Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Breaking Borders, Breaking Silence: The Common History of Venezuela and Curaçao

Over the following weeks, we will be covering immigration and border control in South and Central America, with posts on Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao and Mexico, as well as the complex relationship between these countries. This new themed ongoing series has been organised by Ana AlivertiRimple Mehta and Andriani Fili, facilitated by Ritika Goyal, as part of their continuing work in expanding Border Criminologies in the Global South and building new networks and partnerships. While the issues highlighted in the posts affect millions of people, most discussions of border control focus upon realities in the Global North. This ongoing series attempts to fill this gap by presenting a view from the Global South. Do get in touch with us if you want to contribute a blog post in English or in Spanish.



Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Paul Mutsaers and Maikel Meijeren. Paul is an assistant professor at Radboud University’s Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, where he is currently working on juvenile justice in ‘transnational Curaçao’ with a specific focus on the postcolonial effects of (juvenile) crime prediction. His previous work centered on police profiling and legitimacy—published in books such as Police Unlimited (OUP) and Cultural Practices of Victimhood (Routledge)—and is now focused on algorithmic crime prediction systems. Maikel is a PhD candidate at Radboud University’s Department of Sociology in the project Volunteering for helping refugees in the Netherlands: Building a common identity. Before that he was one of the fieldworkers in the juvenile justice project in Curaçao.

Curaçao, not an easy life. Photo of the Bon Futuro prison by Maikel Meijeren

Curaçao is the sort of island where you hope the plane’s braking system is in perfect order, because in your mind’s eye you are already crashing into the sea even though you were sure you hit land first. It is located in the southern Caribbean, where it is sheltered from the vast ocean by the archipelago in the east. Travel 450 miles to the north and you arrive at what Columbus once dubbed Hispaniola; embark southwards on one of the small boats that normally stock Willemstad’s floating market with Venezuelan fruit, and the mainland (formerly known as the Tierra Firme) is within a few hours’ reach. Although now it is mostly a forgotten island that in Dutch politics is considered marginal at best or a transatlantic distributer of narcotics at worst, things were once very different. Consider Rupert’s opening passage in Creolization and Contraband: Curaçao in the Early Modern Atlantic World:

A 1786 townscape shows the bustling port of Willemstad…Several full-masted ocean-going ships stand in and just outside the harbor. A dozen Dutch flags fly from these vessels and from official buildings. In the center of the drawing, securely ensconced behind the walls and protected by an imposing row of cannon, is Fort Amsterdam, seat of the Dutch West India Company. Surrounding the fort is the town, which, over the previous hundred years, had grown from a tiny outpost to become a thriving regional trade center.

Last year Curaçao regained some of its strategic importance, not as the inter-colonial trade post it once was but as a military hub on which President Trump had laid eyes to shape US foreign policy towards a collapsing Venezuela, while alluding to a restoration of the centuries-old Monroe Doctrine as a justification of US intervention in opposition to European intrusions in the Americas (in a similar vein, Trump had undermined European efforts with new US sanctions against the Maduro government, which sabotaged the 2019 peace talks in Norway between the Maduro government and Guaidó’s opposition).

Curaçao already hosts a US military Forward Operating Location (FOL) at Hato International Airport since the early 2000s. In June 2020, four US Air Force aircrafts and crew were deployed there to help the US control drug trafficking in the region. FOLs are scalable facilities that can be upgraded for military action and Hato’s could thus easily become a target, putting the lives of Curaçaoans in danger when a conflict between the US and Venezuela would spin out of control.

No wonder that Curaçaoans follow US military steps and their Dutch approval with deep concern. Moreover, US sanctions towards Venezuela had already brought the food trade between Coro and Willemstad to a grinding halt and gave the final blow to the already faltering oil industry on the island; developments which surely contributed to the growing unemployment, from 13.4% in 2018 to a staggering 21.2% in 2019 (and growing, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which greatly affects Curaçao’s other economic force, next to oil: tourism).

Yet, while Trump and Maduro were at loggerheads, Venezuelan arrivals became the prime target of xenophobic attitudes on the island, as Natalie Dietrich Jones recently argued in the first Border Criminologies post about the “Dutch” Caribbean. Based on a study of government responses in Aruba, Curaçao, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago to the Venezuelan migration crisis, she describes the situation of Venezuelans in Curaçao as the very bottom of hardships. In contrast to the ‘bon bini’ reception (the warm welcome) of affluent tourists on the island, Venezuelans encounter a borderized space where interdiction, detention and deportation await them. In a parliamentary address, the Governor of Curaçao had framed incoming Venezuelans as delinquents, illegal workers and prostitutes—the exact same frames that Curaçaoans have generally been given by ultranationalist Dutch politicians to stop the ‘exodus’ from west to east within the Dutch kingdom. Such is the hierarchy of mobility.   

