H.E. Mike Eman - Prime Minister of Aruba

Smart Media 360:
The onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, the substantial drop in tourism, and the halt in Aruba´s refining activity led to a double-dip recession on the island, and in many parts of the Caribbean. But today, thanks to your implementation of sound macro-economic policies and on-going fiscal consolidation, the Aruban economy is recovering.
Please tell us how, in spite of the particularly challenging global economic situation and some pressure from outside entities like the IMF, you chose to cut taxes, and not reduce social spending, but instead decided to invest strongly in Aruba´s future, and how it is paying off now?
H.E. Prime Minister Mike Eman:
Well, it was an important crossroad when we were elected in 2009. Some years before that, as an opposition party leader and Member of Parliament, we looked at the development of Aruba and analysed that since we had gained our autonomous status within the Kingdom of The Netherlands since 1986, our growth was very fast with the expansion of tourism. We went from having only 2,000 hotel rooms to over 8,000 rooms in 25 years, and from a population of 60,000 to more than 100,000 people. But as we were progressing in that fashion of economic growth, we came to the conclusion that you reach a point of diminishing returns if you just keep on expanding in volume and capacity. Aruba is very much geared towards a Western European social network system where everyone who comes to live here has a minimum wage, general medical insurance and almost free education. 
The hotel industry needs a large workforce, but many of the people who work in hotels are very often earning the minimum wage. Therefore, we found that if it would continue to grow in this manner, just in terms of capacity and volume, that we were missing the opportunity to connect economic growth with well-being. As proud as we were of the enormous growth and the establishment of beautiful hotels, we saw a growing gap between the brand new hotels and the quality of life of the people in our neighbourhoods, schools, and our infrastructure. Even with regards to the income distribution within society. Therefore, long before the economic crisis of 2007-08 hit, and the refinery closed in 2009, we determined that if we were elected we would choose a different socio-economic model where we would focus far more on quality than quantity. 
We wanted to create a better connection between economic growth and well-being and that would call for investment in our neighbourhoods, city renewal projects, public spaces and investment in the purchasing power of the community. Thus we had these ideas and the entire strategy all planned out, but then the crisis of 2007-08 hit and the refinery closed in 2009. This is something that raised before us a fundamental question. 
Now that we have a crisis, and less income available for the government, can we still continue on this path that had been designed when we were not in the middle of this type of crisis? We decided that even though we faced a great crisis with the economic downturn and the global economic crisis, there was now double the reason to do this because other than some who chose to implement austerity measures, in a touristic island such as Aruba, people have to be happy and have faith in the future. If we had decided to cut government spending and fire personnel from public administration, it would be the same situation as some of the things that were happening in Europe at the time, and that would not fit well with the way that we thought we could best overcome the crisis, in the sense that it would be too much austerity. 
Smart Media 360:
You have emphasized in some of your speeches, and from a policy standpoint, that some of the most important work for your administration takes place right here in local neighbourhoods, improving roads & infrastructure, street lighting, pensions, and ensuring access to affordable health care throughout the island.
What have been some of your most successful initiatives in this regard to date, in order to continue ensuring a brighter future for the people of Aruba?
H.E. Prime Minister Mike Eman:
Our most successful effort was that even though Aruba was in the middle of a crisis, we invested in order to come out of the challenging context without the people of Aruba paying for a crisis that they did not cause. This was an international crisis added to the issue of the oil refinery stoppage but we did not pass the bill to the people. Instead we invested. Many people discussed if this was the right thing to do because naturally there are issues of having a deficit and greater debt, but we thought that it was indeed the right decision and saw that our investments helped make Aruba much more beautiful as well as much and more competitive. If you look at the infrastructure of Aruba and compare it with the rest of the Caribbean, as well as the quality of life we are creating and the different improvements that have taken place in various neighbourhoods, schools, and the investment in sustainable energy, these are all things that are bringing Aruba onto the next phase of economic and social development. Our strategy really connects economic growth with the social well-being of people. I often say that we do not want to only have five star hotels, but also five star schools, five star neighbourhoods and five star public spaces where people can walk and enjoy themselves. And that is what we have achieved over the last few years. 
It is interesting that around the world there are different schools of thought. You have economists such as Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz who say that this is the way to go. You have others who say that you must first lower your deficit. In any event, through this policy we achieved the goal of lowering our deficit and next year Aruba will have a historically low deficit of 0.5% of GDP. We have been able to do this with a different policy to austerity. Naturally it is something that has a very long-lasting effect because we did not leave wounds in the community of the sort you typically see with austerity, as well as a sense of pessimism and a loss of faith in the future. 
