1969 Curaçao uprising
The 1969 Curaçao uprising (known as Trinta di Mei in Papiamentu, the local language) was a series of riots on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, then part of the Netherlands Antilles, a semi-independent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. They took place mainly on May 30, but continued until June 1, 1969. They arose from a strike by workers in the oil industry. A protest rally during the strike turned violent and led to widespread looting and destruction of buildings and vehicles in the central business district of Curaçao's capital, Willemstad.
A number of causes for the uprising have been cited. The island's economy, after decades of prosperity brought about by the oil industry, particularly a Shell refinery, was in decline and unemployment on the rise. Curaçao, a former colony of the Netherlands, became part of the semi-independent Netherlands Antilles under a 1954 Charter. Under this arrangement, it was still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which anti-colonial activists decried as a continuation of colonial rule. Dutch colonialism was built on black slavery. After slavery was abolished in 1863, black Curaçaoans continued to face racism and discrimination. They did not participate fully in the riches resulting from Curaçao's economic prosperity and were disproportionately affected by the rise in unemployment. Black power sentiments were spreading, mirroring developments in the United States and across the Caribbean, of which Curaçaoans were very much aware. The Democratic Party dominated local politics, but was unable to fulfill its promises of maintaining prosperity. In the 1960s, radical and socialist ideas were spreading. This was partly driven by the magazine Vitó, published in the local creole Papiamentu, unlike most writing which was in Dutch. In 1969, a labor dispute arose between a Shell sub-contractor and its employees. This dispute escalated and became increasingly political. A demonstration by workers and labor activists on May 31 became violent and led to rioting and looting.
The uprising left two people dead and much of central Willemstad destroyed; hundreds were arrested. It achieved most of its immediate demands, higher wages for workers and the Antillean government's resignation. It was a pivotal moment in the history of Curaçao and of the vestigial Dutch Empire. New parliamentary elections in September gave the uprising's leaders seats in the Estates of the Netherlands Antilles. A commission investigated the riots and put the blame on economic issues, racial tensions, and police and government misconduct. The uprising prompted the Dutch government to undertake new efforts to fully decolonize what was left of its colonial empire. This led to nearby Suriname becoming independent in 1975. The uprising also caused distrust in Aruba, another Antillean island, which then seceded from the Netherlands Antilles in 1986. Papiamentu gained social prestige and more widespread use after the uprising. The uprising was followed by a renewal in Curaçaoan literature, much of which dealt with local social issues. It also sparked discussions about Curaçao's national identity.
Background and causesEdit
Curaçao is an island in the Caribbean which is a country (Dutch: land) within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1969, it had a population of around 141,000, of whom 65,000 lived in the capital, Willemstad. Until 2010, it was the most populous island and seat of government of the country Netherlands Antilles, the former Dutch colony in the Caribbean comprising six islands.
In the 19th century the island's economy was in poor shape. It had few industries other than dyewood, salt, and straw hats. After the Panama Canal was built and oil was discovered in Venezuela's Maracaibo Basin, Curaçao's economic situation changed for the better. Shell opened a refinery in 1918; it was continually expanded until 1930. The plant's production peaked in 1952, when it employed around 11,000 people. This economic boom attracted a number of immigrants, particularly from other Caribbean islands, Suriname, Madeira, and the Netherlands. Thereafter, the number of people working in the oil industry shrank. By 1969, Shell only employed around 4,000 people. This was a result both of automation and of sub-contracting. Employees of sub-contractors typically received lower wages than Shell workers. Unemployment rose from 5,000 in 1961 to 8,000 to 1966. Nonwhite, unskilled workers were particularly affected. The government focused on attracting tourism. Though this brought some economic growth, it did little to reduce unemployment.
The rise of the oil industry had led to a number of civil servants being brought in, mostly from the Netherlands. This led to a segmentation of Curaçaoan society into landskinderen, those who had been in Curaçao for generations, and makamba, the new inhabitants from Europe. The latter had closer ties to the Netherlands and spoke Dutch, while the former spoke Papiamentu and had a more pronounced Antillean identity. Dutch cultural dominance in Curaçao was a source of conflict. For example, the island's official language was Dutch and this was the language used in schools. This created difficulties for many students.
