Making Russia feared again

At halftime of the Sénégal-Poland match, I decided to tell the bartender of the Black Dog Bar -what had quickly become my favorite FIFA 2018 hangout in Tbilisi (Republic of Georgia)- that I’ll be needing a taxi to the rail station after the game to catch my sleeper train to Yerevan. I added that I wanted the Y****x company since I had good previous experience with it. The answer I got was: “Sir, that company is Russian. We do not work with Russian companies. I despise those ghrusis” (a Georgian slur for Russians). Left with no alternative, I told him to select what he thought was a ‘good’ company. My main concern was to not miss my train. I got a vodka made of peach, on the house, maybe for my kind understanding, and continued watching Sénégal beat Poland on a Russian channel.

I understood where the barkeep was coming from. The Republic of Georgia always had a very complicated relationship with Russia, the Soviet Union (1921-1991) and now the Russian Federation. Georgia, the second official Christian country in the world had to endure a lot from the Soviet commission on destruction of places of worship. Georgia wasn’t the hardest hit Soviet Republic however, since the Soviet Secretary General, Joseph Stalin, a Georgian native, spared his home state from massive destruction of churches in the 40s. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Georgia as an independent country decided to challenge Soviet Russian intervention. After a very brief war between them in 2008, two large Georgian areas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia became Russian-occupied territories and are now independent countries although only recognized by a handful of official countries among others Russia, Syria, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Diplomatic relation between these neighbors have not been normalized.

We saw the same type of situation take place in Ukraine regarding Crimea. A few officials from ex Soviet Republics I have spoken to during my recent visits to the region said to have gotten Putin’s message loud and clear. And that is, if you mess with Russia, you are going to pay dearly. That is why many ex-Soviet republics and Balkan states do not dare criticize Putin’s Russia.

Putin has been very successful at creating a federation in which only he controls the message, and portrays himself the sole protector of his people, threatened by a hostile world. Putin is not only making Russia great again, but is making Russia feared once more. It is clear that Trump who appeared startled like a wet fawn in Helsinki beside Putin in a press conference cannot challenge the Russian president. The world, especially our region, cannot afford a Russian hegemony. We need a balance of power. For now we will have to maybe look to embattled Angela Merkel or wait for the outcome of presidential elections in the U.S. in 2020.

Later on that night, crossing the border a little after midnight into Armenia, I was once again reminded of the turbulent relations in that part of the world. Looking at my passport, the Armenian border agent insisted that I looked Iranian and suggested I think long and hard about my Iranian ethnicity. Then, he questioned the Turkish visa in my passport. Armenia hates Turkey, its neighbor to the left. He wasn’t done however. He wanted to make sure that after my visit to Armenia I wasn’t planning to go to Azerbaijan, its neighbor to the right, perhaps its most despised foe of all. I guess the biblical saying: “better a neighbor nearby than a brother far away” needs to become more popular over there.

Willemstad, Curaçao

*Picture: an anti-Russia sticker downtown Tbilisi, 2018 by Alex Rosaria

What the US-China trade war means for Curaçao

There’re never winners in a trade war. The only uncertainty in such a show of force is: ‘who’s going to suffer more?’ What started as a trade spat to protect U.S. washing machines and solar cells may now become a large scale trade war between the U.S. and China. The consequences of a global trade war could be devastating for the fragile economy of Curaçao. Before proceeding, some considerations.

Introducing the warring parties

Sparring between Washington and Beijing over tariffs, currency manipulation and breach of Intellectual Property (IP) is not new as president George W. Bush can attest when he tried steel tariffs in 2002. The current U.S. administration is however chartering new grounds by considering a full-blown trade war with China. Mr. Trump, if you take away his usual impulsiveness, is not unreasonable about his distress with China. The world trade rules know many shortcomings and multi-interpretable rules that stand in the way of a genuine level playing field but, by and large Trump’s tariffs are the wrong solution to a real problem.

