Netherlands helps US prepare aggression against Venezuela

There is growing tension between Venezuela and the Netherlands over the US use of airfields on the Dutch Caribbean islands Curacao and Aruba for aggression against Venezuela. These small islands, some 80km off the Venezuelan coast, are part of the Caribbean segment of the former Dutch colonial empire and still part of the Netherlands.

At the climate summit in Copenhagen on December 17, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez explained that the US is installing military equipment on the air bases, and that spy planes taking off from Hato airfield on Curacao are violating Venezuelan airspace. This has been confirmed by several sources, among them the Dutch newspaper de Telegraaf, which reported on December 19 that every day for two weeks a Boeing RC-135 plane had been flying from Curacao into Venezuelan airspace. The RC-135 is an electronic spy plane that can be used to monitor air defences in preparation for an attack.

On January 8, Chavez announced that he had ordered two Venezuelan Air Force F-16 jets to intercept a P-3 Orion anti-submarine/surveillance aircraft that entered Venezuelan airspace from Curacao. The Pentagon denied the violation, but the Venezuelan military has video and photographic proof of the incursion. Two days earlier, the Caracas-based television station Telesur played a transcript of a radio conversation on May 7, 2009, between the pilot of a US plane that had violated Venezuelan airspace and the control tower at Venezuela’s Maiquetia airport. The pilot confirmed that it was a US military plane originating from Curacao and that it did not have permission to enter Venezuelan airspace.

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen claimed that the airfields are only used for the “war on drugs”. He said that Venezuela’s accusations were “unjust, erroneous and fantastical”. He asked the Venezuelan ambassador for “clarification”. But since the US falsely claims that Venezuela tolerates drugs trafficking, the so-called war on drugs can be a pretext for military threats. Chavez emphasised that the US presence on Curacao and Aruba is part of a broader military build-up in the region that includes the re-activation in mid-2008 of the US Navy’s Fourth Fleet for activity around South and Central America and the signing in 2009 of a pact with the right-wing Colombian government to use seven bases for “full spectrum operations”. The Obama administration has stepped up efforts to reassert US hegemony over Central and South America. Its support for the military coup in Honduras is evidence of this, as is the occupation of Haiti after the earthquake there.

In Copenhagen, Chavez asked what the European Union has to say about the fact that a member of the EU is working together with the US in preparing a military aggression. After Britain, the Netherlands is the most loyal ally of US imperialism in Western Europe. Since the Iraq war, Dutch foreign policy has shifted from a European orientation to a trans-Atlantic one, fully siding with the US and Britain. A main reason for this shift is that the Dutch government understood that there was a lot to win if the Iraqi oilfields, which were nationalised in 1972, were privatised and put up for auction. This has come true: the Anglo-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell has won major oil contracts and is in Iraq in a stronger position than its competitors.

Although the Netherlands didn’t officially take part in the invasion, it supported it politically and is one of the very few European countries to send troops as part of the Iraq Stabilisation Force between 2003 and 2005. It also takes part in the occupation of Afghanistan with 1800 troops stationed in Uruzgan province. And it is one of small group of nations that voted with the US and Israel in the UN against the Goldstone report on Gaza war crimes.

Steady build-up

Since the failed coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, the Netherlands has facilitated a steady build-up of the US military and intelligence presence on Curacao and Aruba. In 2006 the Netherlands hosted an international military exercise of more than two months on these islands, which involved some 10,000 soldiers and a number of US warships including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, carrying 85 combat planes. This exercise, clearly meant to intimidate Venezuela, was condemned by Chavez, who called the then Minister of Defence, Henk Kamp, a “Washington pawn”.

Right-wing politicians in the Dutch parliament, playing along with the US, responded by making baseless accusations that Venezuela was planning to invade the Dutch-ruled Caribbean islands. Henk Kamp, nowadays the commissioner for the Dutch-ruled islands of Bonaire, St Eustasius and Saba, said at the time that Chavez was looking “with big eyes” at the islands.