Another issue that would come to the fore in the uprising was the Netherlands Antilles', and specifically Curaçao's, relationship with the Netherlands. Its status had been changed in 1954 by the Charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Under the charter, the Netherlands Antilles, like Suriname until 1975, was a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but not of the Netherlands itself. Foreign policy and national defense were Kingdom matters and presided over by the Council of Ministers of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which consisted of the full Council of Ministers of the Netherlands with one minister plenipotentiary for each of the countries Netherlands Antilles and Suriname. Other issues, however, were governed at a more local level, that of the country (Netherlands Antilles) or island (Curaçao). Although this system had its proponents, who pointed to the fact that managing its own foreign relations and national defense would be too costly for a small country like Curaçao, many Antilleans saw it as a continuation of the area's subaltern colonial status.
Dutch colonialism in the Caribbean was built on black slavery. The Dutch colonization of Curaçao itself began with the importation of slaves in 1641 and in 1654 the island became the Caribbean's main slave depot. Only in 1863, much later that Britain or France, did the Netherlands abolish slavery in its colonies. Blacks in Curaçao continued to be hit disproportionately by poverty and face racism and discrimination. Though 90% Curaçao's population was of African descent, the spoils of the economic prosperity that began in the 1920s benefited whites and recent immigrants much more than black native Curaçaoans. Though Curaçao, like the rest of the Netherlands Antilles, was formally democratic, political power was monopolized by white elites. In many ways, black Curaçaoans' situation was similar to that of blacks in the U.S. and Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, or Barbados. The movement leading up to the 1969 uprising therefore used many of the same symbols and rhetoric as black power and civil rights movements in those countries. A high Antillean government official would later claim that the island's wide-reaching mass media was one of the uprising's causes. People in Curaçao were well aware of events in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. In addition to their access to media, many Antilleans traveled abroad, including many who studied abroad. Moreover, many tourists from the U.S. and the Netherlands visit Curaçao and many workers from abroad work in Curaçao's oil industry. Therefore, Curaçao's inhabitants were very much aware of global events. The uprising would parallel anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist movements throughout the world. It was particularly influenced by the Cuban Revolution. Government officials in Curaçao would falsely claim that Cuban communists were directly involved in sparking the uprising. However, the revolution did have an indirect influence in that it inspired many of the participants. Many of the uprising's leaders donned khaki uniforms similar to those worn by Fidel Castro. Similarly, black power movements were emerging throughout the Caribbean and in the United States at the time. Foreign black power figures were also not directly involved in the 1969 uprising, but they did inspire many of its participants.
Another issue that contributed to the uprising lay in local politics. The Democratic Party (DP) had been in power in the Netherlands Antilles since 1954. A center-left party, the DP was more closely connected to the labor movement than its major rival, the National People's Party (NVP). It made promises of improving workers' conditions that it was unable to make good on. Meanwhile, the DP was also mainly associated with the white segments of the working class and blacks criticized it for primarily advancing white interests. The 1960s also saw the rise of radicalism in Curaçao. Many students went to the Netherlands for studies and some returned with radical left-wing ideas. They founded the Union Reformista Antillano (URA) in 1965. It established itself as a socialist alternative to the established parties, though it was more reformist than revolutionary in outlook. Beyond parliamentary politics, the Vitó movement emerged. Vitó was a magazine at the center of a movement aiming to put an end to the economic and political exploitation of the masses thought to be a result of neo-colonialism. When Vitó started being published in Papiamentu rather than Dutch in 1967, it gained a mass following. It had close ties with radical elements in the labor movement. Papa Godett, a leader in the dock workers' union, worked with Stanley Brown, the editor of Vitó.
