A PECULIAR economic and international situation exists in the islands of Curaçao and Aruba, two of the three Dutch West Indies lying off the coast of Venezuela. During the last few years these two islands have enjoyed a period of great prosperity, induced by the oil boom in Venezuela. The Gulf of Maracaibo, about whose shores the Venezuelan petroleum industry has developed, is too shallow for deep ocean-going vessels, with the result that the petroleum is pumped over to the Dutch islands, where it is refined and shipped. Besides good harbors, these near-by islands have the advantages of a stable government and a comparatively large and efficient laboring population; this has made them not only a great refining and export center, but also a fueling station for the numerous oil-burning ships traveling between the Americas.

In practically all the years of Dutch rule previous to 1923 Curaçao was a drain on the treasury of the mother country. However, for 1929 the income of the Curaçao Government was 120 percent more than it had been five years before, nearly 187 percent more than it had been ten years before, and almost 540 percent more than it had been fifteen years before. The budget has in recent years enjoyed an actual surplus. Imports have increased about thirty times in the last fifteen years. Curaçao has become the center of one of the largest petroleum industries of the world, and the tonnage of its shipping has surpassed that of Amsterdam.

The Dutch are wondering whether this prosperity is of a passing or a permanent nature. The islands have had short periods of prosperity before, only to lapse again into long periods of depression. They flourished as a smuggling center and as a slave-trading center in the days of the monopolistic Spanish colonial commercial policy, and during the American Civil War they enjoyed a short period of prosperity from the blockade runners. The present prosperity would seem to have a better and more permanent basis, but its weakness is still that the oil on which it is based comes not from Dutch soil, but from without.

It is a question whether Venezuela will always be satisfied for Curaçao and Aruba to be the refining centers and ports of export of Venezuelan oil. The Dutch also entertain some misgivings regarding the expansion of the United States in the Caribbean. The Dutch West Indies colony is composed of the three islands near the Venezuelan coast and also three smaller ones 500 miles to the northeast -- St. Martin (half of which belongs to France), St. Eustatius and Saba. This northern island group constitutes the connecting link between the Greater and the Lesser Antilles, and in some quarters it is felt that, as the United States found it desirable to acquire possession of the Virgin Islands (which lie only 100 miles from St. Martin), so it may ultimately desire the Dutch West Indies for the protection of the Panama Canal. The recent difficulties of the Standard Oil Company in obtaining concessions in Aruba led the Chicago Tribune to declare that the possession of territory in the Americas by a non-American power was an anomaly; this statement caused no little consternation in Holland.

The enforcement of the United States prohibition laws also finds its repercussion in the Dutch West Indies. Several years ago Dutch ships encountered many difficulties in American ports in the execution of the prohibition regulations. The United States Government hinted that it would apply these regulations more leniently if the Netherlands Government would take measures to prevent smuggling from its West Indies to the United States. Accordingly the Netherlands Government instituted the rule that the rebate of excises on distilled liquors when exported would be granted only when landing certificates were produced from the country of destination. This, of course, is exactly what the liquor smugglers cannot do. But apparently the only result of this change in policy is a greater income for the treasury of the Curaçao Government, since it now retains considerable sums in liquor excises which it formerly rebated. The Dutch have followed with keen interest the attempt to obtain Canada's aid in the execution of the United States prohibition laws, for if the United States Government were successful with Canada it would undoubtedly turn to its other neighbors with similar requests.

No less difficult are the governmental problems which the Netherlands faces in ruling these isolated colonial communities. Although the two small island groups have entirely different interests, they constitute a single colonial unit under Netherlands sovereignty. The total population of the three northern islands is less than 5,000, while the population of the southern group approaches 100,000, of which 75,000 live in Curaçao. The northern group is agricultural, the southern group industrial; and while the southern group has come into an era of prosperity, the northern group is suffering a severe economic depression. The population of the northern islands has been decreasing; some of the people have gone to work in the sugar industry in Cuba and Santo Domingo, and in the last few years many have migrated to Curaçao and Aruba. Not only do the islands have very different interests, but the transport communication between the two groups is very poor. There is in addition a difference in language: the people of the northern islands speak English, while those in the southern islands speak Papaimento, composed of Spanish, Dutch, English and native words.

The government of Curaçao (the name applied to the two groups of islands jointly) is composed of a Governor, appointed by the Netherlands Government, and a Colonial Council of thirteen members. The Council is coöptive in nature; whenever a vacancy occurs in the membership the Council itself recommends two names, from which the Crown selects one. The seat of government is at Willemstadt, on the island of Curaçao. Because of the small population of the northern group and its distance from the capital, practically all of the members of the Council are inhabitants of the southern islands; accordingly, the vastly predominant weight in the government is with the southern islands. The people of the southern islands feel that if money is to be spent in improving conditions in the northern islands it had better be Netherlands money. Moreover, the officials on the northern islands are appointed not from The Hague but from Curaçao.

The dissatisfaction of the northern islanders has become so great that it has created a "free from Curaçao" movement. These people are not disloyal to the Netherlands. They desire to be cut loose from Curaçao and placed under the direct government of the Netherlands; but if they must remain a part of the Curaçao colony they desire a government which will be truly representative of all the six islands. Both schemes have been proposed in the Netherlands States-General.

The Dutch press has in recent years discussed at great length the character of the government of Curaçao. The policy of a recent Governor was characterized as one "without steadiness, without thought of tomorrow, without moral influence, and free from everything except petroleum," and it was charged that the government through a long-term lease granted by this Governor to the Curaçaosche Petroleum Industrie Maatschappij for the land about Carácasbaai, had lost all control over the best of Curaçao's harbors, even in time of war, and retained only a limited authority for purposes of quarantine.

But in spite of all these governmental difficulties, the suggestion frequently made in the States-General that the Netherlands Government sell its West Indies islands is repelled as unworthy of a great colonial Power.

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  • AMRY VANDENBOSCH, Professor of Political Science in the University of Kentucky, recently returned from studies in Holland and the Dutch East Indies as a Fellow of the Social Science Research Council.
  • More By Amry Vandenbosch