Archives For politics

My sunny rock of a new home may be hurricane free right now, but I cannot help but feel I am going through a bit of personal turbulence, both culturally and intellectually one month into my time here in Curacao.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to spend more time in Curacao was the fact that I fell in love with the mix of different nationalities and cultures here on the island. Before I came to live here, I had a rosy idea that Curacao was one big tropical United Colors of Benneton world of diversity. Realistically, I knew that the racially situation couldn’t be totally harmonious because of Curacao’s historical role in the Dutch slave trade. But hey, I thought, it looks like people are doing the best they can to co-exist.

However, the recent parliamentary elections in Curacao have brought a lot of racial and cultural tension to the surface. Long story short, Curacao’s parliamentary election gave the people of Curacao a choice to vote on the parties who either side with maintaining ties with Holland or calling for the independence of Curacao from Holland. I had the chance to report on the elections here and got the opportunity to speak with locals about their views.

Many Dutch people and other immigrants are upset with the victory of the political party Pueblo Soberano under the leadership of the controversial Helman Wiels. Wiels is largely seen to be anti-immigrant. He has been quoted in the past as saying that Dutch people should go home, and depending on who you ask, Wiels allegedly said that the Dutch should “go home in body bags”.  Conversely, ask Dutch people about what they think about Curacao, and they often say that the locals are ignorant,  are not thinking about their future and that “Curacao will become the next Haiti” without the help of Dutch people. I had one Dutch guy tell me, “I don’t know what is wrong with black people. They don’t know how to think about the future.”

I’ve heard “jokes” before here about how it would be better if local people here just went back to being slaves and the Dutch were masters again. Yeah. Really.

It is so clear that racial tensions are a real problem here in Curacao. Yet, when I have talk about racism and discrimination against people of color all over the world to Dutch people here, they are quick to blame those who are offended as “being overly sensitive”, and that there’s something “in your head to make you see a problem when there is none.”

I’m not surprised. I remember when articles came out last year about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Sinterklaas is like the Dutch version of Santa Claus and Zwarte Piete, or Black Pete, is his helper who usually appears in what resembles a blackface costume), and the Dutch magazine Jackie using the word “niggabitch” to describe a sort of “ghetto style”  Dutch commenters on the internet were quick to defend the practices by accusing Americans of being overly racially sensitive and politically correct. I’ve had some people tell me, “ugh you Americans, you guys are the ones with the race problem, not us. “

I don’t know how to react in these situations. I’ve never before been in societal circles where people refuse to think critically about history or global power structures. I’ve never been before in situations where the burden of proof is on me to somehow prove racism still exists outside of my own black American head. The United States is by no means a post-racial paradise, but the times when I’ve engaged with people here on issues of racial and cultural discrimination, their responses make me think I’m back in the 1700s.

My response options are limited. I can: 1) Ignore them. 2) Engage them and hope to encourage people to think a little more critically. 3) Change the subject. 4) Get upset.  Three out of the four options usually are not particularly effective. Engaging people without getting emotionally frustrated about issues of race based power asymmetries is a tough task.

I have a friend on the island who was born in Curacao but is of Surinamese descent.  She lived in Holland for some time before returning to Curacao. We discussed these problems over drinks. “You just have to develop a thick skin,” she said.  “If you get emotional, you play into their stereotype of being the ‘emotional ethnic person’. So just try to tell them the basics…for them to try to imagine being in someone else’s shoes other than their own. You have to tell them to stop for a second and think about what they are saying and why they are saying it.”

The reason why I think Curacao is fascinating is the same reason why I think New York City is fascinating; worlds within worlds of cultures sharing a small piece of geography.

But I cannot help but feel something about this place sometimes. It feels as if Curacao is not free—emotionally, spiritually, economically, and financially—from its colonial past. As there are hidden wounds within all the communities masked by words unsaid, and dialogues avoided through socially constructed taboos on both sides about talking about race. I don’t agree with internal hierarchies and discrimination among locals based on who is Yu di Korsou, or a true Curaceleno….but that is a post for another time.

I do find myself missing the States lately, its openness, its freedoms in some senses. For now, I’ll take the edge off of my homesickness for New York by watching Sex and the City episodes.

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My house was too hot and the mosquitoes too pesky for me to stay inside and work a few days ago. So I decided to take my stuff and walk to Pampus Cafe in Punda for the wi-fi, the cool breeze from the inlet bay, and a drink. But on my way, I decided to stray from my usual route. I wandered into the public library just to check it out.

