MIAMI The former Dutch Caribbean colonies of Curacao and St. Maarten became autonomous countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Sunday in a change of constitutional status dissolving the Netherlands Antilles.
The two joined Aruba, which in 1986 had already gained this status that maintains direct ties with Holland, while three other islands, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, became autonomous special municipalities of the Netherlands in the dissolution of the 56-year-old Netherlands Antilles territory.
Under the new arrangement, the Dutch government will remain responsible for defense and foreign policy in the new countries, and have initial oversight over Curacao's finances under a debt relief deal.
While all of the six former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean already had wide autonomy as members of the now-dissolved Netherlands Antilles, Curacao and St. Maarten will have more power of government and use of their own tax revenues.
Both are popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean.
Tourism officials in Curacao, which has a population of more than 190,000 and lies 40 miles off Venezuela's coast, said this would make more resources available to develop new port facilities and hotels, and position the island better to take advantage of the North American tourist market.
Smaller St. Maarten, with a 37,000 population, shares an island with the French oversees territory of St. Martin.
The previous Netherlands Antilles, which had existed since 1954 as a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, had experienced tensions between its different-sized island members over debt and revenue sharing.
While Dutch has been the official language throughout the six islands, in St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius, English is widely spoken, while in Curacao and Bonaire the lingua franca has been Papiamentu, a mix of Portuguese and Spanish with traces of English, Dutch and French.
In a statement posted on the Curacao government's website on Sunday, Curacao Prime Minister Gerrit Schotte congratulated the citizens of the new country known as Korsou in Papiamentu.
(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Anthony Boadle)