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

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

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.

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.

Kamp, now a parliamentarian, declined to comment, and officials from the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not return phone calls. "The Dutch point of view is that Venezuela is entitled … to have military exercises with befriended nations," said Ministry of Kingdom Affairs spokesperson Mireille Beentjes. "There are no consequences foreseen for the Kingdom of the Netherlands" from this week's naval exercises, "and therefore no measures will be taken."

"I think we should keep an eye on Venezuela, but we do not need to be really worried," says Michiel van der Veur, who teaches international relations at the University of the Netherlands Antilles here. He says Chávez has a pattern of testing the US government. "I doubt he will let it get into a real military showdown at this moment. Perhaps if the American economy – and as a result, its military strength – will deteriorate further, he might estimate his chances differently."

US naval vessels have been making frequent port calls here, an indication of the growing importance of the island to counternarcotics missions. In 2000, Washington secured a long-term agreement to base surveillance aircraft in Curaçao and in El Salvador, to replace Howard Air Force Base in Panama, which was being closed. The US will lose its operating base in Manta, Ecuador, next year, as the government did not renew its governing agreement.

A spokseperson for US Southern Command, Jose Ruiz, said it was too early to speculate what effect the closure of Manta would have on the other sites. "Curacao is strategically located to be able to monitor the Caribbean basin," he said. "It's an effective position with which to conduct monitoring flights and to track traffic that we suspect may have contraband."

Meanwhile, Russia is trying to expand its influence in the region, according to John Pike, director of in Washington. "[They] are just looking for ways to annoy the Americans," he says. "They're asserting that Moscow is against global power with friends all over the world."

Mr. Pike says the Russo-Venezuelan maneuvers are symbolic, and don't present real danger to the Netherlands Antilles. "But then, all military operations and exercises are symbolic until the shooting starts."

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