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 Curaçao for Spain in 1499, and it remained under the
Spanish until the Dutch took control in 1600. Curaçao 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 Curaçao, Bonaire was captured by the
Dutch in 1663, and it became a granary for the Dutch East Indian Company
until 1791, when the government reclaimed control.
The first settlement in Sint Eustatius was established in 1636 and changed
hands between the Dutch, French, and Spanish 22 times in its 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 its difficult
terrain, the island's growth progressed slowly, and it remains the least
populated island in the Dutch Kingdom.
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 of 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-year and 10-year stint. Finally,
in 1817, the current partition line between Dutch and French 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 Curaçao, Bonaire,
and Aruba in a political unit. The abolition of slavery hurt the islands'
economy until the 20th century, when oil was discovered off the shores
of Venezuela and a refinery was established on Curaçao. 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.
In the parliamentary elections of January 18, 2002, the Frente Obrero
Liberashon (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 did not include the FOL
because of disagreements with the other two largest Curacao-based parties.
However, island-level elections in May 2003 provoked a reshuffling of the
national government, leading to a new coalition led once again by the FOL
in July 2003. A series of corruption scandals involving the FOL leadership
led several parties in the governing coalition to withdraw support in April
2004, provoking yet another reshuffle of the government, and the emergence
of a new governing coalition lead by the Antillean Restructuring Party
(PAR) in May.
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. 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.