Beijing is not an innocent bystander in this confrontation. Far from that. It has a long history of currency manipulation and flouting norms meant to guard against IP theft. In Beijing’s defense, countries like Singapore and Switzerland now outpace Chinese currency manipulation and China has made some solid improvements in stronger IP rules but, a lengthy road remains.

It’s obvious that this trade dispute has geopolitical undercurrent. Beijing has been enjoying rapid economic growth and will soon overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. This growth has also come with more Chinese muscular foreign policy on the Korean Peninsula, along the old Silk Road in Asia, Africa and traditional U.S. strongholds like Southeast Asia and the Caribbean Basin. It’s unclear how trade penalties would vamp up U.S. global clout. A better solution might be global engagement rather than the current U.S. policy of isolation and constant quarreling with its allies.

Who will suffer more?

In a trade war prices will rise and people will lose their jobs in both the U.S. and China. Some people could benefit from tariffs, but they tend to be a very narrow segment of the population. Who will suffer more? China -in the beginning- but, in the long run the biggest loser will by far be the U.S.. Here’s why. China exports more products to the U.S. than the other way around. The U.S. has more Chinese imported products on which it can slap tariffs than is the case with China on U.S. imported goods. Mr. Trump, considering midterm elections later this year, may be in a rush to make good on his promise of America First and his decades-long trade beef with China. Prospects of short term gains against China are, I must admit, pretty good.

U.S. tariffs will hurt China, but Beijing may have some tricks up their sleeves. It could devaluate its currency making Chinese exports cheaper. It could also sell (part of) the 1.2 trillion USD it holds of U.S. debt. But China is in no rush to hit back. The recent power grab of Mr. Xi Jingping guarantees he will be president for life. The Chinese president is also no stranger to clamping down on civil freedoms and business regulations when he sees fit. This could come in handy if there were unrests in China because of U.S. imposed trade penalties. China’s ability to go this longterm also makes sense considering its strategic move from a manufacturer of cheaper goods to intelligent manufacturing as laid down in its policy ‘Made in China 2025’. At the end of the day China wants to become Asia’s undisputed regional leader as is evident in the South China Sea. So it’s not unconceivable that Beijing is willing to lose a battle in order to win the war.

How will Curaçao fare?

In practice, a trade war reduces disposal income in U.S. households meaning a real issue for vacationing in the Caribbean region and a slowdown in Curaçao tourism. The economic repercussions of a global trade war could be devastating for the fragile economy of Curaçao which has grown too dependent on tourism. Not only that, huge investments in this sector have not paid off since we haven’t seen any significant economic growth in decades. What makes us more vulnerable for shocks remains the fact that we have failed to build a resilient and a more diversified economy by modernizing economic structures, streamlining business regulations, investing in innovation, education and having a demographic policy that can respond to our aging population and the ever-changing global markets.

At the end, this current stand-off between Washington and Beijing may not turn into a full trade war. But this is not a guarantee it won’t happen, or that it won’t happen in the future. Hopefully we will be spared. I’m afraid however that in that case politicians will happily pass the buck and postpone taking any action to make structural changes. This could bode well for them at the next elections. As for our island, status quo will bode disaster when we consider the dizzying changes the international financial sector faces and alternative tourist destinations. We have a choice.

New York, USA

GZE is gone, questions linger

Debt-ridden Guangdong Zhenrong Energy (GZE) faces the possibility of completely disappearing from the map or getting absorbed by another Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE). This, as a result of a thorough overhaul of many SOEs by the powerful Chinese State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) which embarked on a revamp of its SOEs in 2015 to tackle rising corporate debt and also to make them more profitable. A leading financial newspaper of Southeast Asia has quoted Mr. Xiao Yaqing, the SASAC chairman, wanting “to reduce a lot of ‘zombie enterprises’ and improve the management efficiency”. Whether GZE is specifically considered a zombie SOE cannot be confirmed, at least not at this time. One thing is for sure however, GZE was not at the top of its game when it comes to China’s ambitious One Belt One Road Strategy to make it the world’s strongest economic powerhouse. Far from that. They messed up big time in Myanmar as I reported long before it became news in Curaçao after returning from an assignment from that country at the end of 2016. Funny thing is that GZE showcased its involvement in Myanmar as its visit card to get involved in Curaçao. Most shocking was that I got firsthand knowledge of GZE’s involvement in grave human rights violations by driving people off of their farm lands in order to build what would’ve been a multi-billion dollar refinery in Myanmar.

