Liberia-Peters, Maria 1941—
Maria Liberia-Peters 1941—
Maria Philomena Peters was born in the midst of World War II on Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles. She is the middle child of five, having an older brother and sister and two younger sisters. Her father, James, was born on Sint Maartin, and her mother, Mabel, was born on the island of Saba, both islands are part of the Dutch colony.
Due to the strategic and industrial importance of the islands, U.S. Army troops were stationed there for seven years during World War II. German submarines had tried to sink tankers that carried crude petroleum to the large oil refineries located on Curacao. The Netherlands Antilles were also important to the Dutch because the homeland was occupied by Germany. Many companies established offshore offices in the Antilles to enable their continued existence. In 1954 the Antilles became autonomous, meaning they are self-governing except for their defense and foreign affairs being handled by The Netherlands. The Netherlands Antilles are a group of five main islands and several smaller ones, spread out in the Caribbean. Two of the islands, Bonaire and Curacao, lie just north of the coast of Venezuela. The other three main islands, Saba, St. Eustatius (or Statia), and Sint Maartin the Dutch half of the island, the other half is Saint Martin, a French colony), are located in the Central Caribbean. Aruba was part of the colony at one time, but was separated from the other islands in 1986.
Maria remembers growing up in Curacao quite vividly. “We grew up in a rather poor neighborhood”, she said in a press release. “But my father being a real family man teamed up with my mother. Daddy was out at work and brought every penny of his earnings to my mother, and mommy ran the household and insisted that we work hard and do our homework. “Her mother opened a small neighborhood grocery store to try and help make ends meet for the family. Mrs. Liberia-Peters remembers working in the store after homework in the press release, “I can still remember clients asking for... two onions, a can of sweetoil, half a pound of pig-tail, etc ...,” she said. “My parents taught us about hard work,” she told CBB, “My mother was up every day at 4:30 in the morning and always on the go. Mommy and daddy instilled in us high spiritual values.”
When she was 14, Liberia-Peters recalls that she began
At a Glance…
Born Maria Philomena Peters, May 20, 1941 in Willemsted, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles; daughter of James Louis Peters (a construction foreman) and Mabel Albertina (Hassell) Peters (a home-maker and shopkeeper); married Niels Francisco Liberia on December 19, 1972; two children, Crystal Mary-Jo and Niels Maurice, Education: Bachelor’s degree, 1962, in teaching and administration, the Normal Training School for the Teaching of Children, Emmen The Netherlands; Degree in Pedagogics, 1972, University of the Netherlands: continuing classes at Ohio State University.
Head teacher of Kindergarten schools, Maria Goretti school, 1962-64, and John Marrits School, 1964-67, both on Curacao; Supervisor of public schools for early childhood, 1967-72; Instructor, methodology and didactics, Pedagogic Academy, Willemsted; and Supervisor of Roman Catholic Schools for Early Childhood Education, 1972-75; Commissioner in the Executive Council of the Local Government of Cura(ao, 1975-80, 1983-84; Inspector for Early Childhood at the Ministry of Education, 1981-; Member of the Staten (legislature) of Netherlands Antilles, 1982-; Minister of Economic Affairs, 1982-83; Prime Minister of Netherlands Antilles, 1984-86, 1988-94; opposition leader, 1986-88, 1994-; Chair of the Board, Regional Conference for the Integration of Women in the development of Lato America and the Caribbean, 1991–94.
Awards: Grootofficier in de Orde van Oranje Nassau, Kingdom of The Netherlands; Gran-Cruz del Orden de Boyaca, Republic of Colombia; Gran Corden en el Orden del Libertador, Republic of Venezuela
Addresses: Office— Parliament Building, Wilhelmina Plein #4, Willemstad, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles.
selling homemade bread and cupcakes in the neighborhood. Her mother would bake the items in the family kitchen and Maria and her oldest sister Iris would go door-to-door selling the freshly baked items. She credits her mother and father with instilling the family with good spiritual values. In the press release she notes that they taught her “’In order to make progress in life you have to work. Don’t be afraid nor ashamed of any work, as long as your conscience can bear it.”
The people of the Netherlands Antilles are a very educated populace. Their illiteracy rates are among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Like many people in the country Maria speaks four languages; English, Dutch, Spanish, and Papiamento, the common language of the Netherlands Antilles, which is a mixture of Spanish, Dutch, English, and Portuguese, with additions from Arawak and African languages. She attended the Wilhelmina school on Curacao when she was a teenager, and she played on the women’s basketball team, where she met Niels Liberia, a well-known basketball player in the Antilles, who was assisting the coach. When the New York Times asked her what impressed her about Mr. Liberia, she replied, “His hook shot!” Shortly after finishing her regular schooling, Maria left for Holland to continue her schooling in Emmen at the Training College for Early Childhood Education. When she completed her degree she returned to The Antilles to become a kindergarten teacher. After a few years she “felt the necessity to go back to school,” she said in her press release.
After receiving her degree in Pedagogics (the study of teaching) Maria again returned to Curacao. She returned to her position as Supervisor of Government Schools for Early Childhood Education, as well as teaching at the Training College for Teachers there on the island. Meanwhile, her friendship with Niels Liberia had bloomed into romance. Fifteen years after she first met Niels Liberia they were wed on December 19, 1972. Mr. Liberia is a civil servant for the islands government.