It shouldn’t surprise me that Curacao has a library, I know. During my last experience living abroad in Ghana, there were few ways to get books other than going to the university, or going to the bookstore at Accra Mall. But public libraries? Not that I remember.

I’m glad I wandered into the library, because at least now I know where I can read local Dutch and Papiamento newspapers for free. My Dutch and Papiamento skills are at about -124% currently, so my definition of “read” is looking for words that look like English or Spanish and and look at the pictures. Hey, it’s better than nuthin.’

Luckily for me, I got a B in my Intermediate II graduate Spanish class last year  am more or less (slight emphasis on less) proficient in Spanish, so I was able to read the local spanish language newspaper, El Periodico.

Curacao is facing Parliamentary elections ten days from today. The battles between the political parties, individual politicians, and party supporters have been dominating the news coverage here on the island. One interview with Anthony Goddett, leader of the political party Frente Obrero (FOL) caught my attention.

Curacao is a small island that hosts around 50 different nationalities. Whereas a large percentage of Curacalenos are of African descent, significant numbers of inhabitants are migrants from, or descendants of immigrants from South America and other Spanish-speaking countries. A topic that I keep running into on the island concerns the treatment of immigrants on the island, many of whom say they are subject to discrimination here. El Periodico describes the Oct. 19th elections for immigrants to ” have in the vote the opportunity to exercise their legitimate rights and choose authorities who will take into consideration their needs.”

In response to a question about why foreigners and Latinos in general should support FOL, leader Anthony Goddett, said (translation):

Everyone who resides in Curacao deserves the same treatment. Everyone contributes to the wellbeing and economy of Curacao. Being born to parents from Curacao, or foreign parents, or immigrants, each one that resides on the island and respects its laws, the opportunities and protections should be equal for all.

Now, FOL does not appear to be one of the frontrunning parties in the elections, but I’ve heard over and over again about the fact that there is discrimination against foreign immigrants on the island. From chats with Jamaicans, Haitians and other immigrants, I’ve learned that difficulties for them include not getting work permits, low pay, and ostracism from locals. Of course this is not 100% of the locals. One of the politicians here, Helman Wiels, leader of the party Pueblo Soberano (PS), has come under fire for what is taken to be his anti-foreigner ideologies. “No, no, no, we Haitians can’t support PS”, a Haitian construction worker told me yesterday. “He doesn’t want extranjeros here in Curacao.”

For a nation that draws so much of its intrigue from its history of the intermixing of peoples, one can only hope that tolerances will prevail.

Sidenote: The library also had kiosks where people could come in and learn about the voting process and the platforms of the different parties.

This is my second week here in Curacao, and I’m glad to report that things have been going pretty well so far. This go-round is actually my fourth time to come to the island this year. In the beginning, for the first few days, I was definitely in vacation mode. Sleeping, eating, playing with my 8 year old neighbor, and some beaching were all I wanted to do in order to de-tox the New York from my system. After a few days, however, it began to set in that I needed to switch off from vacation mode and turn to “I-actually-live-here-and-need-to-get-a-job” mode. And living here has been, and will prove to be, an interesting experience.

By the Fisherman’s Wharf in Wllemstad

I come to Curacao as an outsider in so many ways. Linguistically, I don’t speak much Dutch and I don’t speak Papamiento (the local language of Curacao, which is a mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and Portuguese). I can definitely get by in English here, but my inability to speak Dutch and Papiamento makes me feel like I have to contend with a double language barrier here. Despite the assurances of both Dutch and locals that English is sufficient to survive and get a job on the island, I suppose I’m looking to do more than just “survive” here. Most Dutch people speak English, and many are kind enough to switch their conversations to English when I am around, but I do admit I’m conscious of the fact that they are switching to accommodate me. But I am lucky that my Dutch boyfriend and his circle of friends have done an amazing job of making me feel welcome and have agreed to speak “Dinglish” to me so that I can start speaking nederlands little by little.

Culturally, I admit I had never really met a Dutch person before coming to Curacao this year. My experience with the Netherlands had be limited to countless KLM layovers at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport en-route to Ghana. I have probably been to Amsterdam   Schipol near a dozen times by now, but I was never adventurous enough to go explore the city. So oddly enough, my time in Curacao has been my introduction to Dutch culture, Caribbean-style. They love potatoes, mayonnaise on their french fries, being tall, efficiency, honesty, being VERY punctual, and cheese. Not necessarily in that order, of course. It is clear though, that there is a separation between the Dutch community and the local community. More on that later.

