- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

ORANJESTAD, Aruba

On a clear day, one can easily see Venezuela from the southern part of this tiny Dutch Caribbean island - and its flaming towers drilling for oil and gas.

Russia and Venezuela recently began a joint drilling project in the waters bordering Aruba. The government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez claims 28 fields holding an estimated 27 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

A Russian consortium that includes the state-owned Gazprom is exploring five fields. One of them - Cardon 3 - is less than 14 miles away from Aruba.

The project is causing concern in Aruba and the Netherlands, which is responsible for Aruba’s foreign affairs, because Venezuela did not inform either in advance of its plans, thereby violating an agreement signed in 1971 and ratified in 1986.

“They do not really need to ask us for approvals or permission to drill, but needed to inform us,” said Jocelyne Croes, a political minister at the Dutch Embassy in Washington. “We signed a treaty about that, and now they are generating new frictions in situations that used to be under control.”

Mr. Chavez announced recently that Russia and Venezuela are “strategic partners” in oil and gas exploration. Speaking on television from a drilling platform in the Gulf of Venezuela, he said the exploration was “an act of sovereignty, as we are liberated from the evil Yankee imperialism.”

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin smiled as the Venezuelan leader spoke.

Mr. Sechin said five of Russia’s largest energy companies have taken a 20 percent stake in a national consortium formed to explore another oil-rich area, Venezuela’s Orinoco River basin. Petroleos de Venezuela SA will have the controlling stake in the project.

Since World War II, when Aruba started to refine Venezuelan heavy crude, Venezuela has claimed possession of the Dutch Caribbean islands. Some here fear that the government of Mr. Chavez might invade the Netherlands Antilles and take possession of the islands.

“One never knows,” said Rudy Lampe, a member of the Aruban parliament and president of the RED political party. “No one knows if or when, but there is a distinct possibility they may invade.”

The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment

Though few in this region seem to take Venezuela’s claim seriously, it remains a topic of conversation on the island.

Augustine Vrolijk, director of Aruba’s foreign affairs office in the capital, Oranjestad, told The Washington Times that a bigger fear is that drilling in the Gulf of Venezuela could lead to an environmental mishap, which would have dire consequences for Aruba’s tourism industry.

“Of course we are concerned, maybe not so much for a direct and open invasion but certainly for our future. If anything in that order happens, it happens to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, backed by several treaties with the U.S.,” he said.

Randall Croes, an Aruban economist who lived in Venezuela for 18 years, said, “No one can take Hugo Chavez seriously.”

“He is a Machiavellian prince, looking to build goodwill in political and economic harsh times and manipulate his electorate for the upcoming referendum, using a streamlined pubic relations machine to hide real domestic problems with big international issues. He also has a lot of money but a 66 percent inflation over the past 12 months and no job markets for the unemployed in his country,” he added.

Mr. Chavez has become an outspoken foe of the U.S. The socialist leader expelled the U.S. ambassador in Caracas in September and repeatedly has accused President Bush of plotting to overthrow his government.

Venezuela is the fourth-biggest supplier of oil to the United States.

Ben Bot, former Dutch minister of foreign affairs, and the present foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, have said in television interviews that Venezuela should not go too far in provoking other countries and should stick to signed treaties.

Mr. Chavez says he is aware of his limitation. “My country’s northern borders are with the Netherlands,” he said recently.

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