Our own ethnographic observations confirm Jones’ findings. When we were in Willemstad in 2018 to start up a ‘decolonizing childhoods’ research project on juvenile justice (a topic for another post), officials within the ministry encouraged us to be on the lookout for Venezuelan youngsters in particular. We cannot say without a good deal of qualification that their remark was purely hostile. For all we know, they were genuinely concerned about this group, whom they considered to be exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation, human trafficking and prostitution (see also this Strategic Alert from Clingendael)—‘factors’ that were considered to be ‘predictive’ of juvenile delinquency, to put it in the jargon of the ‘risk factorology’ that the authorities on the island had copied from its metropole.   

Still, it is hard to miss the lure of autochthony when one listens to islanders talking in Curaçaoan lingo about the Yu di Kòrsou, the children of Curaçao (see also the work of Francio Guadeloupe and Rose Mary Allen). Yu di Kòrsou began as a decolonizing discourse that excluded whites and was centered on island sovereignty, but it was soon hijacked by politicians like Helmin Wiels and his Pueblo Soberano—Party for the Sovereignty of the People—to keep ‘fortune seekers’ out (a very Dutch concept: gelukszoekers, which alludes to migrants who come to profit from the host country).

Currently, Venezuelans take the brunt of such nativist discourses of home and belonging, following in the footsteps of Haitians and other unfortunate people struck by the multiplication of violence and disaster. In this dark humanitarian crisis, however, Jones sees the flickering of a weak light in the pending judgement of a claim brought into the European Court of Human Rights by a group of detained Venezuelans against the Netherlands. Such litigation is immensely important, but we’d like to end this post by going one level deeper and reactivate our memory of a ‘silenced past’ in which the tables were turned.

For once, relations between Venezuela and Curaçao were of a very different nature. In Curaçao in the Age of Revolutions, 1795-1800, several historians zoom in on the close historical relation between Curaçao and the Tierra Firme, especially the area that we now know as Venezuela. Already in 1675, maritime traffic increased substantially after the Dutch West India Company had decided to open Curaçao to free trade, a very unusual move at the time because it stimulated the island’s role in inter-colonial commerce (much of it with Coro). Such inter-colonial trade of goods and (enslaved) people was considered illegal by most other colonial powers, but considerations of that sort meant very little to Dutch ‘fortune seekers’ (privateers, human traffickers, etc.) who profited greatly from the Spanish Main, which was opened up as a vast economic hinterland for Curaçao. Such maritime connections gave Curaçao an economic significance well beyond its size.

At the same time, the Spanish mainland often served as a relative safe haven for runaway slaves from the Dutch colonies. Slavery under Dutch command was exceptionally harsh (see for example Anton de Kom on Suriname or Marjoleine Kars on Berbice) and many enslaved people in the Guineas (the Wild Coast area) sought freedom in the tropical rain forest. Curaçao, however, was way too small for internal marronage. Most runaway slaves therefore opted to canoe or sail to the Spanish Main, embarking on the same risky journey that many Venezuelans face today, moving in the opposite direction.

While much of the history of inter-colonial marronage still remains to be written, archives mention the presence of marooned Africans from Curaçao in present-day Venezuela—where they participated in the Coro slave revolt in 1795—but also their involvement in a maroon community in Santo Domingo or slave conspiracies in Louisiana and in Cuba in the 1790s (see the chapter by Wim Klooster). Slave agency and resistance were very much entangled with both legal and illegal forms of mobility across the region and for a long time Curaçao was pivotal in a complex inter-colonial network in which goods (including contraband), (revolutionary) ideas and (enslaved) people were traded in a way that was considered legal by some but illegal by others.

As the title of Linda Rupert’s earlier mentioned book indicates: such exchange and mobility led to the sort of creolization that Thomas Hylland Eriksen recently celebrated as a ‘recipe for conviviality’; a social ontology whereby difference is not a threat but a precondition for people to adapt their social organization to new circumstances. Since mass displacement stood at the cradle of Creoldom, both Curaçao and its metropole, the Netherlands, are advised to move beyond their selective historical amnesia and think of new ways to live together with people who need them now more than ever before.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Mutsaers, P. and Meijeren, M. (2021). Breaking Borders, Breaking Silence: The Common History of Venezuela and Curaçao. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/04/breaking-borders [date]

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