Yet the Curaçao project team responsible for finding the best international partner to modernize the Curaçao refinery, MDPT, somehow pulled GZE out of a hat and had the Whiteman Administration happily sign on the dotted line. Did the project manager fool everyone? Or, did the whole team get played by the Chinese? Or, did it purposely look away from the ugly facts? Were the Administrations from 2016 onward so eager to score politically (and maybe personally) that they were willing to make a deal with some wannabe refinery experts? Where was the independent press? Did some media outlets feel they had to keep quiet and go with the flow after the GZE paid for a plush trip to China for a group of local media people?

I don’t know if these questions will ever get answered. Hopefully we’ve all gained from these lessons learned. We cannot have the fate of our refinery continue to be in hands of people on solo tours or who consider themselves some kind of superhero. That’s how we lost a lot of valuable time with GZE in the first place. We need transparency. We need politicians who don’t get involved in the technical nitty gritty. We need people to look into the corporate and social behavior of all would-be candidates to run our refinery in the future. We need an independent project team that looks into the real possibilities of redeveloping the prime location that the refinery currently occupies on our island. Nothing is forever, surely not the refinery.

Istanbul, Turkey

2 yüli 2018, 67 aña gobernashon propio

2 di yüli ta un dia históriko. Riba e dia aki na 1951 nos ta marka komienso di gobernashon propio. Kontrali na lokual hopi ta keda ripití sin buska drechi, outonomia no a kuminsá na 1954 ku firmamentu di Statüt, sino ku introdukshon di un konstitushon nobo, yamá Interimregeling riba 7 febrüari 1951. Basá riba e kambio konstitushonal aki, nos promé Konseho Insular a sinta, despues di elekshon riba 4 di yüni 1951 spesialmente pa skohe e representantenan pa e órgano nobo. Pues 2 di yüli ta mas ku solamente Dia di Bandera. E ta selebrashon di 67 aña di gobernashon propio.

E promé elekshon pa Konseho Insular a konosé e siguiente resultado: Partido Nashonal (NVP) ta gana elekshon ku 9 asiento, Partido Demokrat (DP) ta saka 8, Partido Katóliko di Pueblo (KVP) ta saka 3, Partido Independiente di Kòrsou (COP) ta saka 1, i Arbeiderspartij (AP) mihó konosí komo ‘Partido Warawara’, no ta saka ningun hende. AP a sali for di miembronan malkontentu di DP i ta risibí solamente 148 voto. E nòmber ‘warawara’ a keda duná na AP pasombra segun un pamfleta di DP di e tempu ei, warawara ta konosí pa su holó stinki.

E promé 21 miembronan di Konseho Insular di Kòrsou. Pa NVP: Sr. Hendrik Pieters Kwiers, Sr. Ernesto Rozendaal, Sra. Angela de Lannoy-Willems, Sr. Benjamin Römer, Sr. Philip Cohen Henriquez, Sr. Edward Broos, Sr. Romano Tschumie, Sr. Heraclio Henriquez i Sr. Charles Voges. Pa DP: Sr. Efraim Jonckheer, Sr. Ciro Kroon, Sr. Ramez (Ronchi) Isa, Sr. Steef v.d. Meer, Sr. Cornelis (Nene) Hueck, Sra. Louisa Van der Linde-Helmijr, Sr. Julio Rosario i Sr. Tjerk Petzoldt.  Pa KVP: Sr. David Capriles, Sr. Elias Morkos i Sr. J. ‘Jonchi’ Jonckhout. Pa COP: Sr. Philip Evertsz.

