Hugo Chavez's Venezuelan revolution has become a bitter joke. His nation's economy is collapsing. His archrivals in neighboring Colombia just held a legitimate national election that strengthened their hand against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist drug army Chavez backs. This week, the Organization of American States (OAS) will convene to consider Colombia's evidence. The Colombian military reportedly has the grid co-ordinates of FARC camps inside Venezuela.
Though the former right-wing paratrooper remains a darling of the international political left, Venezuelans know Chavez is responsible for their current economic and political nightmare. The dictator has squandered Venezuela's oil windfall and enriched his political cronies.
So Chavez rattles sabers and threatens war in order to divert increasing domestic opposition. At the moment, Colombia isn't his primary target -- its military is too strong. The Caribbean island of Curacao, however, lying just off the Venezuelan coast, provides Chavez with a convenient enemy both geographically and politically.
Thus far the bully's threats have been gunboat hype and showboat hoopla. The question is, will bluster give way to bombs? An expansionary ideology propels Chavez, one that inflates his already explosive ego. He bills himself as the new Simon Bolivar, who will reunite the South American continent while cowing the United States and other imperialists -- like the Dutch.
Which is where Curacao enters Hugo's gunsights. Though the Dutch West Indies no longer formerly exists as a political entity, Holland retains responsibility for Curacao's defense and other foreign policy-related matters.
Chavez uses the term "Chavismo" (think Fidel Castro's "Fidelismo") to describe his political concoction of populism, machismo, socialism and caudilloism. Chavismo's most potent international media tool, however, is relentless anti-Americanism. Curacao, which currently hosts a U.S. base for drug interdiction efforts, is thus a diplomatic two-fer for attacking alleged European and Yankee imperialists.
Recently, he accused the U.S. of planning an attack on Venezuelan using the base at Curacao.
Why take his latest threats seriously? Though Chavez is clearly playing to a domestic audience by hyping a Yankee invasion, political change is occurring in several former Dutch Caribbean colonies. Curacao wants greater autonomy, similar to Holland's arrangements with Aruba, another island near Venezuela. The new political arrangements are supposed to take effect in October 2010.
Where there is change there is uncertainty. Chavez dreams of establishing a new "Bolivarian state" in South America composed of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, parts of Peru, Bolivia and Guyana, and the old Dutch West Indies. Colombia, the U.S. and, yes, Brazil frustrate the creation of this super-state on the mainland, but gobbling a small island may be possible, especially if he finances a pro-Venezuelan fifth column.
A border war to recover allegedly lost territory is a classic tyrant's tactic. In 1982, the Argentine military regime saw its grip on power in Buenos Aires slipping, so it invaded the Malvinas Islands (the Falklands). However, that gambit failed when the Royal Navy and British Army counterattacked. Following a swift and embarrassing defeat, the Argentine dictatorship toppled.
An expanse of open sea separated the Falklands from Argentina. In a February 2007 article, StrategyPage.com concluded geographic proximity, oil power and military hardware give Venezuela a huge advantage over Dutch defenses in the Caribbean. StrategyPage said Venezuela could take the nearby islands, and the Dutch "lack the ability to retake the islands on their own should the "Greater Venezuela" rhetoric from the Venezuelan dictator turn out to be for real."
Holland provides a useful rhetorical enemy, but the U.S. and Great Britain, Holland's NATO allies, are formidable foes. A U.S. carrier group and a few U.S. and Royal Marine battalions would crush Chavez's invaders. However, Curacao's most precious economic asset, its refinery, would likely burn -- a smoking disaster reminiscent of Kuwait's oil fields torched by Saddam's fleeing forces in 1991.
To counterattack, however, would mean American leaders are willing to ignore the condemnations of Chavez's fellow anti-American sympathizers in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. Chavez, when he rattled sabers in 2007, knew President George W. Bush would respond vigorously to an actual attack. The cowboy would pull his gun. President Barack Obama, however, portrays himself as the anti-Bush. Does the desperate dictator see an opportunity emerging?