Netherlands Antilles (07/03)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Netherlands Antilles

Area: 960 sq km sq. km. (597 sq. mi.); more than five times the size of Washington, DC; five islands divided geographically into the Leeward Islands (northern) group (Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten) and the Windward Islands (southern) group (Bonaire and Curacao).
Cities: Capital--Willemstad (metropolitan pop. 140,000, 1992).
Islands: Curacao (pop. 125,600, 2002) Sint Maarten (40,000), Bonaire (10,000), Sint Eustatius (1,500), Saba (1,000).
Terrain: generally hilly, volcanic interiors.
Climate: Tropical; ameliorated by northeast trade winds.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Dutch Antillean(s).
Population (2002): 125,599.
Annual growth rate (2002): -0.01%.
Ethnic groups: Mixed black 85%, Carib Amerindian, White, East Asian.
Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Seventh-day Adventist.
Language: Dutch (official), Papiamento (a Spanish-Portuguese-Dutch-English dialect) predominates, English widely spoken, Spanish.
Education: Literacy--96.4% Curacao; 96.3% Netherlands Antilles (2001).
Health (1999 est.): Infant mortality rate (2002 est.)--7.38 deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy--female, 77.46 yrs. (2001); male, 72.96 yrs.
Work force (56,549, 2002): Agriculture--1%; industry--8%; services--91%.

Type: Parliamentary.
Independence: Part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Constitution: December 1954, Statute of the Realm of the Netherlands, as amended.
Branches: Executive--Monarch represented by a governor (chief of state), prime minister (head of government), Cabinet. Legislative--unicameral parliament. Judicial--Joint High Court of Justice appointed by the monarch.
Subdivisions: By Island: Saba, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Bonaire, Curacao.
Political parties: Antillean Restructuring Party (PAR), C 93, Democratic Party of Bonaire (PDB), Democratic Party of Curacao (DP), Democratic Party of Sint Eustatius (DP-St. E), Democratic Party of Sint Maarten (DP-St. M), Labor Party People's Crusade (PLKP), National People's Party (PNP), New Antilles Movement (MAN), Patriotic Union of Bonaire (UPB), National Progressive Party (NPP), Saba United Democratic Party, Saba Labor Party, St. Eustatius Alliance (SEA), Windward Islands People's Movement (WIPM [Will JOHNSTON]), Workers' Liberation Front (FOL), Democratic Party Statia, St. Eustatius Action Movement, Progressive Labor Party Statia, ORDU, People's Progressive Alliance (PPA), and others.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
Flag: White, with a horizontal blue stripe in the center superimposed on a vertical red band, also centered; five white, five-pointed stars are arranged in an oval pattern in the center of the blue band; the five stars represent the five main islands of Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten.

Economy (2002)
GDP (purchasing power parity): $2.0 billion.
Real growth rate: 0.7%.
GDP per capita: $15,959.
Natural resources: Beaches.
Tourism/Services (84% GDP): Curacao, Sint Maarten, Bonaire.
Industry (15% GDP): Types--petroleum refining (Curacao), petroleum transshipment facilities (Curacao and Bonaire), light manufacturing (Curacao).
Agriculture (1% GDP): Products--aloes, sorghum, peanuts, vegetables, tropical fruit.
Trade: Exports ($355 million, 2002)--petroleum products. Major markets--U.S. 24%, Venezuela 15%, Guatemala 10%, Singapore 6%. Imports ($2.82 billion f.o.b. 2001)--machinery and electrical equipment, crude oil (for refining and re-export)--chemicals, foodstuffs. Major suppliers--Venezuela 59.8%, U.S. 12.55%. Exchange rate (2003): US$1=1.78 ANG.


The Arowaks are recognized as the first human civilization to inhabit the Netherlands Antilles. A Spanish expedition led by Alonso de Ojeda discovered the island of Cura�ao for Spain in 1499, and it remained under the Spanish until the Dutch took control in 1600. Cura�ao was a strategically important point for military advances against the Spanish and as the center of Caribbean slave trade. Curacao became the host of the Netherlands Antilles Government in 1954.

With origins similar to Cura�ao, the Dutch captured Bonaire in 1663, and it became a granary for the Dutch East Indian Company until 1791 when the government reclaimed control.

Sint Eustatius
The first settlement in Sint Eustatius was established in 1636 and changed hands between the Dutch, French, and Spanish 22 times in it's history. In the 18th century the island became a duty free port for overburdened colonizers shipping back to the homeland, which propelled it into a major port with rapid population growth that lost momentum after the American-British peace treaty in 1783.

Columbus was the first to sight Saba, but it was the Dutch who colonized the island in 1640 with a party from Sint Eustacia. Because of it's difficult terrain, the island progressed slowly and remains the least populated island in the Dutch Kingdom.

Sint Maarten
The Dutch were the first to colonize Sint Maarten in 1631, but within 2 years the Spanish invaded and evacuated the settlers. The Dutch made a failing attempt to regain the island in 1644, but 4 years later the Spanish abandoned the island on their own accord. In 1648 the island was divided between the Dutch and the French; however, complete control of the island was seized numerous times in a series of conflicts. The British became involved as well, taking power for a 6- and 10-year stint. Finally, in 1817, the current partition line was established. The island flourished under a slave-based plantation economy and the exportation of salt until abolition of slavery in 1863.

