Blog: From Brexit to CuraCiao: who takes the country back?

Confronting Caribbean Challenges researcher, Sanne Rotmeijer, is just back from almost a year doing fieldwork on Curaçao and St. Maarten. She shares her perspective on identity, belonging, and what Brexit and nationalist discourse on Curaçao have in common.

“It’s a mindset,” the woman behind the desk at the local phone shop said. After 30 years of living on St. Maarten, she explained, she still feels at home in Curaçao. “I came to St. Maarten for my job, but never intended to stay for such a long time. As soon as I’m retired I’ll go back to the island I belong to.”

A Post Fieldwork Blues
This was one of the many encounters during my 10-months’ of fieldwork in Curaçao and St. Maarten, both ‘Dutch’ Caribbean (is)lands, that illustrates the many expressions of belonging – a topic central to my research as well as to my current state of mind, which could best be described as ‘post fieldwork blues’. Having recently returned from my fieldwork, ‘being back’ just doesn’t quite say it. Indeed, it feels like I’ve just left what I called ‘home for the past 10 months.

Living ‘in between’
I am definitely not the first PhD student to feel that s/he is ‘in between’. And this sense of multiple belonging reflects a more general human experience in today’s globalized world – a world in which digital connections and migration have made borders less important, while also deepening questions of belonging. The composition of our societies change, and our identities become more complex. And while fewer borders broadens our world this simultaneously creates contradictory feelings of preserving what is ‘ours’.

From Brexit…
Indeed, nationalist movements are on the rise worldwide. With the UK’s EU referendum fresh in our memories, the nationalist discourse to close borders to immigration and to take back ‘a country they feel belongs to them’, inherent to the pro-Brexit campaign, now dominates many political debates throughout Europe and the US. Donald Trump confirmed that he was pleased with the outcome because the British people have taken ‘their country back.’

…to CuraCiao?
Similar nationalist movements are evident on the Dutch islands, where in the lead up to and since the constitutional change in 2010 debates about ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and shared national identities have become more powerful. The upcoming elections in September 2016 – following the government crises in Curaçao and St. Maarten last autumn- could provide a platform for local politicians using nationalist rhetoric votes. As United People’s party Member of Parliament on St. Maarten, Theo Heyliger, said last week: “It is time for us as a people to rise up and show that we want our country back.” In Curaçao, during last weekend’s ‘Dia di Bandera’ (Day of the Flag/Curaçao Day) local politicians called for independence, while on Facebook -partly due to my colleague’s opinion survey– people discussed whether ‘Crexit’ or ‘CuraCiao’ will be the next step.

Politics of belonging
At first glance, the reasons behind these nationalist movements seem to differ. During my fieldwork, people showed me that nation-building and reclaiming one’s land are inevitable for decolonization in the Caribbean. In contrast, critics point out that Britain’s imperial legacy and white supremacist discourses (among other things) resulted in votes for Brexit. The question is to what extent the nationalist movements vary. It’s important to look at what is said, but also at who is speaking. Nationalist movements are often led by politicians whose actions are dictated by political interests and claims. Indeed, Britain’s politicians have their agendas, and so do those in the Caribbean. Nationalist rhetoric is often used to ‘win souls with honeysweet words and to exert power over people. In this way, ‘taking the country back’ may primarily be a political strategy to influence peoples’ mindsets, instead of representing a shared sense of belonging.

(Sanne Rotmeijer is a PhD Candidate working on her research ‘Media in the Antilles: Identities, Politics, and Change,’ which is part of the ‘Confronting Caribbean Challenges’ project. Her research focuses on how Curacaoan and St. Maarten news media reflect and shape discourses of (trans)national identities in the lead up to and since the constitutional reform of the Antilles in 2010.)

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