E promé diputadonan di Kòrsou tabata: Sr. J. (Jonchi) Jonkhout (KVP), Sr. Philip Cohen Henriquez (NVP), Sr. Ciro Kroon (DP) i Sr. Gerald Sprockel (NVP).

S.E. Gobernador Anton Struycken a hasi e apertura ofishal di Konseho Insular riba 2 yüli 1951 durante un reunion solèm ku a tuma lugá den edifisio di Staten di Antia Ulandes. Den su diskurso e a bisa ku: “Een eigen orgaan voor de behartiging van zijn belangen schept voor Curaçao grotere mogelijkheden dan ooit tevoren om de lens scherper in te stellen op de eigen problemen en mogelijkheden”.

Sr. Michael Gorsira, e promé Presidente di Konseho Insular di Kòrsou, a resumí e importansia di gobernashon propio na final di su diskurso splikando den idioma Papiamentu: “Laga nos tur rekordá ku di awor en adelante nos lo haña e gobièrnu ku nos mes trese na poder i ku nos mes lo mester karga tur responsabilidat pa tur e loke e gobièrnu aki hasi. Laga nos demostrá responsabilidat. Esei lo ta e mihó prueba ku nos por duna ku nos meresé e outonomia ku tantu nos a anhelá”. Historia pues ta mustra ku Sr. Gorsira a na Papiamentu na 1951 den Konseho Insular!

E arkitekto di nos gobernashon propio indudablemente tabata mr. dr. Moises Frumensio da Costa Gomez ku inkansablemente a lucha pa nos outonomia for di dia ku e a regresá su isla natal riba 31 desèmber 1934 despues di a optené su título universitario na Ulanda. E mes no a tuma asiento den Konseho Insular riba 2 di yüli 1951 (e a hasi esaki mas despues) pasombra e kier a konsentrá su mes riba
perfekshoná nos status konstitushonal ku a resultá den nos Statüt.

Yerevan, Armenia

Foto: Nationaal Archief

Government places the economic cart before the horse

You know there’s something terribly wrong when your country starts facing the real possibility of capital flight. This is a process that usually takes place quietly as people export their savings to foreign countries. It wouldn’t surprise me that soon we’ll get to the point when the Central Bank of Curaçao and Sint Maarten will have to shed some light on this issue. Certain is that some key figures of our supreme monetary authority are aware of these disconcerting developments. This would confirm what you frequently hear on the main streets of Curaçao regarding a total lack of trust in our policies, government and even scarier, little hope that things will change in the future.

Stronger economic growth in our country at this point is not about lack of money to invest. Some large local commercial banks have an unhealthy high liquidity ratio as they are finding practically no viable large new projects to finance. We are however in dire need of modern and flexible structures that make it possible to take advantage of the ever-changing global markets. We should embrace innovation and the use of digital platforms. We need to harvest the ‘blue’ economy, the coastal waters surrounding our islands and should understand the potential we have as a producer of renewable energy. We must be able to reach new customers via a network of tax and trade treaties. It’s painfully obvious that heavy reliance on tourism has not led to the desired prosperity.

Government should enable these alternative options, making our island attractive for developing and finding investors for these alternative sectors. Our politicians however, believe that turning around the current economic tide is not to double down on the need to bring about structural changes, but to go across the ocean and go look for investors in The Netherlands. Talk about putting the cart before the horse!

In my opinion, before inviting investors -local and foreign- you’d better have a solid and coherent story on why these investors should even consider you in the first place. What are you going to say about our antiquated and inflexible labor markets? What’s your sales pitch going to be regarding our stifling cost of doing business, low labor productivity, insufficient attention for skilled immigration and brain drain? And while you’re at it, tell them when our deficient monetary union will be fixed and when we’ll stop using the currency of the Netherlands Antilles, a country that since 2010 doesn’t exist anymore. Be prepared when asked why we don’t comply with the World Trade Organization and why we’re about the only ones left in the world without one single trade agreement.

