On October 10, 2010 – the unique-to-this-century, and for most people, the once-in-a-lifetime calendar alignment of 10/10/10 – the Netherlands Antilles ceased to exist. To be precise, the former autonomous federation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, comprising the Dutch Caribbean islands of Bonaire and Curaçao, just off the coast of Venezuela, and St Eustatius, St Maarten and Saba in the Leeward Islands, opted for a change in their constitutional status. Curaçao and St Maarten became separate, autonomous countries within the Kingdom, following Aruba, which gained that status in 1986. On the other hand, Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba, the so-called BES Islands, are now special municipalities of the Netherlands, in effect reverting to being extensions of the metropole and part of Europe, somewhat like the French departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana.
For most Guyanese, steeped in the history of British colonisation in the West Indies and the subsequent independence of most of the former British territories in the Caribbean, a brief historical review is perhaps necessary to understand the particular complexities of the Dutch Caribbean.
The Dutch colonised Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao St Eustatius, St Maarten and Saba in the 17th century, when they were seeking to establish footholds in the Caribbean for the expansion of their trade networks. The six islands, collectively known as the Dutch West Indies, became an autonomous federation, the Netherlands Antilles in 1954. The Netherlands Antilles was recognised in the amended 1954 Charter of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as a constituent country, along with the Netherlands and Suriname, under the umbrella of the Kingdom. According to the Charter, the countries of the Kingdom would “conduct their internal interests autonomously, and their common interests on a basis of equality.” Of course, the notion of equality was mostly theoretical, as in practice, the Kingdom – read the Netherlands – had and still has considerably more political and economic power than the others, maintaining control over defence, foreign relations and nationality, with the option to assume financial control in the event of extraordinary circumstances.
Aruba, with a population of about 103,000 and an estimated per capita GDP of just under US$22,000, seceded from the Netherlands Antilles in 1986 but remained within the Kingdom as an autonomous country. The new status of the other islands, as of 10/10/10, follows referendums over the past few years in which all except St Eustatius voted to leave the federation. Significantly though, none of the islands voted for full independence and even Aruba, which had originally aspired to independence by 1996, has balked at cutting the umbilical cord to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The case of the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles, however, reads like an unhappy family squabble, with money at the root of it all. Curaçao, with a population of around 141,000 and a healthy per capita GDP of approximately US$20,000, felt that it was carrying too much of the financial burden of the federation and that it was subsidising the smaller BES Islands, which have a combined total of only 18,000 inhabitants. These, on the other hand, along with St Maarten (40,000 people, GDP per capita US$11,000), blamed Curaçao for their collective debt of some US$2.8 billion, most of it owed to the Netherlands, which translates into an unhealthy per capita figure of about US$14,000. The disputing relations were irreconcilable and Curaçao and St Maarten opted for divorce, whilst the BES Islands renewed their bonds with the motherland as a guarantee of security.
But, as before, the Kingdom of the Netherlands still retains responsibility for nationality, defence and foreign policy in all cases and, more importantly, the Dutch government will also have effective control over Curaçao’s finances under a debt-relief arrangement, which appears to limit the extent of the autonomy sought and perhaps even reduces that previously enjoyed by the Netherlands Antilles. Doubts have moreover been raised as to the sustainability of the new arrangements, owing mainly to the smallness of the islands’ respective populations and economies.
Thus, with the break-up of the five-island grouping into smaller, more vulnerable and perhaps more dependent units, one is left to ponder the wisdom of the decision of the constituent members of the Netherlands Antilles to dissolve their federation. They may have de-linked themselves from each other, but they certainly have not cut the ties that bind them to the mother country, as they all continue to rely on the Kingdom of the Netherlands to subsidise their economies in varying degrees. Notwithstanding criticisms of Dutch neo-colonialism or ‘colonialism by consent,’ they would appear to have opted for a status that purports to offer the best of both worlds. In other words, the islands of the Dutch Caribbean want to have their cake and eat it. It remains to be seen how propitious the supposedly lucky tri-numeral 10/10/10 will be in this respect.