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St. Maarten, Curacao celebrate increased autonomy

Several thousand revelers gathered in the capitals of tiny St. Maarten and Curacao on Sunday to celebrate greater autonomy within the Dutch kingdom as a result of the breakup of the Netherlands Antilles.

At the stroke of midnight Saturday, officials lowered the blue-and-red Netherlands Antilles flag and raised the flags of St. Maarten and Curacao in their place. On Sunday morning, parliament members and other government leaders on the two Caribbean islands were sworn in.

The status change is largely symbolic because the Netherlands Antilles — colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century — had been largely self-governing for 56 years. The Dutch monarch will remain head of state, overseeing foreign affairs and defense, and the islands' people will remain Dutch nationals, with Dutch passports.

But like Aruba, which has had a similar autonomy arrangement since 1986, St. Maarten and Curacao will now have greater power of government and collect their own tax revenues. The two islands will share a central bank and supreme court.

Many details of the new governments for St. Maarten and Curacao have to be hammered out by elected officials in coming weeks.

The smaller islands of Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire will become Dutch municipalities because officials there felt they had been overlooked by the Antillean government and preferred that the Netherlands administer them directly.

In St. Maarten's capital of Philipsburg, Gov. Eugene Holiday said the challenges ahead were immense for the 16-square-mile (41-square-kilometer) nation, the southern third of an island shared with French-ruled St. Martin.

"We will have to build critical institutions for the functioning of the parliamentary democracy ... from the ground up," Holiday said of the Caribbean country of roughly 50,000 inhabitants. "We will have to improve our financial management and strengthen our judicial organizations."

Sarah Wescot-Williams, St. Maarten's first prime minister, told residents that political adjustments will not happen overnight. "We will have to get ourselves accustomed to the new reality," she said.

"Yes, we are still part of the Dutch kingdom and, yes, we are bound by rules and agreements with kingdom partners, but the success of our fledging country starts with all of us," she said.

Some St. Maarten residents who showed up for the public celebration said they were confused about what the change in political status meant for their lives.

"I really don't understand it. Sufficient information was not given to the public for them to know what will happen," said Reangelo Martiena, an emergency-room nurse.

Others voiced pride and hope.

"I think it's very good that we are at this stage. The people have to stand up very strong and get together. It's a definite plus for the island," said salesman and calypso musician Bernando Richardson.

Many people on Curacao, which is about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off Venezuela's coast, felt their government under the Netherlands Antilles federation contributed more than the other islands and never got a fair return.

Curacao Tourist Board Executive Director Hugo Clarinda said the island of 190,000 people will now have greater control to develop new hotels and port facilities.

"With this historic change brings huge potential for growth in our tourism landscape to meet the demands of the North American market," he said.

(This version CORRECTS size, population of St. Maarten; deletes incorrect reference to 'new' flags.)