Four Italian-made frigates set out from the Venezuelan port city of Puerto Cabello in the middle of the night. They lead a fleet including amphibious landing craft and service ships, on their way to invade Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, three Caribbean islands forming part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. A Dutch 'Falklands war' has begun.
This is a nightmare scenario that Dutch military planners must nonetheless take into account, given Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez's repeated threats over the last two years. Political leaders on the three islands downplay the threat, but Venezuela looms large, literally and figuratively, on the three islands. The closest, Aruba, lies just 27 kilometres off Venezuela's coast.
But at the same time, a Dutch company is equipping the Venezuelan navy with combat management systems and other guidance systems.
Lars Wormgoor, spokesman for [Thales Nederland], a Dutch company specialising in defence communication systems, says his company is equipping eight Spanish-made corvettes with sophisticated combat management systems. The ships will also be fitted with radio and electronic sensors for search and target tracking.
The boats will become part of the Venezuelan navy, in a deal worth 250 million euro. Mr Wormgoor says the contract with the Venezuelan navy is in line with Dutch government policy.
But researcher Frank Slijper from the Dutch organisation Campaign against the Weapons Trade (Campagne tegen Wapenhandel), says the Dutch government is violating its own guidelines:
"We've found that, in a lot of cases, the criteria under which the arms must be reviewed is not properly employed and that the regulations are sometimes used as a cover."
Campaign against the Weapons Trade has released a report called 'Rhetoric or Restraint' detailing examples where countries throughout the European Union have violated EU guidelines. The communal EU standpoint is that weapon deals should not threaten regional stability, nor should they come at the cost of social economic development.
In the case of Venezuela, Slijper says, the contract awarded to Thales could threaten regional stability by elevating Venezuela's military capability above others in the region. But the sale also transgresses an even more fundamental principle: do not arm your potential enemies.
"It's a very strange situation because, in this case, the Netherlands is supplying weapons which could eventually be used against Dutch interests in the region."
For its part, the Dutch Foreign Ministry is attempting to thread the needle. The Hague says it isn't allowing any new contracts with Venezuela, out of concern for the direction the country is taking. But it has allowed all existing contracts to proceed, in the interest of continuity. According to the foreign ministry, 'the government wants to be a trusted partner for the private sector.'
This carefully worded statement belies a reported difference of opinion over the approval of the Thales contract. Former Defense Minister Henk Kamp is reported to have given negative advice for the sale, saying he feared Venezuela could pose a 'Falkland conflict-type military threat to the security of the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.'
Kamp lost that internal battle only to witness, a few years later, escalating threats from Venezuela.
Thales has also supplied similar information systems to the South Korean navy. If the conflict on the Korean peninsula intensifies, the South Korean Navy will rely on Dutch information systems.