In 2007 these accusations were repeated by Hans van Baalen, then a prominent MP for the neoliberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD — People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) and now leader of the Dutch fraction of the VVD in the European Parliament, who called Curacao and Aruba “our Falklands” and said that the Netherlands should be prepared for a military showdown with Venezuela. This propaganda war was echoed in Dutch media, where there were hysterical articles about “Chavez going Argentinian”.

Since then, the anti-Chavez message in the Dutch media has hardened, not only in the right-wing sensationalist outlets but also in the so-called quality press and liberal media. The social democratic/liberal newspaper de Volkskrant, for example, when writing about the democratically elected government of Venezuela, uses the word “regime” to suggest that it is somehow illegitimate.

The US military’s use of airfields on Aruba and Curacao was agreed to in an accord between the Netherlands and the US, signed in 2000 and ratified by the Dutch parliament in 2001, the Socialist Party and GroenLinks (GreenLeft) voting against. After the US’s Howard Air Force Base in Panama was closed down in 1999, the US negotiated 10-year agreements for “forward operating locations” at existing airfields in El Salvador, Ecuador and Arbuba/Curacao.

Although the host countries emphasised the bases’ supposedly limited “war on drugs” role and the US government always denies everything, there have been several documented incidents that prove that the bases are being used for other activities. Late last year, the Ecuadorian government released a report pointing out that the US used the air base of Manta to support the 2008 Colombian army raid on a camp of the guerrilla organisation FARC in Ecuadorian territory, which killed 26. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa ended the US lease on the base at Manta in September 2009.

The accord with the Netherlands about the bases in Curacao and Aruba expires this year, but will be prolonged automatically if neither party objects. After Chavez’s speech in Copenhagen, two MPs of the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA), which was part of the then-governing coalition, asked the Ministry of Defence about the accusations of a US military build-up and possible consequences for the bases. Harry van Bommel, an MP for the opposition Socialist Party, demanded an explanation about the RC-135 spy-plane flying over Venezuela. So far, neither question has been answered. Van Bommel also called for a parliamentary debate about the prolongation of the bases accord. “The Netherlands must dispel tension with Venezuela and promise that we will in no sense give our approval for any threats or sabre rattling”, he declared.

Dutch coalition government falls

The dispute comes shortly after a government-appointed commission published a highly critical report on Dutch support for the Iraq war. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende (Christian Democratic Appeal, CDA), who was also leader of the government during the invasion of Iraq, has come under a lot of criticism, which caused growing tension in the coalition between the CDA and PvdA.

On February 20, the coalition government collapsed when the PvdA pulled out because of Balkenende’s efforts to extend the Dutch military “mission” in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, which is not very popular in the Netherlands. The mission was due to end on August 1, but there has been a lot of pressure from the Obama administration to keep the Dutch troops in Afghanistan. The CDA was willing to comply with Obama; the PvdA wanted to stick to the original schedule. A minor (Christian-fundamentalist) coalition partner supports the PvdA position. The coalition was already heading for disaster in March council elections because of the parties’ complete embrace of neoliberal politics and broken promises.

Balkenende said on television on February 21 that he expected Dutch troops to be withdrawn on schedule. This is an undoubted blow to the US-led war in Afghanistan, because it could encourage similar moves by other European governments that are not very keen on sending or keeping troops in Afghanistan. To keep relations smooth with Washington, the Dutch government will be keen to keep the bases at Curacao and Aruba and give the US military as much space as it wants under the guise of the “war on drugs”.

Meanwhile, there is growing unease among the 140,000 people of Curacao about being in the front line of US aggression against Venezuela. Although the main political parties have always supported the presence of the US military, opposition is growing. Helmin Wiels, leader of the pro-independence left-wing Pueblo Soberano (Sovereign People), has called for closing the US base. On January 22 there were elections on the Dutch Antilles, which includes Curacao. Pueblo Soberano, which was founded four years ago, won two of Curacao’s 14 seats in the Antillean parliament.