Although a progressive priest had warned that "great changes still need to come through a peaceful revolution, because, if this doesn’t happen peacefully, the day is not far off when the oppressed [...] will rise up", Curaçao was thought an unlikely site for political turmoil, despite low wages, high unemployment, and economic disparities between blacks and whites. This tranquility was attributed by the island's government to the strength of family ties. In a 1965 pitch to investors, the government ascribed the absence of a communist party and labor unions' restraint to the fact that "Antillean families are bound together by unusually strong ties and therefore extremist elements have little chance to interfere in labor relations." Labor relations, including those between Shell and the refinery's workers, had indeed generally been fairly peaceful. After two minor strikes in the 1920s, a contract committee for Shell workers was established after a strike in 1936. Only from 1942 on did workers, though only those with Dutch nationality, have the right to elect their representatives on this committee. In 1955, the American CIO's Puerto Rican section aided the workers in launching the Petroleum Workers' Federation of Curaçao (PWFC). In 1957, the Federation reached a collective bargaining agreement.
The PWFC was part of the General Conference of Trade Unions (AVVC), the island's largest labor confederation. The AVVC generally took a moderate stance in labor negotiations and was often criticized for this, and for its close relationship to the Democratic Party, by the more radical parts of the Antillean labor movement. Such close relations between unions and political leaders were widespread in Curaçao, though few unions were explicitly allied with a particular party. These relations were, however, starting to become more distant and the labor movement was gaining independence. The Curaçao Federation of Workers (CFW), another union in the AVVC, represented construction workers employed by the Werkspoor Caribbean Company, a Shell sub-contractor. It was to play an important role in the events that led to the uprising. Among the unions criticizing the AVVC was the General Dock Workers Union (AHU), led by Papa Godett and Amador Nita. It was guided by a revolutionary ideology seeking to overthrow the remnants of Dutch colonialism, especially discrimination against blacks. Godett was closely allied with Stanley Brown, the editor of Vitó. The labor movement in the time before the 1969 uprising was very fragmented and personal animosity between labor leaders further exacerbated this situation.
In May 1969, there was a labor dispute between the CFW and Werkspoor. It revolved around two central issues. For one, Antillean Werkspoor employees received lower wages than workers from the Netherlands or other Caribbean islands as compensation for the latter working away from home. Secondly, Werkspoor employees performed the same work as Shell employees but received lower wages. Werkspoor's response pointed to the fact that it could not afford to pay higher wages under its contract with Shell. Vitó was heavily involved in the strike, helping to keep the conflict in the public consciousness. Though the dispute between CFW and Werkspoor received the most attention, that month there was significant labor unrest taking place throughout the Netherlands Antilles.
On May 6, around 400 Werkspoor employees went on strike. The Antillean Werkspoor workers received support and solidarity both from non-Antilleans at Werkspoor and from other Curaçaoan unions. On May 8, this strike ended with an agreement to negotiate a new contract with government mediation. These negotiations failed, leading to a second strike starting on May 27. As the conflict progressed, more radical leaders like Amador Nita and Papa Godett gained more influence. On May 29, as a moderate labor figure was about read a declaration announcing a compromise and postponing a strike, Nita took that man's notes and read a declaration of his own. He demanded that the government resign and threatened a general strike. Shell employees and other contractors' employees working for Shell then struck in solidarity with Werkspoor employees. That same day, thirty to forty workers marched to Fort Amsterdam, the Antillean government's seat, contending that the government itself was contributing to wages being kept low. While the strike was led by the CFW, the PWFC, under pressure from its rank and file, showed solidarity with the strike. It decided to call for a strike to support the Werkspoor workers.
On the morning of May 30, more unions announced strikes in support of the CFW's struggle against Werkspoor. Some three to four thousand workers gathered at a strike post. While the CFW emphasized that this was merely an economic dispute, Papa Godett, the dock workers' leader and Vitó activist, advocated a political struggle in his speech to the strikers. He called for another march to Fort Amsterdam, which was seven miles away in downtown Willemstad. By the time this march started moving towards the city center, some 5,000 workers, most of them black, took part and as it progressed through the city more joined. There were no protest marshals and leaders had little control over the crowd's actions.
