The Washington Diplomat / July 2005
By Larry Luxner
Fifty years ago, Holland and its six Caribbean island possessions — Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten — formed a loose confederation known as the Netherlands Antilles, with its capital in the historic port city of Willemstad.
In 1986, Aruba broke away from its sister islands. Rejecting complete independence, it opted instead for a "status aparte" that gave Aruba's 90,000 people complete autonomy and jump-started an economy that today is thriving, thanks to a booming tourism industry.
Now, the Netherlands Antilles is in danger of disappearing altogether, as each of the five remaining islands in the pact seeks to go its own way.
"Aruba now has its own currency, its own governor and its own elections — and it deals directly with the Netherlands, not the central Antilles government in Curaçao," said Jeffrey M. Corion, minister for Antillean affairs at the Dutch Embassy in Washington.
With 150,000 inhabitants, a major oil refinery, transshipment center, drydock and offshore financial industry, Curaçao completely dominates the Netherlands Antilles — even more so since Aruba left the confederation 19 years ago. The other islands are relatively insignificant; St. Maarten has only 30,000 people, Bonaire 20,000, St. Eustatius 3,000 and Saba a miniscule 1,200.
"These other islands think they're being oppressed by Curaçao. That's why they've all had referendums to decide what to do," said Corion, himself a Curaçao native.
St. Maarten held its referendum in 2000; most of the island's inhabitants voted for Aruba-like status aparte. On the other hand, Bonaire and Saba voted to become overseas districts of the Netherlands, in much the same way the nearby Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are overseas departments of France. Only in St. Eustatius did a majority of voters choose to remain part of the Dutch Antilles.
In April, voters in Curaçao also decided enough was enough; 68% of them opted to break away from the Netherlands Antilles and become an autonomous state within the kingdom. Another 23% voted for closer ties with the Netherlands, while only 5% backed the option of full independence.
"As we've always said, the Netherlands Antilles never really existed, in the sense that I don't tell people I'm from the Netherlands Antilles, I say I'm from Curaçao," Corion explained recently. "Likewise, people from St. Maarten say they're from St. Maarten."
Complicating things is the language issue. The predominant dialect in Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao is Papiamento, a local patois that borrows from English, Spanish and Dutch, while in St. Maarten and Saba, the predominant language is English.
"When I speak to someone from St. Maarten, we have to speak Dutch to understand each other," said Corion. "And if the government of St. Maarten wants to borrow money from an international financial institution, it needs Curaçao's permission. With status aparte, they'll be able to do it themselves."
The Netherlands Antilles has existed as a political entity since 1954, when a Dutch government statute established the current relationship. During that time, most of the English-speaking Caribbean has gained independence — yet that's not a viable option for the Dutch Antilles, says Corion.
"Nobody wanted independence. In the beginning, the Kingdom consisted of the Netherlands, the Antilles and Suriname," he told the Diplomat. "Suriname became independent in 1975, and people in the Antilles saw what happened there and were quite afraid of that. They didn't think we should make that same mistake."
Wim Geert, deputy chief of mission at the Dutch Embassy, said its clear to his government that things will have to change in the Caribbean.
"The Dutch government's position is that we want to work together with the Antilles on how to shape the future, and to see how relations might evolve in a workable way among the Caribbean islands, and between the islands and the European part of the kingdom," Geert said.
"Based on the results [of the referendum], the different constitutents that form the Kingdom of the Netherlands will have to sit down and talk, and see where they want to go. They will have to reach an agreement together. It's pretty certain that the current situation will change, but exactly how and when is still difficult to say. Precision is of the utmost importance," Geert explained. "In the meantime, a number of measures could be taken to improve the financial situation."
For one thing, Antillean authorities are lobbying the U.S. government to sign a Tax Information Exchange Agreement (TIEA) — something many Caribbean islands have already done.
"The TIEA is very important for us," Corion said. "In the old days, we used to get $800 million a year in income from offshore U.S. companies in Curaçao."
Since strict new laws went into effect several years ago clamping down on offshore tax havens, that income has been slashed to around $120 million — hurting Curaçao just as the island's tourism industry is in a slump.
"We don't have enough hotel rooms on the island," Corion complained. "In the past, we didn't do much because we had an oil refinery and offshore companies, so we didn't need tourism. We had a lot of Venezuelan tourism. But now the offshore companies are gone, and the Venezuelans are gone, so we need another source of income. We are doing our best."
Curaçao businessman René Maduro says he, like most of his fellow islanders, want to "have control over our own destiny" while keeping traditional ties to Holland.
"That means we get rid of this double layer of government," said Maduro. "Right now, we fall under the Antilles, so we have the Curaçao island government, the Antilles government and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Getting rid of the Antillean government in between will only make things more efficient and more effective."