Smart Media 360:
Aruba is capitalizing on its location to be a regional business hub connecting the Caribbean, Latin America, and The United States and to leverage its close cultural & political links to innovative European countries such as The Netherlands. You mentioned infrastructure development and we know that Aruba is working with Schiphol Airport and the Port of Amsterdam to further boost global connectivity.
Please comment on Aruba´s great potential as a catalyst for trade, investment, business and services between these dynamic regional economic blocs?
H.E. Prime Minister Mike Eman:
What we see as having great potential is the fact that our strategic location puts us very close to huge Latin American markets, the Caribbean and Central America. The people of Aruba have a great variety of skills because we speak four languages. So although we live in Latin America, because of our ties with Europe and The Netherlands we speak Dutch and understand the European culture, but also understand Latin American culture. Aruba can therefore be a translator and means of bringing different people together. We are capitalizing on that by positioning Aruba as a gateway or a showcase for European institutions and companies. Especially in the areas that Aruba is focused on in terms of sustainability. We are attracting important institutions such as TNO, the research institute from The Netherlands. They have established an office in Aruba and work with us on our pathway to sustainable growth. At the same time, all of the knowledge and expertise that we have acquired in Aruba is also very valuable for other islands and countries in the region. We are therefore exporting that knowledge via TNO for instance, to the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America. We are thus creating a new pillar for Aruba based upon knowledge industries. Schiphol is a partner of Aruba and involved in co-managing the Reina Beatrix International Airport. It is a huge airport management company that is also very keen on expanding their airport management contracts with other Latin American and Caribbean countries. The airline KLM has Aruba as a kind of hub for the region. Also a very important agricultural institute from The Netherlands is also in Aruba. 
The Port of Amsterdam recently signed onto a similar arrangement of partnership with the Aruba Ports Authority as the one the Schiphol Group has in place. It enables them to be a partner with Aruba but at the same time look at what the region has to offer. Many countries are developing, expanding and modernizing their ports and the Port of Amsterdam has a great deal of knowledge, so from Aruba they can use the island as a base to export that knowledge, as well as use Aruban experts and professionals that speak the language and understand the business culture of the region. This enables all parties to play a role in that approach towards new markets. That is the way that we are positioning Aruba. 
We also aim to be kind of a showcase for other countries in the world that are aiming to make the conversion to sustainable energy and controlling climate change. 
 Smart Media 360:
Prime Minister Eman your administration has set out a particularly ambitious long-term strategy promoting a flagship green energy vision for Aruba to utilize 100% renewable energy by 2020. You have stated that: “We will not rest until Aruba achieves the first green hour energy, the first green day and week, until reaching the ultimate goal”.
So based upon everything that happened at Green Aruba VII, how are you and your team in the Government of Aruba making the Green Aruba vision a reality today?
H.E. Prime Minister Mike Eman:
For us what is really remarkable and has motivated us very much is that since we announced this ambition at the Rio + 20 Summit together with Sir Richard Branson, we found that so many important institutions around the world have embraced Aruba and are working with us. There are many entities such as the Carbon War Room or the Rocky Mountain Institute, who may otherwise not have noticed a small island, but because they share the aspirations of countries cities and states to make this conversion to renewable energy, an island like Aruba is a great living lab. One can see the progress and since we are 100,000 people here, it is an ideal place to test most of the technologies on the production side of sustainable energy, but also other technologies that are very much under development. As you reach higher levels of penetration of sustainable alternative energy, you get more fluctuation on the grid because wind and sun are intermittent sources of energy. The technology one needs to apply in order to keep the electrical grid´s capacity stable is very important because if you can research and develop it on a small island like Aruba, it can easily be scaled up for a larger country. Accordingly this has created a number of great partners for us and we have been working with Carbon War Room, the Rocky Mountain Institute, TNO of the Netherlands and IRENA. Also the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has chosen Aruba as the location for the Centre of Excellence whereby the best practices of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are accumulated and also shared with others. So by working together with other international institutions that have the same aspirations and the same goals we have been able to make a lot of progress in terms of our aim for 2020. What is also very important is that we are not only looking at the percentage of the capacity but also at how we can ensure the buy-in of the whole community. We do this by bringing it to schools and having the annual Green Aruba Conference and sharing the knowledge with the local community at all levels. 