The march started becoming increasingly violent. First, a pick-up truck with a white driver was set on fire and two stores were looted. Then, large commercial buildings including a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a Texas Instruments factory were attacked and marchers entered the buildings to halt production. Texas Instruments had a poor reputation because it had prevented unionization among its employees. Housing and public buildings, on the other hand, were generally spared. Once it became aware, the police moved to stop the rioting and called for assistance from both the local volunteer militia and Dutch troops stationed in Curaçao. The police, with the mere sixty officers at the scene unable to halt the march, wound up enveloped by the demonstration, with cars attempting to hit them.
The police moved to secure a hill on the march route. There, Papa Godett was shot in the back by the police. He would claim that the police had orders to kill him personally, while law enforcement claimed that officers had only done what was necessary to save their own lives. The police was attacked with a fire truck that had been sent to support them and whose driver was shot and killed. They were also pelted with rocks. Meanwhile, Godett was taken to the hospital by members of the demonstration. Parts of the march followed him there. The main part of the march moved on to Willemstad's central business district, Punda. There the crowd broke up into smaller groups. Some moved across a bridge to the other side of Sint Anna Bay, an area known as Otrabanda. The first building burned in Otrabanda was a shop that had been criticized by Vitó for having particularly poor working conditions. From this store, flames spread to other buildings. A number of additional stores, on both sides of the bay, were looted and subsequently set on fire, as was an old theater. There was an attempt to damage the bridge that crossed the bay.
Police, local volunteers, firemen, and Dutch marines fought hard to stop the rioting, put out fires set in looted buildings, and guard banks and other key buildings while thick plumes of dark smoke emanated from the city center. However, many of the buildings in this part of Willemstad were old and burned easily. The compact nature of the central business district further hampered firefighting efforts. In the afternoon, clergymen put out a statement over the radio urging the looters to stop. Meanwhile, union leaders announced that they had reached a compromise with Werkspoor. Under this deal Shell workers would receive equal wages whether they were employed by contractors or not and independently of their national origin.
Despite the struggle's economic aims having been achieved, rioting continued throughout the night. It slowly abated on May 31. The uprising's focus shifted from economic demands to political goals. Union leaders, both radical and moderate, demanded that the government resign, threatening a general strike. Workers broke into a radio station, forcing it to broadcast this demand. They argued that failed economic and social policy had led to the grievances that led to the uprising. On May 31, Curaçaoan labor leaders met with union representatives from Aruba, also part of the Netherlands Antilles. The Aruban delegates agreed with the demand for the government's resignation, announcing that Aruban workers, too, would go on a general strike should it be ignored. By the night of May 31 to June 1, however, the violence had ceased. Another 300 Dutch marines arrived on the island on June 1 to maintain order.
All in all, the uprising cost two lives, identified as A. Gutierrez and A. Doran, and injuries to 22 police officers and 57 others and led to a total of 322 arrests. 43 businesses and 10 other buildings were burned in the course of the riots and 190 buildings were damaged or looted. Thirty vehicles were destroyed by fire. The total damage caused by the uprising was around 40 million US dollars. The looting was, however, highly selective: businesses owned by whites were primarily targeted, while tourists were not. In fact, in some cases rioters led tourists caught up in the disturbance to their hotels to protect them. Nevertheless, the riots drove away most tourists and damaged the island's reputation as a tourist destination. On May 31, Amigoe di Curaçao, a local newspaper, declared that with the uprising "the leaden mask of a carefree, untroubled life in the Caribbean Sea was ripped from part of Curaçao, perhaps forever." The riots evoked a wide range of emotions among the island's population: "Everyone was crying" when it ended, claimed one observer. There was pride that Curaçaoans had finally stood up for themselves. Some were ashamed that it had come to this or ashamed of having taken part. Others were angry at the rioters, at the police, or at the social wrongs that had given rise to it all.
The uprising achieved both its economic demands, wage equality for Shell workers, and its political demands. On June 2 all parties in the Estates of the Netherlands Antilles, pressured by the Chamber of Commerce, which feared further strikes and violence, agreed to dissolve that body. On June 5, Prime Minister Ciro Domenico Kroon, who went into hiding during the uprising, submitted his resignation to the Governor of the Netherlands Antilles Cola Debrot. Elections for the Estates were set for September 5. On June 26, an interim government headed by new Prime Minister Gerald Sprockel took charge of the Netherlands Antilles.
