Dutch Islands Caught Up in US-Venezuela Friction

CARACAS – Several Dutch islands in the Caribbean, off the coast of Venezuela, have been caught in the middle of the war of words between the Venezuelan and U.S. governments, while the United States is getting ready to carry out naval exercises in the area.

Dutch Defense Minister Henk Kamp recently remarked that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a "fanatic populist who has his sights set on Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao" – Dutch islands located off the Venezuelan coast.

Chávez responded by calling Kamp "ridiculous" and describing him as a "pawn" of Washington, which he has repeatedly accused of carrying out an international smear campaign against the Venezuelan government.

In the latest edition of his Sunday radio and television program, Chávez argued that there is a "natural relationship, perhaps more direct than with the kingdom [of the Netherlands] itself," between Venezuela, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles, which are made up of Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius, and St. Maarten.

Leftist independence movements arose on the islands in the 1970s. But they declined in the 1980s as European integration advanced and when Aruba left the Netherlands Antilles.

In response to opposition members of the Dutch parliament, who were demanding that the government design plans to defend the islands, Kamp added fuel to the fire by stating that the Venezuelan Navy "only has a few secondhand vessels" that could never pose a threat to the Dutch Navy.

But on a trip to Curaçao a week ago, the minister said his only aim was to strengthen military and coast guard cooperation with Caracas. He clarified that there was no immediate threat to the islands, and that the Netherlands was interested in good relations with Venezuela.

Venezuelan Navy officials, led by Rear Admiral Luis Chirinos, also visited Curaçao to meet Frank Sijtsma, commander of the Dutch Coast Guard in the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.

Venezuelan Rear Admiral Adalberto García said his country has no territorial designs on the Netherlands Antilles and "no intention of attacking" the islands.

"We guarantee the independence of every nation, and we want to attack drug trafficking in the area, and combat illiteracy, but without imposing our own methods on anyone. Neighbors and friends must mutually support each other," he added.

Political analyst Alberto Garrido, a professor at Venezuela’s University of the Andes, told IPS that "the underlying question is that Chávez and his ally [Cuban President] Fidel Castro are working to bring cooperation programs to the entire region, while mobilizing forces to make the 21st century the last century of the U.S. empire."

Washington, for its part, has started up health care programs in the Dominican Republic that are highly similar to the programs carried out by Venezuela with Cuban support. Meanwhile, in nearby Jamaica, U.S., Dutch, and British military personnel are training alongside some 2,000 police officers from throughout the English-speaking Caribbean as part of "Operation Tradewinds."

The official purpose of these exercises is to "prepare regional security forces" for the 2007 World Cricket Cup in Jamaica.

But the largest military exercise in the Caribbean, taking place throughout April and May, is "Operation Partnership of the Americas," for which the George Washington aircraft carrier strike group – which includes roughly 6,500 sailors, a 60-plane air wing, and three smaller warships – has been deployed to the region.

Ports of call will include the Dutch islands 50 km off the coast of Venezuela. The operation is organized by the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military activities in Latin America, and its objective, according to U.S. Navy officials, is "to support maritime security in the area."

Some observers, however, believe that the operation has been launched as "a warning to Cuba and Venezuela."

Nicolás Maduro, the speaker of the Venezuelan legislature, maintained that Kemp’s statements were aimed at "preparing the psychological and political conditions in Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire" to justify the installation of U.S. military bases on the islands.

The international airports in Aruba and Curaçao are already used as forward operating locations (FOL) by dozens of U.S. and allied aircraft involved in anti-drug trafficking operations. The United States and the Netherlands are both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance.

Maduro announced that a Venezuelan congressional commission will travel to the Dutch Caribbean islands to meet with local political parties and authorities and explain Venezuela’s point of view.

In Garrido’s view, the U.S. military maneuvers in the region "portray Venezuela as a national security concern for Washington, as various documents have already done." At the same time, "they are a counteroffensive to what the Southern Command calls radical populism and considers an emerging threat."

The exercises, he stressed, are taking place at a time when left-leaning governments are gaining ground in the Andean region, with "the administrations of Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. In addition, indigenous people in Ecuador are demanding the resignation of their president, Alfredo Palacio, for negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States, while [anti-establishment presidential candidate] Ollanta Humala in Peru is gaining in the polls."