Latin America & Caribbean

Curacao profile - Overview

Map of Curacao

Curacao - a small Caribbean island popular with tourists - became an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in October 2010 in a change of constitutional status which dissolved the Netherlands Antilles.

The Dutch government remains responsible for defence and foreign policy, and has oversight over Curacao's finances under a debt relief agreement.

The constitutional changes were approved by a majority of voters in referendums held on the islands which made up the 56-year-old Netherlands Antilles territory.

Image caption The capital Willemstad - unmistakeably Dutch - is on Unesco's World Heritage List

While Curacao and Sint Maarten became autonomous countries, the less-populated islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba now have city status within the Netherlands.

Unity in the federation had been waning for some time. Smaller islands had complained of being overlooked; Curacao and Sint Maarten said that they were contributing a disproportionately large amount to the government. The bigger islands said they could stand alone economically.

The Dutch colonised the islands in the 17th century. The territory, once called the Dutch West Indies, became the semi-autonomous Netherlands Antilles in 1954. Petroleum refining, tourism and offshore finance were the mainstays of the islands' economies.

Curacao, off the Venezuelan coast, is an oil refining and tourist centre, boasting white-sand beaches, crystalline waters and popular casinos.

Once the centre of the Caribbean slave trade, Curacao was hard hit by the abolition of slavery in 1863. Its prosperity was restored in the early 20th century with the construction of refineries to service the newly discovered Venezuelan oil fields.

Image caption Fort Beekenburg is one of a handful of surviving fortifications which helped defend the island against pirates

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