The uprising was a pivotal moment in the history of Curaçao, contributing to the end of white minority rule. It led to the formation of a new political party, the May 30 Labor and Liberation Front (Frente Obrero Liberashon 30 Di Mei, abbreviated FOL), in June of the same year. The three main leaders of the party were all involved in the uprising: Papa Godett and Amador Nita in the dock workers' union and Stanley Brown as publisher of Vitó. All three were arrested during the uprising and Brown was still in prison when the party was founded. The FOL contested the September 5, 1969 elections against the Democratic Party, the National People's Party and the URA with Godett as its top candidate. It campaigned on the populist anti-colonial and anti-Dutch messages voiced during the uprising, espousing black pride and a positive Antillean identity. One of its campaign posters depicted Kroon, the former Prime Minister and the Democratic Party's main candidate, shooting protesters. The FOL managed to win three of the twenty-two seats in the Estates, with the aforementioned leaders taking those seats. In December, Ernesto Petronia of the Democratic Party became the Netherlands Antilles' first black Prime Minister, with the FOL part of the coalition government. In 1970, the Dutch government also named Ben Leito the first black governor of the Netherlands Antilles.
In October of the same year, a commission similar to the Kerner Commission in the United States was established to investigate the uprising. Five of its members were Antillean, while three were Dutch. It released its report one year after the event, in May 1970, after gathering data, conducting interviews, and holding hearings. It concluded that the primary causes for the riots were racial tensions and disappointed economic expectations. The report was critical of the conduct of the police and recommended appointing a Lieutenant Governor with police experience and this advice was followed. Patronage appointments were also reduced in keeping with the commission's recommendations. Most of its suggestions as well as its criticism of government and police conduct, however, were ignored. The commission also pointed to a contradiction between the demand for national independence and economic prosperity: according to the report, independence would almost certainly lead to economic decline.
The labor movement's relationship to politics was changed by Trinta di Mei. Unions had been close to political parties and the government for several reasons: They had not existed for very long and were still gaining their footing. Secondly, the government played an important role in economic development and, finally, workers' and unions' position vis-à-vis employers was comparatively weak and they relied on the government's help. The events in 1969 both expressed a more distant relationship between labor and the state and accelerated this estrangement. They were now more distinct entities, though still trying to influence one another. Labor was now willing to take a militant position against the state. Unions and the state both realized that labor was a force in Curaçaoan society. Moreover, the government was accused of letting workers down, even using force to put their struggle down. Unions' relationship with employers changed in a similar way. The latter would now be forced to recognize labor as a force to be reckoned with.
On June 1, 1969, 300 to 500, some of them Antillean students, marched in support of the struggle in Curaçao and clashed with police in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government. They denounced the deployment of Dutch troops and called for Antillean independence. The 1969 uprising would turn out to be a watershed moment in the decolonization of Dutch possessions in America. Images of Dutch soldiers patrolling the streets of Willemstad with machine guns went around the world. Much of the press viewed Dutch involvement as a neo-colonial intervention. The Indonesian War of Independence, in which the former Dutch East Indies broke away from the Netherlands in 1940's and in which some 150,000 Indonesians and 5,000 Dutch lost their lives, was still on the Dutch public's mind. In January 1970, consultations about independence between Joop Bakker, the Dutch Minister for Surinamese and Antillean Affairs, Surinamese Prime Minister Jules Sedney, and Petronia commenced. The Dutch government, fearing after Trinta di Mei that it could be forced into a military intervention, wanted to release the Antilles and Suriname into independence. "It would be preferably today rather than tomorrow that the Netherlands would get rid of the Antilles and Suriname", as Bakker put it. Yet, the Netherlands insisted it did not wish to force independence on the two countries. Deliberations over the next years revealed that this would be a difficult task, as Antilleans and the Surinamese were concerned about losing Dutch nationality and Dutch development aid. In 1973, both countries rejected a Dutch proposal for a path to independence. This impasse was suddenly overcome with respect to Suriname in 1974 when new administrations took power in both the Netherlands and Suriname. Feverish negotiations resulted in Surinamese independence on November 25, 1975.
