Dutch Antilles: Casual dismissal of Chavez' complaints is foolish

The Netherlands wants quietly to renew its long-term permission to the United States to launch surveillance flights from the Dutch Antilles and the neighbouring Dutch possession of Aruba. The flights take place in the framework of the fight against drugs – and the struggle against guerrilla forces. Given the mounting tension in the region, this carries enormous risks. If it were up to Dutch Socialist Party Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel, no such prolongation of authorisation would be agreed.

In recent months there have been a few occasions when there has been open conflict between the Netherlands and Venezuela. President Hugo Chávez accuses the Netherlands of cooperating with American military intimidation of his country from the Dutch Antilles and Aruba. At the same time he tells opponents of the Netherlands on the islands that they should be independent of the colonial power. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen has summoned the Venezuelan ambassador. At first sight this appears no more than the usual South American rhetoric, which doesn't mean much. Take a closer look, however, and there's a bit more to it.

Economic relations between Venezuela and the Netherlands are expressed in, amongst other things, the leasing by Venezuela of Isla, the former Shell refinery in the Antillean town of Willemstad. I know from personal experience the extent of the poisoning of people and the environment which this creates. The environmentalist movement last month enjoyed, however, an enormous victory, when the courts decided  that the Isla refinery should pay a fine of 75 million Antillean guilders  should it continue to transgress health and environmental norms. This is a fantastic advance, but cannot possibly be the major cause of the problems with Chávez. For oil-rich Venezuela, it's a mere trifle.

The real problem is twofold in nature. To begin with there is the reintroduction in recent years into the Caribbean of the American fourth fleet. This involves regular exercises and visits by the fleet to the harbour of Willemstad. This makes Venezuela nervous, especially in combination with the use of airfields in Willemstad and Oranjestad. These take place in the framework of the  Forward Operating Location (FOL) Treaty  between the Netherlands and the US. The formal purpose of the FOL Treaty is to facilitate the fight against drugs and guerrilla forces, but Chávez accuses the US also of espionage and of the preparation of a possible invasion. It is exceptionally foolish simply to dismiss this complaint. Ten years ago the Netherlands decided at the request of the Americans to agree to the FOL. From Curaçao and Aruba, US surveillance aircraft perform daily flights over Colombia in order to monitor the transport of drugs. The SP opposed this agreement a decade ago, because the fight against drugs will not be won by military means, which will only make it more violent. The impression was created, moreover, that this was intended to give American power-politics a further boost, an image which has been reinforced  now that the US has decided to establish military bases in Colombia as well. Venezuela is, whether intentionally or not, increasingly surrounded by American military forces.

The Dutch government has never been able clearly to explain what the FOL Treaty contributes to the struggle against the production of and trade in drugs. Nor can they give an answer to the question as to whether it indeed makes sense to continue this kind of surveillance patrol. Surely this should be the precondition before  any prolongation can be considered. More important still is the question of to what extent the Antilles and Aruba could become parties in a conflict between the US and Venezuela. If all kinds of assistance were to be offered to the US from the islands in their preparations for such a conflict, then as part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands they would automatically become party to it. In any event people living on the islands have no material interest whatsoever in this growing tension. It is therefore up to the Dutch government to demonstrate that the FOL Treaty has borne fruit in the struggle against drugs and that the US has no intention of allowing tensions in the region to continue to mount. Since the government will do no such thing, there can be no question of any prolongation of the treaty.

The Davids Commission, the official body set up recently to investigate the reasoning behind the Dutch government's support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that loyalty to the US was given more importance than any justification for the attack. This history must not be allowed to repeat itself in the Caribbean. Of course the Americans are the Netherlands' allies in security and the the fight against drugs and that may well remain the case. If, however, results fail to materialise and parts of the Kingdom are at stake, then what's called for is the most extreme restraint.

Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the SP.