Curacao does not have a huge diaspora to the United States, so being here is the first time that I have been introduced to their culture. This is my first time really learning about Caribbean culture in general. That week long Carnival Cruise my family and I took to the Carribean when I was about 10 or so hardly counts as real “experience” in the Caribbean. I find the Caribbean to be under-reported in America, and even more so the Dutch Caribbean.

Now, there is of course the question of how I interact with the local people here. Even the words “local” vs. “native” is tricky. There are Dutch Europeans whose families have been here for generations. There are people from Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Jamaica. The question of who is a yu di Korsou, (literally means a “child of Curacao” in Papamiento), or a true Curacaoan, is a bit of tricky question of identity.  Because really, the way I see it, whether they are the descendants of the African slaves brought by the Dutch, recent migrants from South America or other Caribbean islands, everyone here is from somewhere else. (The actual native Amerindian tribes that were on Curacao either migrated out, or were subdued by Europeans). For the most part, I see “local” as referring to non-white European inhabitants of the island. Despite my dark skin, people can immediately tell I’m foreign. Most people assume that I’m Jamaican. I don’t know why. It is true that not as many Americans visit the island. Maybe for people here, “English-speaking black foreigner” = Jamaican.

It’s difficult for me move between local and Dutch worlds here in Curacao. Despite the incredible diversity of peoples here in Curacao, there is a serious lack of interaction between the Dutch communities and non-white locals in my opinion. Lack of interaction contributes to a near absence of integration. The capital city of Willemstad is divided into two parts separated by the large natural harbor. One side is the Dutch side, of Punda, and Otrobanda, (which literally means “other side”) is where the locals live. There are Dutch friends of mine who have been here for years and cannot speak Papamiento, and who can count the number of local friends they have on one hand. I hear Dutch people saying that the locals are lazy, not professional, never on time, aren’t educated, and are ignorant of the world outside tiny Curacao. There is also a sentiment that anti-Dutch sentiment has increased on the island in last few years, and some say they are even afraid, as a white person, to go to certain areas. (Granted, I normally ask what they are afraid of, exactly. Well, of being attacked! “Really? Have there been reports of racially motivated attacks on Dutch people or something?” No. Not really. So then where is the fear coming from? I don’t know, that’s just what people say! The locals don’t like us and don’t want us here!) I’ve heard too many times, “They (locals) and their culture is just too different from ours. We cannot mix well, so we stay apart.”

Talking with some locals, of course there is the perspective that the Dutch people are arrogant, condescending, and racist. Locals here are accurately aware that numbers of Dutch people (as well as politicians in the Netherlands) see Curacao as a backwards banana republic headed by incompetent and corrupt politicians. Of course, not every Dutch person feels that way, and many live here and love the way of life and the culture. But locals seem to feel that the Dutch come here to make their money and live their island paradise lives without making any attempt to contribute to the long term human development of the locals on the island. There is a sense among locals that the Dutch refuse to acknowledge or recognize the economic and human exploitation of the past, and that those past exploitations and dependencies were, and still are, systemic. But there is a sense of increasing nationalism and an attempt to assert a Curacaoan identity apart from the Dutch that is here.

“Stop Dutch Apartheid” stickers in Willemstad.

Being black outsider isn’t such a bad thing.  As an outsider to both the locals and the Dutch, I suppose I take a bit of an observer role. But its almost like I can physically feel a deep rooted mistrust and tension between Dutch and local populations here. To me, it is obvious that there is a lack of cultural and physical spaces for meaningful discourse and dialogue between the Dutch and local people. It’s incredible, and a bit tragic that such hostilities and resentment can exist on such a small island, and judging from the impending elections here in Curacao, it is possible that things could get worse.

I will say, that many people find me to be interesting. Again, not many Americans come here, and I think that people, both local and Dutch, appreciate that I took such a risk to come here and learn about the island and about cultures totally different from mine. Plenty have told me that they are interested in my perspective as a non-Dutch and a non-local. I will definitely continue to share my thoughts here so, watch this space!

So far, so good in Curacao!

Former Prime Minister of Curacao Gerritt Schotte Addresses Press Conference. Photo by Karen Attiah

After a self imposed lockdown in government headquarters in Willemstad, the former Prime Minister of Curacao Gerrit Schotte of the Curacao Future Movement (MFK) party returned to his party’s offices in the Salina area to address his party supporters. Schotte has been quoted by the international media as saying that the formation of an interim government less than three weeks to the Curacao parliamentary is nothing less than a “coup d’etat”.