The Netherlands Antilles resisted any swift move to independence. It insisted that national sovereignty would only be an option once it had "attained a reasonable level of economic development", as its Prime Minister Juancho Evertsz put it in 1975. By the end of the 1980s, the Netherlands accepted that the Antilles would not be fully decolonized in the near future. Aruba, however, would secede from the Netherlands Antilles. Aruban separatism dated back to the 1930s, but never really came to a head until after the 1969 uprising in Curaçao. Unlike the black-majority Curaçao, most Arubans were of mixed European and Native descent. Though Aruba was just 117 kilometers away from Curaçao, there had long been resentment about being ruled from Willemstad. Aruban distrust of Curaçao was further stoked by Trinta di Mei, particularly the black power sentiments voiced therein. The Aruban island government started working towards separation from the Antilles in 1975 and Aruba became a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in its own right in 1986. Eventually, in 2010, insular nationalism would lead to the Netherlands Antilles being completely dissolved and Curaçao becoming a country as well.
Among the lasting effects of the uprising was Papiamentu becoming more prestigious and more widely used in official contexts. Papiamentu, a Creole language, was spoken by most Curaçaoans, but its use was shunned – children who spoke it on school playgrounds were punished. According to Frank Martinus Arion, a Curaçaoan writer, "Trinta di Mei allowed us to recognize the subversive treasure we had in our language". It empowered Papiamentu speakers and sparked discussions about the use of the language. Vitó, the magazine that had played a large part in the build-up to the uprising, had long called for Papiamentu to become Curaçao's official language once it became independent of the Netherlands. Indeed, it was recognized as an official language on the island, along with English and Dutch, in 2007. Curaçaoan parliamentary debate is now conducted in Papiamentu and most radio and television broadcasts are in this language. Primary schools teach in Papiamentu while secondary schools still teach in Dutch. Trinta di Mei also accelerated the standardization and formalization of Papiamentu orthography, a process begun in the 1940s.
The events of May 30 and the situation that spawned them were reflected in local literature. Papiamentu was considered by many devoid of any artistic quality, but after the uprising literature in the language blossomed. According to Igma M. G. van Putte-de Windt, it was only in the 1970s after the May 30 uprising that an "Antillean dramatic expression in its own right" emerged. Just days before the uprising, Stanley Bonofacio premiered Kondená na morto (Sentenced to death), a play about the justice system in the Netherlands Antilles. It was banned for a time after the riots. After Trinta di Mei, ideas like black power or "black is beautiful" were reflected in local writings. In 1970, Edward A. de Jongh published the novel 30 di Mei 1969: E dia di mas historiko (May 30, 1969: The most historic day). Pacheco Domacassé wrote the plays Tula about a 1795 slave revolt in Curaçao in 1971 and in 1973 Konsenshi di un pueblo (A people's conscience), which deals with government corruption and ends in a revolt reminiscent of the May 30 uprising. Curaçaoan poetry after Trinta di Mei, too, was rife with calls for independence, national sovereignty, and social justice.
The uprising left questions concerning Curaçaoan national identity to be answered. Whereas prior to Trinta di Mei one's place in society was determined largely by one's race, such hierarchies and classifications were put into question by the events. This left open the question of Curaçaoan national identity. There were debates about whether Afro-Curaçaoans were the only true Curaçaoans and to what extent the Dutch and Sephardic Jews that had been present throughout Curaçao's colonial period and more recent immigrants belonged. In the 1970s, there were formal attempts at nation-building. An island anthem was introduced in 1979, an island Hymn and Flag Day instituted in 1984, and resources were devoted to promoting the island's culture. Papiamentu became central to Curaçaoan identity. More recently, civic values, rights of participation, and a common political knowledge are said to have become key issues in determining national identity.
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