What’s next? Work hard, play harder

Dear Editor,

King Willem Alexander asked for forgiveness. He said in no uncertain terms that his ancestors were wrong to take part in the trans-Atlantic slavery. Prime Minister Rutte apologized for the role of the Dutch State in making this crime against humanity a commonplace. They both displayed institutional remorse.

What’s next? Business as usual? Does the ritualistic tussle between the administration in The Hague and that in Philipsburg continue? Do St. Maarteners forgive the House of Orange, and remain loving King Willem, Queen Maxima, Princess Amalia and the Queen Mother? Or, do they push for reparations and political independence? One-SXM?

All those folks dancing to Machel Montano and other Caribbean greats at the Oualichi festival last weekend gave the realest answer to the “What’s Next” question. The revelers at Oualichi are people who follow Montano’s Caribbean ethic of ‘work hard and play harder’. For most of them life is hard, but every break they get they spend making it feel better by enjoying themselves.

The attendees to the Oualichi festival did so last weekend in all their diversity, in all their styles of comportment. Some performed the role of the drunk and disorderly, some danced exclusively with their man or woman, some whined sometimes with all and sundry as though there was no tomorrow, while others sat and watched the show and enjoyed the meals and drinks in an orderly fashion. The diversity of the country, which has become ordinary with all its frictions, tensions and imperfections, was in plain sight.

Most of the attendees of the Oualichi festival, which is a snapshot of the island, know they do not live on One SXM. Such an imaginary place, where a village reared its young and everyone got along, never existed. What did exist, as what does today, are people trying to make life better in the midst of a few rich and many poor son-of-a-guns. And son-of-a-gun-ness was and still is equally distributed among the genders and ethnicities.

As a French savant once mused, “Hell is often other people,” but sometimes they are Heaven, that is when diversity is respected and no one can claim to speak for all without proper and in-depth consultation of all. Even more paradisical is when politicians and bosses work hard and play harder in a way that benefits the least in society. Alas, that Heaven is still to come. And so One SXM remains a fantasy, and no unity flag, song, or radio program saying that it is Real, will make it so.

In more positive terms One SXM is best described as an imagined community for those dreaming of a nation-state which encompasses the entire 37 square miles. Such, remains a dream.

What is incorrigible today and thus a fact, until the vast majority deem it otherwise, is Sint Maarten and Saint Martin. The French and the Dutch sides exist. Ask anyone residing on the Dutch side who buys appliances from a store on the French side and knows they need a converter, ask any Dutch passport holder who comes into contact with the Gendarmerie, or ask anyone from the Southern side of the island who seeks a work permit on the Northern side, if the Collectivité de Saint-Martin Antilles Française with its local President it is not really real. What do you think they will say!

So too, is the fact that Sint Maarten is an autonomous country governed by a Prime Minister and a Council of Ministers checked by a parliament. Answering “What’s Next?” is an affair of the Dutch side no matter how entangled the island’s colonial history was. The interest of the French side can be taken into account, and must be as this is one island, but constitutional differences matter.

Given these realities, it is not easy to fathom what all those folks dancing at the Oualichi festival would want. “What’s Next?” for them in this whole affair about reckoning with the slavocratic past of the Kingdom of the Netherlands? Ask yourself who exactly attended the festival? Some who attended were no doubt those who imagine One SXM. Yet they were a minority that needs to be heard and respected.

But so too, in any healthy society, do other voices. Everyone must have a say in “What’s Next?”, for it is about St. Maarten. And St. Maarteners after all, extending the memorable words of Eugene Holiday, the former governor of the Southern side, are those “born here”, “those born to be here”, “those who enjoy being here”, “those who happen to find themselves here”, and “those struggling trying make a life here”.

Some residents have Dutch passports, but many do not. Many are people with Caribbean roots and many have routes that brought them to this region of the world, and specifically to St. Maarten. Think of St. Maarteners born to parents born in India or Colombia or the Netherlands or China, Turkey, Lebanon, etc., too much to mention. Their parents were “born to be here” and they are “born here” as those whose great-grandparents already resided on the island.

Those who attended Oualichi were a complex mix and “What’s Next?” concerns them all. It concerns them all, because “What’s Next?” is about the future. The question is how to remake St. Maarten after the formal apologies and the recognition that that historical wrong should be righted? Exclusivity here, as in only some can have a say, meaning the few who today can trace back their direct heritage to slavery on the island, would be Apartheid. Who would want that?

Dr. Francio Guadeloupe

Senior Researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean studies KITLV/Associate Professor at the University of Amsterdam UvA

The Daily Herald

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