere is very important. In the meeting that I attended this morning [Monday], there were also representatives of the Ministry of Health and that is the kind of expertise that you need in order to prevent these things, and not get in situations other places in the region have experienced. It is very important to work on the preventive side.”
TDH: “Would the Netherlands be willing to assist financially?”
Ollongren: “I don’t know. Then you would also have to talk to my colleagues in the Cabinet that are also involved in the cooperation. I can’t answer that question, I am sorry.”
TDH: “Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok introduced the visa requirement for Venezuelans travelling to St. Maarten in April 2021. However, to date there are more undocumented Venezuelans on the island than beforehand. After a hurricane, how would the military know who to look for?”
Ollongren: “This is something for the local authorities to deal with. That would also depend on the developments in Venezuela. There is some debate going on with the Venezuelan regime about easing regulations. My colleague, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is involved in this issue. But I do understand the issue.”
TDH: “There has been a lot of attention from the Netherlands for Venezuelans entering Curaçao and Aruba, but not on St. Maarten. However, many Venezuelans on the Leeward islands travelled on towards St. Maarten.”
Ollongren: “Yes, of course, Curaçao would be their first stop, but not their last. Understandably, that is also a concern.”
TDH: “What will you be doing during the rest of your visit?”
Ollongren: “Yesterday [Sunday] I was also able to quickly visit Saba, and after a full programme today, Monday, I will be going to Curaçao in the evening. And then, finally, I will be going to Aruba, and that will be the last stop of my four-day visit to the region.”
TDH: “What happens afterwards, on return in The Hague? Will you review all information received?”
Ollongren: “Yes, of course. The cooperation that we have is ongoing, meaning every day. There will be follow-up points. I had a very good debate with the Prime Minister of St. Maarten and with the Minister of Justice. A pressing matter is the cooperation between the Ministry of Defence and the authorities on St. Maarten and the Ministry of Defence. As we are standing here, at the Coast
Guard station … The Coast Guard is extremely important to us, and there we also have some follow-up issues.”