Dmitry Astakhov/AP
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, right, with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia and Venezuela Drill Near Aruba, Fueling Cold War Fears

January 13, 2009 03:11 PM
by Josh Katz
Russia and Venezuela are drilling for gas around Aruba, underscoring the growing relationship between the two countries and causing concern about their ambitions in the Western hemisphere.

Russia and Venezuela Take Drilling Relationship to Aruba

Russia and Venezuela have started drilling for natural gas in the waters around the Caribbean island of Aruba, where Venezuela controls 28 fields possessing an estimated 27 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, according to The Washington Times.

Aruba and the Netherlands, which is in charge of Aruba’s foreign affairs, have expressed concern about the drilling because Venezuela did not alert them to its plans beforehand.

“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,” Croes said, referring to a treaty ratified in 1986.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently declared that his country and Russia were “strategic partners” in the exploration of oil and gas. In a televised speech, Chavez said the exploration was “an act of sovereignty, as we are liberated from the evil Yankee imperialism.”

Venezuela has claimed ownership of the Dutch Caribbean islands since World War II, “when Aruba began refining Venezuelan heavy crude,” according to The Washington Times. In fact, “Some here fear that the government of Mr. Chavez might invade the Netherlands Antilles and take possession of the islands.”

Background: Russia and Venezuela growing closer

In November 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit Venezuela. His meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez coincided with “expected to coincide with joint naval exercises off Venezuela’s coast, led by the Russian nuclear-powered warship, Peter the Great, and comes as the two powers announce that Russia will help Venezuela build a nuclear reactor,” according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Tensions between the United States and Venezuela and Russia have escalated recently as the latter two countries strengthen their ties, both financially and militarily.

In July, Venezuela, one of the world’s main oil producers, and Russia hatched a five-year plan whereby Russian oil companies LUKoil and Gazprom will invest up to $30 billion into Venezuela’s Orinoco Basin. Also in July, Chávez traveled to Russia and “purchased a number of anti-aircraft systems; three ‘Varshavianka’-class submarines; 53 helicopters; and 24 Sukhoi fighter planes, with a total price tag of $4.5 billion,” according to FrontPage Magazine.

Then on Sept. 10, two Russian Tu-160 “Blackjack” bombers arrived in Venezuela, allegedly to help patrol neutral waters in the Caribbean and Pacific. U.S. officials feared that the planes could have been carrying nuclear weapons; the Russian air force initially substantiated these accusations but then backtracked.

The Venezuelan government also released a statement saying that the conflict in Georgia was “planned, prepared, and ordered” by the United States in an “incitement of violence,” FrontPage reports.

Historical Context: The history of U.S.-Latin American conflict

U.S.-Latin American tension traces its roots to the Cold War, when the area was used as a “chessboard” between the United States and the Soviet Union, according to Agence France-Presse. Since then, “left-wing ideology” has continued to take hold in the region that strives for “affluence and modernity.”

The United States declared its hegemony over Latin America in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. The AFP claims that the United States used that doctrine to assert its control during the Cold War and because of this, Latin American countries “are determined to have full sovereign control over their affairs.” The news agency lays out where each Latin American nation fits into the diplomatic landscape: “Currently, the moderate left wing of the region includes Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The left-wing includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. The United States’ main allies in Latin America are Colombia, which receives five billion dollars a year to fight the illegal narcotics trade, and Mexico. It also has good relations with Costa Rica.”

Related Topic: Iran enters the mix

The Russia-Venezuela alliance isn’t the only concern in the region for the United States. Iran, one of the primary foes of the United States, has become a major player in South America. In early September, Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to Tehran to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Morales also opted to relocate Bolivia’s only embassy in the Middle East from Cairo to Tehran, the Diplomatic Courier writes. Iran has said it will invest more than $1 billion to Bolivia’s natural gas industry.

Ahmadinejad’s relationship with Venezuela has also improved. Chávez has traveled to Iran for “no less than six visits” with the Iranian president. According to the Diplomatic Courier, “Iran has expressed no misgivings about nurturing alliances with very Catholic countries like Bolivia or Venezuela, illustrating that despite the Islamist rhetoric, policy makers in Tehran are making pragmatic calculations.”

Opinion & Analysis: The impact of the Russia-Latin America developments

Russia’s actions in Venezuela serve two purposes for Chávez and Morales, according to the Los Angeles Times: provoking the United States “distracts domestic attention from their disastrous policies and could, they hope, produce an overreaction in kind from Washington that would further their interests.” The Times claimed that Morales is fighting with affluent white landowners who oppose his policy of redistributing the nation’s wealth. And, although Chávez is still popular in Venezuela, the country has a 34 percent inflation rate and there is “intensified scrutiny of his incompetent domestic policies.” Congress should not overreact to the situation in Latin America by cutting trade, the Times argued, because doing so would only solidify opposition to the United States in Bolivia and Venezuela.

Kathy Shaidle of FrontPage Magazine agreed. “Ultimately, though,” she writes, “the biggest loser in this game of geo-political shadowboxing is Venezuela. With economic peril looming … the Chavez government’s posturing is a distraction from the serious challenges facing Venezuela.”

Mary Anastasia O’Grady of The Wall Street Journal asserted that Russia’s intervention in South America should not be feared as if this were still the Cold War. “Vladimir Putin has been trying to rebuild his military, but it is no match for U.S. might. Nor is it believable that Russia seriously expects to challenge the U.S. in the Caribbean with the flotilla it says that it is sending next month for joint exercises with Venezuela.”

But Tony Karon, senior editor at Time magazine, took a somewhat different perspective in an op-ed published in the U.A.E. publication The National. He said the American news media blew the situation out of proportion when Russia sent bombers to Venezuela. There is no “new Cold War” because “there’s no ideological basis for the alliance between the self-styled socialist Venezuelan leader and the Islamists in Tehran or the nationalists in Moscow; simply a common antipathy towards the US and a shared interest in keeping oil prices high. During the Cold War there were two world economies, and you were part of either one or the other.” Now only one world economy exists, and they are so inextricably connected that business takes precedence.

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