Article by Joyce van Genderen-Naar

ACP-EU Courier, N.11 – May June 2009


The Dutch Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs) consist of six islands, located in the Caribbean Sea, also known as the Dutch Caribbean. These six islands are: Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, Saba and Sint Eustatius.

Five of these islands are the Netherlands Antilles, divided into the Leeward Islands (northern) group (Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten) and the Windward Islands (southern) group (Bonaire and Curaçao). The island of Sint Maarten / Saint Martin is the smallest landmass in the world shared by two independent states, the French territory of Saint Martin in the north and the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten in the south. Aruba was part of the Netherlands Antilles until 1986 when it gained its Status Aparte.

The six islands belong to the Netherlands since 1634, when the Dutch captured them from Spain. Curaçao became a slave trading post and the center of the Caribbean slave trade until the abolition of slavery in 1863. The Dutch West-Indian Trading Company transported the captive Africans from the West-African Coast to Curaçao. Here they remained in camps for some years and were sold to the continent or put to work in the fields or as house slaves. When oil was discovered off the shores of Venezuela in the early 20th century a refinery was built in Curaçao to process the Venezuelan oil. Curaçao and Aruba prospered and an offshore financial sector was created in Curaçao for Dutch business interests. The islands stayed Dutch colonies until 1954, when they received a certain kind of autonomy and together with Suriname became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Only in internal affairs full autonomy was granted. The Dutch Government remained responsible for defense and foreign affairs of their overseas Caribbean countries.

Tourism, petroleum refining, and offshore finance are the main pillars of the economy of the Netherlands Antilles. Natural resources are beaches and offshore diving sites.

The islands enjoy a high per capita income and a well-developed infrastructure compared with other countries in the region. The nominal GDP is $3.3 billion and the GDP per capita $17,800. Tourism/services count for 84% of GDP. The real growth rate is 1.2%. Industry is 15% of GDP (petroleum refining in Curaçao, petroleum transshipment facilities in Curaçao and Bonaire, light manufacturing in Curaçao). Agriculture is 1% of GDP with aloes, sorghum, peanuts, vegetables, and tropical fruit as products.
Trade: Exports $3.4 billion, concerning petroleum products. Major markets are U.S. 24%, Venezuela 15%, Guatemala 10%, and Singapore 6%.
Imports $3.5 billion, concerning machinery and electrical equipment, crude oil (for refining and re-export), chemicals, foodstuffs; major suppliers are Venezuela 59.8%, U.S. 12.55%.
Most of the oil that the Netherlands Antilles import for its refineries comes from Venezuela. Almost all consumer and capital goods are imported. The USA, Italy and Mexico are the major suppliers. The Netherlands provide financial aid.
The population of the islands speaks Papiamentu, an official language with Spanish, Portuguese and Creole roots. It is the language used at schools, at home, on TV, in the newspapers, in the Courts, for music, poetry, literature etc.

The dismantling of the Netherlands Antilles

The Netherlands Antilles and the Dutch government agreed upon the dismantling of the Netherlands Antilles in January 2010. Curaçao and St. Maarten will receive more autonomous status within the Dutch Kingdom, comparable to the status aparte that Aruba has since 1986. The other three Dutch OCT-islands, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba will become a “gemeente” of the Netherlands that is a small Dutch municipality with a Dutch mayor. Which raises the question why in the 21st Century islands want to become more dependent instead of less dependent. An explanation is that they are too small, the population of Bonaire being 11,537, Saba 1,491, St. Eustatius 2,699. Until now the central government of the Netherlands Antilles in Curaçao has taken the decisions for these small islands.

While Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba will become a Dutch Gemeente, Curaçao and St. Maarten will become autonomous countries of the Dutch Kingdom. This was agreed with Holland but only under very severe financial conditions. The central government of the Dutch Kingdom in The Hague, the Netherlands, wants to keep financial control and financial supervision of Curaçao. The population of Curaçao gave its opinion on the final agreement to get an independent status in the Dutch Kingdom during the Referendum that took place on 15 May 2009: 52% voted YES and 48% voted NO.

‘Dushi Kòrsou’: Land of the Sweet (‘Dushi’) Land of the Heart (‘corazon; coraçao’)

Curaçao is the largest island of the Netherlands Antilles. 140.000 people, 40 nationalities, are living together on a surface area of 44 km2, a multi-cultural population with their roots in many countries. Due to the island’s slightly heart-shaped bays, Curaçao received the Spanish name corazon (heart) or Portuguese coraçao. Another explanation is that it is derived from the Spanish or Portuguese word for healing: curación or cura, because of the curative effects of the many tropical fruits. In Papiamentu Curaçao is Kòrsou and well known as ‘Dushi Kòrsou’, which means ‘Sweet Curaçao’.

