Geography in the News: Curaçao, Newly Independent Micro-State?

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Curaçao: The Western Hemisphere’s Newly Independent Micro-State

Curaçao became a quasi-independent country Oct. 10, 2010, making it one of the world’s 195 recognized countries, according to the U.S. State Department. In a change of constitutional status that dissolved the Dutch Antilles, Curaçao (pronounced “cure a sow”) is now an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The small Caribbean island has an unusual history, is culturally diverse and offers beautiful scenery to tourists.

Located in the south Caribbean Sea, Curaçao lies between the islands of Aruba and Bonaire, just 35 miles (56 km) north of Venezuela. Curaçao has an area of only 171 square miles (444 sq. km), about twice the size of Washington, D.C. The island is 38 miles (61 km) long and about seven miles (11 km) across at its widest point.

Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com

Curaçao has a semi-arid climate influenced by the northeast trade winds, which bring mild temperatures year-round. The island receives only 24 inches (600 mm) of rain yearly. Limestone cliffs, volcanic rocks and rocky beaches are common sights.

With its desert-like vegetation, Curaçao is different from most tropical islands. It has numerous species of cactus, thorny shrubs, evergreens and a national tree called the divi-divi, whose branches point westward, or downwind.

The first settlers to Curaçao were Arawak Indians, who migrated from South America. When a Spanish expedition landed there in 1499, they sent most of Curaçao’s indigenous population to other Spanish colonies to work as slaves.

In 1634, the Dutch conquered Curaçao, along with the neighboring island of Bonaire. The Dutch built a port city called Willemstad, which became the center of Curaçao’s shipping- and commerce-based economy.

In 1662, the Dutch West India Company made Curaçao a center of the Atlantic slave trade. Dutch merchants operated under a contract with Spain. This relationship allowed the Dutch to acquire slaves from Africa and market them to many locations in South America and the Caribbean. The slave trade brought considerable wealth to Curaçao and led to the construction of many classic colonial buildings.

When the Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863, Curaçao’s economy quickly declined.
Many residents emigrated to other Caribbean islands in search of work. In the early 20th century when oil was discovered in the Maracaibo Basin of western Venezuela, Curaçao’s government built a refinery to service the oil fields. The refinery rejuvenated the island’s economy.

In 1954, the Dutch reorganized Curaçao and several other holdings as the Netherlands Antilles, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. When the citizens of Curaçao voted to become autonomous within the Kingdom in referenda in 2005 and 2009, the Netherlands complied. The new changes took place in October 2010.

Today, Curaçao’s population of 137,000 is a mix of many different ethnicities and cultures. According to Marjie Lambert’s article, “Explorations of an Arid Island,” Curaçao has an Afro-Caribbean majority of mixed African and European descent. Inhabitants include descendents of the Dutch, of course, but also of the Spanish, British and French, who occupied the island or worked there.

In the 1500s, Jews from Portugal migrated to Curaçao, founding the oldest continuously inhabited Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere. The Jewish population has had a significant influence on Curaçao’s culture and economy.

Curaçao’s economy is based on financial services, oil refining and international tourism. Offshore investments and banking has become a major segment. Oil refining continues to be important, even as the government has leased the refinery to Venezuela.

Tourism is an increasingly important sector of Curaçao’s economy today. Since most of the island’s beaches are rocky rather than sandy, however, most tourists come to scuba dive. With 50 species of coral and hundreds of species of fish, Curaçao’s dozens of dive sites are popular. One unusual feature of diving in Curaçao is that the sea floor drops off abruptly a few hundred feet from the shore. This allows divers to reach the coral reefs without using a boat.

Curaçao is the latest newly independent micro-country to claim independence since World War II. Of the 195 recognized countries in the world, Curaçao joins 103 others that have claimed independence or changed their names just since 1960. Nearly half of these are classed as micro-states. This trend of smaller and smaller independent countries is clearly a trend worth recognizing

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cc.html; Lambert, Marjie, “Explorations of an Arid Island,” The Bulletin (http://www.bendbulletin.com), Nov. 18, 2010; and “Towner, Betsy, “In 50 Years…A Whole New Map,” AARP Bulletin, Nov. 2010.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.

Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • Seaside Don

    That’s a nice synopsis of our dushi Korsow! For folks that want to enjoy a closer look and discover the sandy beaches for themselves pleased drop a line at seasidecuracao.com and we look forward to welcoming you to our island and taking care of you on your local holiday. Bonbini! Don

  • Carlos Otero

    Good day. Please note that whilst Curacao changed its status in 2010, it did not achieve independence. Curacao is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is not recognised by the United Nations as an independent state. There are 193 independent countries so recognised, not 195 as the article stated.
    Regards, C.L. de Otero

    • Neal Lineback

      Many thanks for your comments. Indeed, there is confusion about the level of Curacao’s and St. Maarten’s independence. (Please see: http://www.nationnews.com/articles/view/dutch-curacao-st-maarten-now-independent/) We thought the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles and the special conditions allocated to these two islands signaled a status closely approaching (if not granting) independence. Of course, the Netherlands remains involved in protecting the islands, but the islands are no longer under Dutch law. There too is disagreement about how many of the world’s countries are independent. For example, the U.S. Department of State does not list Curacao as independent, but lists 195 independent countries in the world (http://www.state.gov/s/inr/rls/4250.htm). Of course, that number reflects the United States’ political agenda. (See: http://www.worldatlas.com/nations.htm.) So there is a great deal of confusion about the subject of Curacao’s “independence” and we appreciate your attention to the details and for replying to our article. Many thanks.

  • Stephen Hunt

    This does not accord with my experience. I am an insolvency practitioner appointed by HM Revenue & Customs in connection with a number of frauds which have been perpetrated using the island’s banking system. This fraud fundamentally damaged the reputation of the island.

    What has made matters considerably worse however is the steps taken by the Curacao authorities to prevent the victims of the fraud getting their money back. Needless bureaucracy, interminable delays, all seemingly aimed at increasing fees for the lawyers and bankers who administer the process.

    It is rumoured that there is a new twist. The banks are seeking to “cancel contracts” as if to remove any liability by a silly unilateral act. If true, the banks risk sending a message to the world that Curacao is a rogue state that will change the rules to suit itself. No nation would invest in a country that disrespects international standards of behaviour.

    Curacao has a long way to go to fix its image problems.

  • omar

    Re: independent state of Curacao.

    As Carlos Otero commented earlier, Curacao does not currently have an independent status. As a matter of fact the people voted against such a status in a referendum and opted to stay autonomously in the kingdom (partly being that we would probably lose our dutch passport with such a move. But that’s speculation on my part). One sign of Curacao not being independent is the fact that currently very few, if any, sporting organisations currently recognize Curacao as a separate entity. With all the headaches that brings for our sportspeople.

  • Paul

    As far as I know Curacao has never been under Dutch law. It used to be under “Netherlands Antilles law” and is now under “Curacao law” – both of which are closely modeled on Dutch law but are not identical to it.

    In practical terms Curacao is mostly independent except for a few key areas, such as military defense, judiciary appeals, and quite important, overall finances.
    The article failed to mention the many problems with the 100-year old refinery (environmental etc). As more background I suggest among other things a look at GreenTown Curacao.

  • Tari Trott

    The article clearly should be corrected as it is a common fact that Curacao is NOT an independent nation as this article claims. As your readers have already told you, the island simply had its status changed to give it more autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

    I implore the author to make this change in order to provide more accurate information to the public.

    • Neal Lineback

      In an effort to again clarify the status of Curacao, we made a minor change to the article. It is important for readers to acknowledge that nearly all small countries have necessary agreements and alliances with other countries (military, financial, etc.) that affect their independent status. The title of this article points out the fact that Curacao’s “independence” may still not be complete, if in fact, it ever will be, given the points made in our article and by the several commenters.

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