- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

ORANJESTAD, Aruba — Arriving at Queen Beatrix Airport of the island of Aruba, visitors are struck by a gentle and refreshing breeze from the northeast.

Aruba is a prosperous and proud part of the Dutch Caribbean, with no abject poverty and few political problems. It is also an autonomous part of the kingdom of the Netherlands where nearly everybody speaks at least three foreign languages.

The trip from the airport to the capital takes less than 10 minutes, and the hotel strip with its high-rises is another 10 minutes south. The island, not much bigger than Manhattan, has 120,000 inhabitants. Half are Arubans, the other half foreigners — about 30,000, mainly Dutch. The rest are legal and illegal aliens from Colombia, Venezuela and other Caribbean nations.

One happy island’

Tourism is the island’s main source of income.

Aruba receives 1.2 million visitors a year, mostly from the United States. It is advertised as “one happy island”: no trouble, just paradise, where English is the main language.

The Rev. Rudy Lampe is a Catholic priest whose church in Noord is near the high-rise hotels with familiar names, giving visitors the impression of being near home.

“Of course we are prosperous and affluent,” he said. “But what you see is the surface. Look beyond that and you’ll find more than enough room to improve a lot of things. We need tourism and our free-trade zone.

“But we also need to get rid of the image of a money-laundering paradise and a distribution point for Colombian drug smugglers. We need to get rid of local politicians, to clean up our act and really become the paradise we want to be.”

Three weeks ago, Natalee Holloway, 18, of Alabama went missing from a Holiday Inn on the island. Her passport and packed bags were found in her room, the Associated Press reported.

Four persons have been detained as Aruban police investigate the teenager’s disappearance on the last day of a five-day vacation with a group of 124 students celebrating their high school graduation.

Investigators refuse to say whether they think Miss Holloway is dead.

Built on cheap labor

Aruba gained its wealth from a gold rush that lasted almost a century into the 1920s, and then by refining crude oil from Venezuela. An economic crisis erupted when oil income declined, so the island invested in tourism in the latter part of the 20th century.

Low-income labor was needed to build scores of hotels, casinos and other attractions. Word spread in the Caribbean, Venezuela and Colombia: Aruba needed construction and other industrial workers.

“I’m from Cali in Colombia,” said Ricardo Iglesias, “and when I heard of the salaries they pay in Aruba, I did not hesitate a second. I told my wife and two kids ‘goodbye’ and took off for La Guajira [a Colombian peninsula on the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Venezuela]. I am 34 years old, and knew this was my chance to make a much better living.”

On a clear day in La Guajira, you can see Aruba. The captain of the ship that would take him to the island asked $175 for the 14-hour trip, which began at 10 a.m. About midnight, the captain told his passengers that the trip was over. It was less than a mile from the Ceru Colorado shore, and passengers had to swim the rest of the way.

“We knew the swimming was part of the deal,” Mr. Iglesias said, “but what was not part was the fear and the cold, the unknown factors like sharks, and the border patrol waiting for you with their waving flashlights.”

The thought that his children and wife would never have to live the abject and degrading poverty in Colombia gave him strength to continue swimming, until police dragged him out of the sea. He paid a bribe and was not arrested.

Mr. Iglesias knows of several of his countrymen who didn’t make it to shore. He also knows of legal ways to reach Aruba, but that is not an option for people of his social class, except for prostitutes.

Only Colombian women work in the dark brothels in San Nicolas, eight miles south of Oranjestad, the capital. They have a legal status for three months renewable for another three. They are union members and receive regular medical checkups.

Cartel corruption

Mr. Iglesias said cartels employ men and finance their trips to the island. The men are told to become acquainted with Aruban and Dutch women; marrying one of them would provide legal Dutch status.

“Some of them are then free to roam Europe or even the U.S. and represent the cartels there to spread their business, from drug dealing to prostitution and money laundering,” he said.

Mr. Iglesias now works on a ranch that rents horses for scenic rides around the island. His status is still illegal.

Elio Nicolaas is a former justice minister and police chief who started a security consultancy and political party to reform the island’s government.

He said drug cartels used to warn Dutch marines stationed on the island that their surveillance planes would be shot out of the sky if they kept flying over Colombian territory.

Mr. Nicolaas said he is fighting “the washing machine.” “It’s a Colombian-Aruban product, very well known in the U.S. and Europe,” he said.

But the island government was not aware of the problem, Mr. Nicolaas said. “It was as if someone had awakened our princess from her beauty sleep. Even my colleague, the minister of finance, was not aware of what was going on. He denied the influence of the Colombian cartels and the money laundering. I had to wake him up.

“And I am glad I did, because, since then, we are behaving very much better, and our name has improved a great deal.”

Near ‘perfection’

Henny Eman, who served as prime minister from 1986 to 1989 and again from 1994 until 2001, started rebuilding Aruba’s image with the expertise of Mr. Nicolaas.

Today, Aruba claims to offer the best hospitality in the Caribbean.

“That part nears perfection,” said Father Lampe. “We have improved a lot. We have consistent great weather all year around. It is, in general terms, a very safe place to visit and the unique scenic beauty is unmatched.

“Behind the scenes we are working to improve other things, and eventually, it may very well work out. We are eternal optimists, as almost all conditions are in our favor.”

The eternal winds blow gently in the late Caribbean afternoon. Tourists are greeted with a warm welcome on this happy island, seducing them to consider making it their home.

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