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Prosperous Isle of Aruba Puts Independence on Hold : Caribbean: After six-year climb out of economic doldrums, tourist nation decides the time is not ripe for a break with the Netherlands.


ORANJESTAD, Aruba — Prosperity has returned six years after a brush with economic collapse, and in the process, this tourist island has put off plans for independence from the Netherlands.

Many Arubans see the stability of the Dutch connection as essential to attracting foreign investment and visitors and are wary of how things turned out in Suriname.

Military governments, guerrilla warfare and the loss of Dutch aid have created political turmoil and economic disarray in Suriname, a Dutch colony in nearby South America that became independent in 1975.

Prime Minister Nelson O. Oduber said in an interview that Aruba reflects a trend in the Caribbean to renew ties with the motherland.

"I have not seen any (Caribbean) island better off after independence, not one," he said.

Suriname's situation has deteriorated to the point where Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles and Holland are considering inviting it to rejoin the kingdom as an "associated state," the prime minister said.

Oduber heads the People's Electoral Movement Party, which once led the 50-year-old independence movement.

Independence had been scheduled for Jan. 1, 1996, but Oduber negotiated an agreement with Holland that delays it indefinitely. Aruba retains the "right to self-determination."

In 1985, Aruba left the six-island Netherlands Antilles for separate membership in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It, Bonaire and Curacao are a few miles off Venezuela, 500 miles from the other three--the Leeward Islands of St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba.

Aruba has little but sun, sand and the sea. It is a rocky, flat, arid 77 square miles covered by cactus and trees that grow at an angle because of the wind.

Even without natural resources, however, Arubans have long enjoyed one of the Caribbean's highest standards of living.

"Aruba defies statistics," Miguel J. Mansur of the 70-year-old Mansur Trading Co., said in an interview. His holding company manages enterprises ranging from banks and a cigarette factory to distributors of food, milk, beer and liquor.

"We import almost everything we need because the island doesn't really grow anything," he said. "What we call our exports is really tourism."

For 61 years, a mainstay of Aruba's prosperity was the Lago Oil and Transport Co., a subsidiary of what is now Exxon. From 1924 to 1985, it refined imported crude oil and shipped products to the United States.

At full production, Lago employed 8,000 people. The company brought in workers from around the Caribbean and the island's population grew during those years from 9,000 to more than 60,000.

When Lago closed, the government lost millions of dollars in taxes, representing more than half its income.

Unemployment, which had been 15%, rose to nearly 40%. About 9,000 Arubans left in search of work.

"Everyone was demoralized," Mansur said. "There was no real hope."

Elections changed the government in 1985, the same year the refinery closed. On the advice of the International Monetary Fund, Aruba concentrated on tourism, offering foreign investors guaranteed loans and other incentives.

The number of hotel rooms has increased from 2,800 to 5,500 and will reach 8,000 by 1993, according to Rory Arends, executive secretary of the Aruba Hotel Assn.

Construction is most visible along creamy white beaches, already lined with hotels and luxury resorts, that curve around the island's southwestern corner.

Aruba welcomed 432,762 tourists last year, most from the United States and South America, the Central Bank reported. They encountered a friendly, multilingual population at ease with other cultures.

In 1990, tourists left $309.2 million in Aruba, the bank estimated. The gross national product, the sum of all goods and services, has nearly doubled since 1986 to $879 million, and per capita income rose from $7,600 in 1986 to $11,700 in 1990, among the highest in the Caribbean.

There are more jobs than people to do them, so Aruba expects to import 12,000 workers between 1986 and 1993, increasing the population to 80,000.

Tico Croes, a politician formerly in the government, said he learned in 1986 that Aruba had no credit rating without Holland.

"If you take away emotional things, like dignity and all the stuff they talk about, and look at cost benefits," he said of independence and its advocates, "then you obviously come to the conclusion it is better off to be like we are."

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