Curaçao (kyŏŏ´rəsō, kōōräsou´), island (1989 est. pop. 146,100), 178 sq mi (461 sq km), an autonomous country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located in the Lesser Antilles off the coast of Venezuela. Curaçao is semiarid; most of the plant life is of desert character. Oil refining is the principal industry, and the island has one of the world's largest refineries, receiving oil from the enormous reserves at nearby Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. There are also phosphate deposits. Other major industries include tourism (Curaçao is a free port and has a number of resorts and casinos) and ship repairing. Curaçao's ship-repair dry dock is one of the largest in the Americas. The head of state is the monarch of the Netherlands, represented by a governor-general. The head of government is the prime minister, who is elected by the unicameral parliament (Staten). The parliament's 21 members are popularly elected to four-year terms.
Visited by Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci in 1499, Curaçao was colonized by the Spanish in 1527. The Dutch captured it in 1634 and remained in possession except for a brief period of British rule during the Napoleonic Wars. In the 18th cent. Curaçao was a base for a flourishing Dutch entrepôt trade. Economic prosperity declined after the abolition of slavery in 1863 but revived with the introduction of the petroleum industry in the early 20th cent., and the island was the largest and most populous in the former Netherlands Antilles. Curaçao was the scene of severe racial strife and rioting in 1969. Prior to the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, Curaçao voted to become an autonomous country within the Netherlands.