While teaching Mrs. Liberia-Peters learned first hand about organizing parent groups and social issues affecting the population. She joined the National People’s Party, a political party of the islands. She was asked to run for a seat on the Curacao island council in 1975 an she won. Some of her notoriety before the election came from forming the Steering Committee for Women’s Organizations in 1974, which worked for programs on the island in conjunction with the International Women’s Year in 1975. From this position she was named to the Executive Council of the island government. This body met regularly with the representative from Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands.
During this time Mrs. Liberia-Peters was informed by her doctors that she would be unable to conceive. She and her husband made the decision to adopt children. She said in her press release that, “There are so many children in this world who need help. We hope that more couples would open up to children who for one reason or the other cannot be raised by their biological parents.” The Liberia’s two children are now teenagers. They were both born in the United States and were adopted through the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Mrs. Liberia-Peters says that “adopting a child brings triple happiness: 1) there is no difference in the love you share with an adopted child versus the love you would share with a child you bore; 2) you fill the life of the child with all he or she needs as a human being; 3) someday you may be able to meet the biological parents and say thanks to them for granting you the opportunity to fulfill a dream and the undoubtedly anguished feeling that has haunted them for long years will be taken away.”
In 1982 Maria Liberia-Peters was elected to the Staten, or legislature, of the Netherlands Antilles. She quickly was appointed to be Minister of Economic Affairs by the coalition government in power. This government lasted only a short while before collapsing in 1984. In September of that year Maria was asked to form a new coalition government, and she was sworn in as Prime Minister. She was soon demonstrating her independence as she chose to dance and participate in the annual Carnival parade instead of sitting in the traditional, reserved seat of the Prime Minister. She told the New York Times that “she would not feel happy as a spectator... knowing that I am standing at the side.” Liberia-Peters went on to explain that “some people just feel it’s not appropriate for the prime minister. But she added, “In the first place I’m Maria and in the second place I’m the prime minister. So I’m going.” So participants in the parade could see her tall figure dressed in a green and pink lame dress dancing in the streets.
Maria Liberia-Peters served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands Antilles on two different occasions. The first time was brief, from 1984-86. The second time was from 1988-94. She states that her biggest challenge was during the period when Shell and Lago Standard Oil had announced the intended closure of their huge oil refineries on Curacao and Aruba. Liberia-Peters was able to work out an agreement with the Venezuelan state owned oil company, PDVSA, to manage the refinery. The closure of these refineries would have meant the loss of over 20% of the jobs in the Netherlands Antilles. Although the refinery on Aruba did close, it later reopened under different company management. One of the decisions Maria had to make during this time was the introduction of a 10% income tax on all wages. This was “to form a national fund to serve as a bumper” against economic hard times, she said in her press release. Although her party won more seats in the election three months following this decision, her opponents quickly formed a coalition government which was the reason behind Liberia-Peters temporarily leaving office in 1986.
To many people the transition from kindergarten teacher to prime minister may seem very unusual, but not to Liberia-Peters. In Women World Leaders, Liberia-Peters states, “... at a certain moment, from your position as teacher and educator, you start to become the ears and eyes, and the feet of those who cannot walk, hear, and see ... that’s the way I walked right into politics. ““You govern with psychology and keep meeting,” Liberia-Peters said in Women World Leaders, there is basically no difference in the behaviour of a four, five, six year old, or a forty, fifty or sixty year old, there’s basically no difference. And I keep telling them that in the meeting of the Council of Ministers.” According to Olga Opfell in Women Prime Ministers and Presidents, “Liberia-Peters was complimented for her ability to reach consensus among the ministers.”
Maria in an interview with CBB stated that “my father told me everyone has power, the power to serve, and that is what I have done. ““Politics is a real power play, you must explain these events to the people.” The opinion people have of politicians in the United States is no different than the one they hold in the Netherlands Antilles according to Liberia-Peters. “It’s a hard knock game,” she told CBB, “There is a lot that can lead you to do bad. You must remember your mission and comply with it or you can get lost and astray. You need strong legs to stand on and you need to stand before your decisions.” Not all of Liberia-Peters’ decisions have been popular. “Yes, “she chuckled while acknowledging this to CBB, someone else said, “Victories have many fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
Since 1994 Maria has been the opposition leader in parliament. She said in her interview with CBB that “My schedule has slowed down a lot because I don’t have as many responsibilities currently. “One of the projects that she views as important is the establishment of a Caribbean policy studies center or regional think tank. Maria sees that the larger nations are forming blocks to advance their goals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, and she feels that the Caribbean needs to do the same to protect their interests. “If everyone bundles up together maybe something good will happen. “Liberia-Peters has been a driving force in the Caribbean Council for Europe’s recent feasibility study of this idea.
As for the future, she will remain in politics for the time being. She does recognize that she will leave the hectic life in the public eye eventually. She would like to return to teaching. Not to a classroom, perhaps, but to consultancy work. She would like to teach politics at the grass roots level. “The art of politics,” she told CBB. “What goes on with politicians.” This would allow her to continue in the roll she believes she was put here for, the role of dedicated public servant.
Liswood, Laura, Women World Leaders, HarperCollins, 1994.
Opfell, Olga S. Women Prime Ministers and Presidents, McFarland and Company, 1993, pp. 121-127.
New York Times, August 19, 1985, sec. C, p. 12.
Inter Press Service, June 21, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a press release and curriculum vitae provided by Mrs. Liberia-Peters and a CBB interview with Liberia-Peters on April 14, 1996.
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