Published On: Thu, May 27th, 2021

Knops disappointed after visit to St. Maarten

PHILIPSBURG — State Secretary Raymond Knops is disappointed on several levels after his visit to St. Maarten last week. His experiences with the islands of Statia and Saba were much more positive. This appears from the report Knops submitted to the Dutch Second Chamber about his trip to the Caribbean islands.

Good governance and the chaotic situation at the Princess Juliana International Airport took a front seat in talks with Prime Minister Jacobs, but the way the islands have been handling the COVID-19 pandemic sets St. Maarten apart in a negative way from its neighbors.

In Statia, the vaccination rate is 45 percent. On Saba, more than 90 percent of the adult population has been vaccinated. But in St. Maarten, the vaccination rate is stuck at what Knops describes as “a disappointing 35 percent.”

“The vaccination rate remains stuck at a disappointing and worrisome level, in spite of the massive support from the Netherlands,” Knops writes to the Dutch parliament. “The objective of giving all adults their first shot before May 1 has not been achieved and a vaccination rate of 85 percent before the beginning of the new hurricane season is no longer feasible.”

Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs and Finance Minister Ardwell Irion told Knops that the new minister of public health (Omar Ottley) “is setting up a new campaign to increase the vaccination rate.”

Statia impressed Knops with its progress in the field of infrastructure. “They have worked hard. The new air traffic control tower and the arrivals and departure hall are almost ready for opening and the airport is in terms of capacity prepared for receiving more passengers.”

The Netherlands provided €5.5 million ($6.7 million) for salary and support packages to Statia and 4.2 kilometers of the island’s road network has been renovated. “They have made big steps forward,” Knops reports.

The state secretary’s report about his visit to Saba is even more upbeat. “I appreciate the way Saba handles good governance and financial management,” Knops writes. “It is pleasant working together with Saba. The local government is taking initiatives and accepting responsibility. During every visit I see progress.”

Knops refers to the new port, improvement in waste processing, the introduction of a sustainable goat farm and the attention given to control the island’s goat population.

Saba receives this year an additional $1 million from the Netherlands that it can use as the local government sees fit. Knops has encouraged Saba to join Statia Saba Cable System. In Statia, this has resulted in $10 lower monthly internet-invoices for citizens and companies and a 20 percent higher internet speed.

In St. Maarten, Knops’ visit focused on the situation at the airport and on the state secretary’s letter of May 12 in which he announced a freeze on the payment of liquidity support. Knops repeated the reasons for this decision in talks with Governor Holiday, Prime Minister Jacobs and Finance Minister Irion.

“Prime Minister Jacobs acknowledged that the hands-off approach at the airport has resulted in serious problems with good governance,” Knops writes. Jacobs and Irion “explained which steps they will undertake to restore good governance at the airport.” They both confirmed to Knops the need for assistance from the Royal Schiphol Group with the reconstruction project. But in spite of these assurances, Knops is not entirely convinced, it appears from his report: “Serious actions seem to be undertaken but considering the repeatedly damaged confidence I want to see action first.”

The contract for the airport reconstruction tender is expected to be signed this summer. “Three years after the start of the project the work can begin,” Knops reports.

The state secretary declined to get into a discussion about what will happen during the meeting of the Kingdom Council of Ministers on Friday, May 28.

Knops asked Jacobs to confirm her government’s commitment to the planning of the follow-up report for the kingdom law COHO. “She confirmed this,” the report states.

Knops furthermore noted that St. Maarten still has not signed the mutual agreement for the humanitarian assistance program. “I have requested Prime Minister Jacobs to sign so that the provision of subsidy and the continuation of the program can be guaranteed. Jacobs has promised to ask about the state of affairs.”

Knops got a similar answer from Jacobs when he asked her to confirm the technical assistance for waste processing. “Jacobs indicated that she will soon get back to me.”

Knops also spoke with Justice Minister Anna Richardson about another series of disappointments at the Pointe Blanche prison and the local police force. “I have expressed my disappointment that the Progress Committee time and again sees little progress and even a deterioration of the situation. The function book has not been established yet, the capacity at the police force is worrisome and the situation at the prison does not improve.”

In 2018 the Netherlands and St. Maarten made a list of agreements about necessary improvements at the police force and the prison. “Parts of those agreements still have not been executed and they are now a part of the country package.”

In January Minister Richardson assured Knops that the measures for improvement would be finished by June 15, but this time she informed the state secretary that this deadline will not be met.

Knops asked Richardson to approve the proposal of UNOPS (the United Nations Office for Project Services) for the construction of a new prison so that UNOPS can continue with its preparations. Richardson has agreed, Knops writes.

The Integrity Chamber was established in 2017 as a condition for the provision of reconstruction funding. Almost four years later, the Chamber has two achievements to report: it has started a communication program and issued an advice about the St. Maarten Stimulus and Relief Program (SSRP).

The Integrity Chamber consists of president Rian Vogels and members Rafael Boasman and Hans Lodder. The Chamber found multiple integrity risks in the SSRP and provided recommendations for improvement. The Chamber published its advice on May 7, 2020, more than a year ago and promised to follow-up on the implementation of its recommendations. So far, the Chamber has not published a follow-up on its website.

Knops asked Jacobs to pay St. Maarten’s 2021-contribution to the Integrity Chamber and pointed out that from 2022 the Chamber will become St. Maarten’s responsibility.

Knops concludes his report to the Dutch parliament with the following observation: “My visit to St. Maarten was two-faced. Next to encouraging signs of hope and resilience in the community, there are serious concerns about the question whether the government is able to guarantee the necessary changes in a sustainable way in the interest of the future of St. Maarten’s population.”