Curaçao has a geographical favorable position in the Caribbean, just above Latin America (Venezuela), with its many natural harbors, excellent geo-political location, good connections by air and by sea and modern infrastructure. A quite unique spectacle is the huge cruise and cargo ships that daily enter the large natural harbor of Willemstad in the town centre. Curaçao is officially outside the hurricane belt and suffer fewer damages as other Caribbean islands in the hurricane seasons

Tourism and financial services are an important source of income for Curaçao. Average 5 cruise ships each week come to Curaçao, with tourists from the USA and the Caribbean. Tourism from the Netherlands is very high and KLM re-introduced its Boeing 747 to meet the increasing demand from the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia. The economy of Curaçao performs well. Main contributors to the recent economic expansion are: tourism (stay-over tourism grew by 28 percent in 2007 and 30 percent in 2008, cruise tourism triggered a wave of construction of new hotels and expansion of existing ones), the logistics industry including the airport and harbor, the oil industry (increases in refining, storage and transshipment in 2007; in 2008 economic activities in the oil refinery slowed down), financial services sector (expansion in 2007, a deceleration in 2008 due to the international financial turbulence; international financial services develop well due to Curaçaos’ favorable fiscal environment, and the presence of large number of international banks, trust companies, accounting and law firms, international audit firms, international corporate and tax advisors); re-exports by the e-zone companies (decline in 2006 and 2007, reflecting Venezuela’s currency trading restrictions, recovery in 2008). E-commerce contributed to the economic development, using Information and Communication technology (ICT) as a major source of production. Special regulations and laws enable Curaçao to offer special grants to attract investors in e-commerce and to facilitate e-commerce development, local banks offering e-services and financial offshore companies hosting international e-companies.

Regional cooperation and integration

Curaçao has always been an island of trade and an open economy, with commerce and business relations with Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, the United States of America and Asia. There is a strong bond with Venezuela, which is by plane only 35 minutes away. Tourists and business people from Venezuela are daily visiting Curaçao. In November, December 2008 and January 2009 Curaçao experienced a ‘golden period’ with all the dollars spent and all the goods bought by visitors from Venezuela. The so-called credit card tourism from Venezuela is a flourishing business in Curaçao, where they buy a lot and withdraw cash money that will be exchanged in the profitable illegal money market in the Venezuelan streets. Well known are also the small boats with fruits and vegetables that sail daily from Venezuela to Curaçao’s floating market in Punda, the other part of Willemstad.

There is also cooperation with the United States of America, especially in the field to combat narco-trafficking.

A longstanding historic cooperation/relationship exists with Suriname, ACP-Caribbean on the North coast of South-America that was part of the Dutch Kingdom as well until 1975. Since 1930 people from Suriname come to work and to live in Curaçao. Each week there are 4 direct flights from Curaçao to Suriname vice versa. In Curaçao rice, fish and other products are imported from Suriname. Famous was the rice-OCT route: rice from Suriname went from Curaçao to the EU-market duty free. In March 2009 members of parliament from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles met in St. Maarten and decided to extend the trade and other relations between their countries.

The commercial contact between Curaçao and Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago has become significant during the last 5 years. Trinidad established two major companies, RBTT Bank and Guardian Insurance, in the Netherlands Antilles. Barbados has some investments on the islands and a Memorandum of Understanding between Curaçao and Barbados will be signed soon, covering cooperation in the area of Investment Promotion and Export, Regional Integration, Curaçao's membership of Caricom, Economic Development Harmonization, Alternative Energy (Solar energy, Wind energy), Innovation in Agriculture, Fair Competition Policy and Consumer Protection, Tourism.

The Netherlands Antilles are an associate member of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). Curaçao is also planning to become a member or associated member of CARICOM (Caribbean Common Market) and is studying what opportunities the Cariforum-EC-EPA could offer Curaçao. A Cariforum-EC-EPA seminar will be organized in Curaçao to deal with these issues. In May 2008 the Chamber of Commerce of Curaçao organized an EPA Fact Finding Trade Mission to Trinidad and Barbados with the participation of public and private sector stakeholders in order to identify Cariforum-EC-EPA business opportunities.

Author: Joyce van Genderen-Naar, Journalist/Lawyer, Brussels, May 2009.

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