Smart Media 360:
In this context you have a couple of initiatives underway that are quite interesting for instance an upcoming ban on the utilization of plastic bags. You are also in the initial stages of a “Smart Schools Program” to make local innovations more accessible to youth and foster a greater culture of empowerment and knowledge-sharing. Out of these initiatives, what do you think are some of the most important and which do you believe hold the greatest potential?
H.E. Prime Minister Mike Eman:
One of the most important ones, and I mention this at many of the panels at which I am invited to speak, is the dialogue with the utility companies. For many countries or cities that are not able to make much progress in this area, it is very often due to a disconnect between government ambition and the insecurities that the utility companies sometimes feel when making this transition. Utility companies are very much developed and based upon their years of experience on running turbine engines on diesel and engineers working there as well as the remainder of the staff are very well prepared to handle that technology. So when you start speaking about wanting to become totally sustainable by 2020, some start worrying about their jobs and their future. I very often say that when you need to confront a situation, you “Should not ask a turkey to prepare Thanksgiving dinner”. 
So the question is how do you get utility companies to play along? I think one of the greatest things we can share with other countries is not the technology. The technology for solar panels and windmills is already out there. I think the actual process to get there is very important because there is a lot of resistance due to the reluctance to change as well as insecurity about the future. If you do not get the utility companies aligned with this vision, then it will be practically impossible. And I know from many of my Caribbean partners or colleagues who are Prime Ministers or Ministers of Energy that ask: “how are you doing it, because my utility company doesn´t want to”. I answer that the key is a great deal of dialogue and the Green Aruba Conference has helped us very much in this respect over the years. It is not the Prime Minister saying that climate change is real, and this is what we need to do, but rather my own people hearing it from others who are experts, whether it is former Vice President Al Gore, Sir Richard Branson or Harvard Professors and others who have a great deal of credibility. They can share their insight about how important this is, but also their knowledge about new technologies and the best ways to make this transition, and especially why it is a must in order to ensure the support of the utility companies to go along and actually make it happen. Without the utility companies on board you cannot make it a reality. That is one of the things that we have been investing in, and we will have to continue investing in this area, because of the number and percentage growth and the percentage of the old way of producing energy becomes less important, then it is essential to have a transition and for the engineers to know that within this new future, you also have a job to do. 
Smart Media 360:
Prime Minister Eman, our report features the top leaders in Aruba’s, political, business, scientific and renewable energy community. You have a distinguished track record as a statesman and are now in your second consecutive term.
To conclude our interview, what have been some of your biggest professional satisfactions to date during your two terms in office and what would be your final personal message to the 8 million readers of Newsweek´s print and digital edition about Aruba to encourage them to come and discover this unique island?
H.E. Prime Minister Mike Eman:
What I feel is one of my most important achievements is the connection of sustainability in a broader sense of the word. Something that has captured a lot of attention internationally is our ambition to become totally sustainable by 2020 in the area of energy. But the reality of our drive is to create a sustainable society and one where there is an equitable distribution of wealth, where there is investment in the quality of life of the citizens in the neighbourhoods, the public spaces as well as dialogue and citizen participation. Together, a lot of those elements create the foundation for a sustainable society. 
Although you could be 100% sustainable in terms of energy, you might have very deep inequality in terms of income. Or you might not have a great deal of satisfaction or citizen participation in decision-making processes, or for example, the environment is not well taken care of. These are a series of elements that really play a role in overall socio-economic growth. 
The direction we are following not only achieves a great goal, but is also something that translates to a better quality of life for the citizens. 
Even though we are a small island and went through a big set of challenges, we can look back upon important years of social and economic progress. As I mentioned earlier we want a society that not only has five star hotels, but also five star neighbourhoods, schools, public spaces, and a high quality of life for the citizens. If you drive from Oranjestad to San Nicolas, you will see not only new roads being built but also sidewalks and parks for the people. This enables you to take your whole society to the next level and one in which quality of life is central. I think that this is something that is often overlooked by leaders who may be too focused on big numbers, but they do not consider what it means for a household, and for each citizen. If I look at the recent elections in the United States, one can see that there is a sense of need for greater fairness and more equitable distribution of wealth. It is important for the entire society to feel that they are a part of the progress and that is something that we are trying to do on our own small scale, in order to really create a socio-economic model that is not communistic, it has plenty of free enterprise, but is also equitable and focused on ensuring that everybody moves ahead.  
Smart Media 360:
Prime Minister, thank-you very much for your time and comments.

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