In 1845 the Dutch Leeward islands united with Cura�ao, Bonaire, and Aruba in a political unit. The abolition of slavery hurt the island's economy until the 20th century when oil was discovered off the shores of Venezuela and a refinery was established on Cura�ao. Also during that period an offshore financial sector was created to serve Dutch businesses.

Since 1945 the federation of the Netherlands Antilles--Curacao, Bonaire, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten have been autonomous in internal affairs. Aruba also was a part of this federation until January 1, 1986, when it gained status apart within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

About 85% of Curacao's population is of African derivation. The remaining 15% is made up of various races and nationalities, including Dutch, Portuguese, North Americans, natives from other Caribbean islands, Latin Americans, Sephardic Jews, Lebanese, and Asians. Roman Catholicism predominates, but several other churches are represented, which include Anglican, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Mormon, and Baptist. The Jewish community is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, dating back to 1634. The recent faltering in the economy has increased migration to the Netherlands, especially young adults. Since 1998 about 5% of the population has left the islands each year for the Netherlands.

The Netherlands Antilles is one-half of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which also includes Aruba, which separated from the Antilles January 1, 1986. The Netherlands Antilles enjoys self-determination on all internal matters and defers to the Netherlands in matters of defense, foreign policy, and some judicial functions.

The Antilles is governed by a popularly elected unicameral "Staten" (parliament) of 22 members. It chooses a prime minister (called Minister President) and a Council of Ministers consisting of six to eight other ministers. A governor, who serves a 6-year term, represents the Monarch of the Netherlands. Local government is assigned authority independently on each island. Under the direction of a Kingdom-appointed Island Governor, these local governments have a "Bestuurscollege" (administrative body) made up of commissioners who head the separate government departments.

Principal Government Officials
Governor--Frits Goedgedrag
Prime Minister--Etienne Ys
Deputy Prime Minister--Errol Cova
Minister of Education (Culture, Youth, and Sports)--Emily de Jongh-Elhage
Minister of Finance--Errol Cova
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Etienne Ys
Minister of Health and Social Affairs--Joan Theodora-Brewster
Minister of Justice--NorbertoVieira Ribeiro
Minister of Transportation and Telecommunication--Herbert Domacasse
Minister Plenipotentiary to The Hague--Carel de Haseth
Director, Bank of the Netherlands Antilles--EmsleyTromp

In the parliamentary elections of January 18, 2002, the Frente Obrero Libershon (FOL) gained 5 of the 14 seats available in Curacao, expelling the 2001 coalition on a campaign for social spending and poverty alleviation. This was in contrast to the previous government, which emphasized its commitment to International Monetary Fund (IMF) reform recommendations. A coalition government was formed in mid-May of 2002 which does not included the FOL because of disagreements with the other two largest Curacao-based parties.

Drug smuggling by means of swallowing narcotics packets and boarding flights is a major issue for the Netherlands Antilles. This has caused tension with the Netherlands, to which most smugglers are bound, although recent efforts at combating this problem have been successful.

In 1993 a referendum confirmed the place of all islands within the union, despite earlier talks debating the constitutional status of the islands in the early 1990s. In 2000 the issue again arose, and in June 2000 Sint Maarten held a nonbinding referendum in which 69% of the population voted for status apart-independence from the federation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands Antilles. The Dutch Government does not support such a move, based on fears that Sint Maarten cannot support its own central bank, police force, or larger government and wishes to be involved in all discussions. This is now a dominant political issue for Sint Maarten and the other islands, and official talks have begun once again.

Tourism and the offshore financial sector have been the mainstays of the Netherlands Antillean's economy since the 1970s. The late 1980s and early 1990s brought growth, but hurricanes, pressure on the offshore sector, tighter monetary policy, and debt accumulation have caused contraction since 1996. High debt led the Government of the Netherlands Antilles to seek assistance from the IMF and the Dutch Government, through the IMF's Structural Adjustment Program. The current administration seeks to lessen dependency on the IMF, which has damaged the economy. The unemployment rate remains high, at around 14%, but the Bank van de Nederlandse Antillen is predicting modest recovery of demand and perhaps even growth in the near future. The economy remains dependent on tourism, which has suffered from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and lacks major agriculture or manufacturing, with the primary source of exports coming from the oil refining industry. Overall, these islands enjoy a high per capita income and a well-developed infrastructure compared with other countries in the region.

The Netherlands Antilles conducts foreign affairs primarily through the Dutch Government. However, recently the Netherlands Antilles has strengthened its relations with other Caribbean governments. It has been granted observer status at the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and in December 1998 it signed an agreement with the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) that made the Netherlands Antilles an associate member.

The United States maintains positive relations with the Netherlands Antilles and works cooperatively to combat narcotraffiking.

Principal U.S. Consulate Officials
Consul General--Deborah A. Bolton
General Service Officer--Amy Wendt

The U.S. Consulate for Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles is located at J.B. Gorsiraweg #1, Willemstad, Curacao; tel. 599-9-461-3066, fax: 599-9-461-6489; Monday-Friday, 8:00 am-5:00 pm.

Other Contact Information
U.S. Department of Commerce
International Trade Administration
Trade Information Center
14th and Constitution, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Tel: 1-800-USA-TRADE