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Curaçao buffeted as it plays host to US military site, Venezuelan business interests

US vessels have been making frequent calls. The island also hosts US surveillance planes.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 2008

WILLEMSTAD, Netherlands Antilles

Forward Operating Location Hato doesn't look like much: a clutch of temporary hangers and a half-dozen US Air Force E-3 surveillance aircraft lined up at the far end of the international airport of Curaçao, a Dutch island dependency in the southern Caribbean.

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But the facility and the frequent port calls of US naval vessels here have thrust this tourist destination onto the frontlines of an increasingly tense standoff between the US and Venezuela, which on a clear day can be seen from the hilltops of Willemstad, the island's capital.

Venezuela's colorful leftist leader, Hugo Chávez, has claimed that the US intends to use Curaçao as a launch pad for an invasion of his country, which lies just 50 miles to the south. US officials say the military presence here is limited to sailors on rest and relaxation port calls and airmen flying drug-interdiction missions.

This week's joint Russo-Venezuelan naval exercises – to take place in the vicinity of Curaçao – only up the ante. The exercises include the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great, flagship of Russia's Northern Fleet, and the anti-submarine frigate Admiral Chabanenko, and follow $4.4 billion in Russian arms sales to Venezuela, including helicopters, fighter jets, and 100,000 assault rifles.

Venezuela has a considerable presence here. Its consulate is in one of the most prominent locations on the island. Its state oil firm controls the island's most important industrial facility, a sprawling refinery at the head of the harbor. Souvenir shops sell Chávez T-shirts, and Venezuelan tourists usually outnumber Americans.

In 2006, when a US aircraft carrier group held naval maneuvers near Curaçao, Mr. Chávez accused Dutch defense minister Henk Kamp of being a "Washington stooge," and declared there to be a "natural relationship" between Venezuela and the Dutch islands "perhaps more direct than with [the Netherlands] itself."

The remarks riled Dutch politicians, some of whom regarded them as a veiled threat. Mr. Kamp told Dutch parliamentarians that Chávez looked "with big eyes" on the islands, but that the Dutch Navy could easily parry any attack.