In an exclusive interview “As the Prime Minister of Curacao I was in the Fort {Amsterdam]  for the last two days. There was an interim cabinet that was installed on Saturday in a non-constitutional way. We were in the government palace since saturday and we left tonight.”

Schotte and other members of his party held a press conference to address their grievances against the current government, over garcinia cambogia extract tea, including alleging that members of his senate were offered bribes. Before arriving to the press conference, Schotte paraded around the Salina area with local party supporters clad in all white, complete with chants, party songs, banners and honking horns.

Schotte still believes that what the government has done amounts to a coup d’etat. “When you bend all the rules– constitutional rules that exist, to gain power, government power, that is a coup d’etat. Its twenty days before elections, there’s no reason to put an interim cabinet. That cabinet agenda is obviously to try to change the situation–the polls. Everything indicates that this government has gained more support, and more confidence”.

Despite Schotte’s claims in the media that he was the victim of a bloodless coup, the scenes at Fort Amsterdam, MFK headquarters, and in the streets of Willemstad were largely quiet Sunday afternoon into evening. Business, which is mostly tourism, was going on as usual. The MFK press conference, was attended by at most ninety people people. Local Curacaoan blogger and journalist Jermain Ostiana (@Sablikatriumph) remarked on Twitter: “Declaring “coup” to int. press but you can’t mobilize 500 supporters to protest is why ppl don’t take MFK MAN [Schotte] serious.”

On August 3rd, Schotte dissolved his cabinet and called for the early elections to be held October 19th.

Schotte says that his plans for the next two weeks include massive movements on the streets and neighborhoods and to consolidate the “sympathy” for MFK. He plans to go caravan at least two neighborhoods everyday in Curacao for the next weeks. Schotte says that social media plays a large role in his campaigning. “We are innovative, and that is the way we govern. In 2010 when I created the MFK seven weeks before the election date, social media was one of the tools I used. I think today I am one of the only politicians that is on Instagram. We have applications specially made for our Facebook fan page. We have several apps, and Tweet gadgets that are integrated in our system. The penetration of internet in Curacao is over 50% so it is a great way to reach voters.” Schotte also said that his campaign team uses BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) to reach thousands of of potential voters.

MFK Supporters Parade in Curacao. Photo By Karen Attiah

Bon Dia, Curacao!

September 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

Bon dia, from Willemstad, Curaçao! After flight delays and missed connections, my overweight luggage and I arrived safe and sort of sound last Thursday night at Hato International Airport.

I’ve taken the last few days to relax and flush out the stress of the last few months years days of New York. I was treated by my boyfriend to flowers, gifts, and a surprise midnight sail with his friends around the Spanish Water near Caracasbaai as my “Welcome Home” weekend. I’m a lucky, lucky girl. 🙂

“Welcome Home” flowers 🙂

It’s going to take some time for the fact that I just moved to a new country to sink in. I thought that updating my Facebook “Current City” would speed up the process, but that didn’t quite work. I mean, if you officially register with the national immigration as a citizen of a new country update your new city on Facebook, it makes it official, right?

Its Facebook Official: I’m an Antillean!

I’m looking forward to exploring the island, and getting familiarized with the politics of the upcoming elections. I’m beginning the hunt for some gigs on the island in order to line my pockets with some Antillean guilders.

A couple things that I have gleaned from conversations over the past few days about Curaçao:

  • Curaçao is apparently entering its first elections since becoming “autonomous” from The Netherlands with €200 Million over its national budget. The speculation is that the politicians of this small, but relatively wealthy island of less than 200,000 people( I heard Curaçao actually supplies oil to neighboring countries of Aruba and Bonaire, yet gas prices are quite high here) have been stealing the country’s resources.
  • Despite being politically autonomous, Curaçao is not economically independent, as its national budget is subject to approval by the Netherlands.
  • There are populations of Haitian, Jamaican, and Dominican immigrants who move to Curaçao for low wage work. But from what I hear, life is not so easy for them, especially the ones that move here illegally.
  • Some of my Dutch friends feel that there has been a sharp rise in anti-Dutch, and anti-foreigner sentiment as the elections draw nearer in October. Of course, I’m sure that that is only half the story when it comes to the social and cultural relations on the island.

I’m looking forward to meeting and interviewing more people of different backgrounds on the island. Stay tuned!

Karen

There is in true beauty, as in courage, something which narrow souls cannot dare to admire.

-William Congreve

A Little Bit of Wednesday Inspiration