Big structural adjustments are not easy. The eliminating of protection policies for which I was responsible, got a lot of resistance. It was a necessary step, yet by itself it doesn’t even come close to all we need to undertake. But, by making us belief that a trip to Holland to invite investors to come on down will solve our problems is just naive.

Yerevan, Armenia


Café Santa Rosa, the oldest existing bar in Curaçao turns 75

Established on 8 June, 1943, Café Santa Rosa is the oldest existing bar of Curaçao. The bar is situated in Santa Rosa and is known by the older generations as ‘Martins Oranjeboom’ because the founder, Mr. Martins Mademilia, was the importer of Oranjeboom which at that time was a very popular beer. Congratulations to the current owner José ‘Shon Ma’ Mademilia with this anniversary.

The bar was constructed at the height of the Second World War to provide for entertainment at a time when the possibilities for recreation were scarce. It quickly became a resting area for walkers, travellers on donkeys and horses, bus drivers and a meeting point for the population of the greater Santa Rosa.

I grew up not far from Café Santa Rosa. I walked by it everyday on my way to and from school. Entering the bar was out of the question as it was ‘no place for children’. As a matter of fact, I grew up hearing that a lady should never set foot inside. Times have changed. Yet I was never able to convince my mother to come visit the bar when I managed it in 2012.

When the bar turned 65 years the owner gave me green light to look into the possibilities of having the bar assigned the status of monument. Although the process was anything but easy, Café Santa Rosa in 2011 officially became a historic cultural monument. My fears that this piece of historic gem could be converted into a hair and nail salon or something totally weird were put to ease. That’s what I thought at least.

Since 2013 this bar has been managed by people who did not care about its traditions. Not surprisingly traditional bars like Montaña Bar, Welgelegen Bar, Semikòk Bar and Langulé Bar don’t exist anymore precisely because of our shifting values. Café Santa Rosa’s patrons were driven out by the managers who thought the bar should become a Dutch-type bar. The typical local delicacies such as sùlt (pickled pig ear strips) and what were probably the best tentalarias (cashew or peanut sweets) on the island disappeared as did the festive Sundays with kaha di orgel (cylinder piano) music. More disgusting is however that Café Santa Rosa was physically trashed beyond belief: invaluable original pieces of furniture and the interior have damaged beyond recognition.

There is however a light at the end of the tunnel. The owner told those who were running the place to hit the road (they were not even paying rent) and after a long period of cleaning and repairs, Café Santa Rosa will soon be open again. I’m happy to hear that there are some candidates who do care about our history and traditions are willing to start a new chapter in the long tradition of this traditional bar in Santa Rosa. Hopefully there are many people who just like me, are impatient to go back to Martins Oranjeboom to down a yoshi di ròm bèrdè (traditional local green rum served in a traditional measurement glass) and to nibble on some sùlt.

Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

The legacy of Anthony Bourdain

In an era where we seem to be fascinated with how fast people can visit every existing country in the world, Anthony Bourdain thought me that traveling should be of life-changing experiences and stepping out of your comfort zone. It should not be a self-punishing obsession. Mr. Bourdain literally changed the way I travel even though we’ve never met. I guess that’s why I’m not surprised by how personal his loss feels to me.

Since we humans are the only species that cook our food, his approach was to show food as the single unifier of our humanity. He also made us aware that good and interesting food can be found all over the world and not only in a handful, mostly European countries as we have been told by many other food programs. Most importantly, he always let the locals talk and explain their culinary choices.

In a world that’s painfully divided, Mr. Bourdain taught us that difference and otherness whether it’s eating habits, culture, religion or worldview should not be something to be feared, but instead to be embraced. He had a way of making the world much smaller and happier than what we have been told. Through cooking, eating rituals and the desire to share food with family, friends and strangers, he made us aware how truly connected we human beings all are. That will be his lasting legacy in my mind. May he rest in peace.

Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia