Declaration signed yesterday changes status of Netherlands Antilles


Delegations from the Dutch Antilles signed a declaration yesterday in The Hague reforming the status of these five former Dutch island colonies in the Caribbean.

As of 10 October 2010, the Dutch Antilles will cease to exist as a country. Curacao and St Maarten will become separate countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while Bonaire, Saba and St Eustatius will become special Dutch municipalities. Aruba already had a separate status. The ceremony was attended by Prince Willem-Alexander and Deputy Kingdom Relations Minister Ank Bijleveld and caretaker Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

The prime minister called the declaration “a new chapter”. The intensive process which has taken five years is supposed to give the larger islands more autonomy.

In the Caribbean, no tears are being shed over having to say goodbye to the Netherlands Antilles. The islands are reasonably close neighbours, but have never really been one unit, argues Gert Oostindie, director of Leiden’s Royal Institute for Linguistics, Geography and Ethnology. “Family ties mean the links between the islands strong. But the only links they have as countries come from sharing the same colonial power. The islands felt unity was more a problem than a help.”

The two largest islands, Curaçao (population 144,000) and Sint Maarten (39,000), are set to become more or less independent. The Netherlands will take over the lion’s share of their debts and will keep an eye on the finances to prevent debt build-up in the future. “They will remain part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but independent of the other islands in the Antilles. Curaçao and Sint Maarten wanted this status so they could take responsibility for their own development and wouldn’t have to worry about the other little islands,” explains Professor Oostindie.

The island of Aruba gained similar autonomy in 1986 and has booked strong economic growth since. Despite this, however, the issue has been a hot political topic for some time, especially in Curaçao, with many pushing for full independence from the Netherlands.

Price of autonomy
Those who would have preferred full independence to autonomy warn that the Netherlands will remain heavily involved in the two islands’ finances. They fear The Hague will be the source of unwanted interference.

Professor Oostindie dismisses such worries. He points out that the Netherlands has always had the power to intervene and that, in this respect, nothing has changed.

“What has changed is that the areas which the Dutch central government can deal with have now been better defined. These areas include monitoring state finances, but also the maintenance of law and order. Everything considered, most accept it’s better to work on this together.”

The smaller islands of Saba, Sint Eustatius and Bonaire, with a total population of 20,000, will experience more palpable changes. As ‘special municipalities’, they will come under direct Dutch rule. Professor Oostindie says they always felt they were the little brothers in the Antilles family and that they got a raw deal from big brother Curaçao. He reckons living standards, law and order and the political systems on the three islands are all set to improve with their new status.

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