CARACAS, Venezuela — AP. Venezuela made a diplomatic protest to the United States and the Netherlands on Monday, saying a U.S. military plane violated its airspace last week after taking off from the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. A U.S. diplomat denied it.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro called the purported incursion “an attempt to provoke some type of incident.” He presented a protest letter to John Caulfield, charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, and to Dutch diplomat J.G. van Vloten Dissevelt.
Maduro expressed concern about the Netherlands’ role, saying that “we are worried that their territories are being used by the United States to make illegal incursions into our airspace.”
Caulfield denied the accusation, saying a U.S. military plane has not strayed into Venezuelan airspace since 2008, when the U.S. acknowledged what it called an accidental incident involving a Navy plane. Caulfield noted U.S. and Venezuelan officials discussed that incident in 2008.
“We have not had any other event of a violation of Venezuelan airspace by American planes,” Caulfield said.
In making the allegation last week, Chavez accused Washington of trying to provoke his government by sending an American P-3 plane from Curacao to twice enter Venezuelan airspace Friday. The plane was met by Venezuelan F-16s and escorted out of Venezuelan airspace, he said.
Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez appeared on state television Monday to present what he said was evidence of the alleged incursion. Flanked by military officials, Carrizalez showed diagrams of what he said was the route taken by U.S. aircraft after its takeoff from Curacao.
“We are showing the country and the world that incursions into our airspace are occurring to provoke us, to test our reaction and possibly, at any moment, to launch an attack,” Carrizalez said.
U.S. officials have said the American military’s use of airfields in Aruba and Curacao for counter-drug flights poses no threat to Venezuela.
THE HAGUE–It is an issue that the Dutch Parliament’s Second Chamber keeps coming back to: St. Maarten cannot attain country status before it has complied with all conditions. Members of Parliament’s Permanent Committee on Antillean and Aruban Affairs NAAZ don’t seem too enthusiastic about State Secretary of Kingdom Relations Ank Bijleveld-Schouten’s Plan B.
Parliament wondered, during Thursday’s meeting, whether the proposed General Acts of Kingdom Government (Algemene Maatregelen van Rijksbestuur AMvR), for federal tasks that would not be ready to be assumed by new Countries Curaçao and St. Maarten in October next year, were the famous Plan B.
Bijleveld-Schouten confirmed on Thursday that Plan B involved the General Acts of Kingdom Government, designed to regulate tasks that are not ready for execution by Countries Curaçao and St. Maarten at the moment of dismantling the Netherlands Antilles. This means that Curaçao and St. Maarten can attain country status before they have taken over all tasks of the Country the Netherlands Antilles.
And that is exactly what Dutch Parliament doesn’t want, especially not for St. Maarten. Christian Democratic Party CDA Member of Parliament (MP) Bas Jan van Bochove reminded Bijleveld-Schouten of the motion of October 2008, supported by the majority in Parliament, which urged the Dutch Government to hold off on country status for St. Maarten until after the island had complied with the conditions of adequate maintenance of law and order and administration of law.
In the last minutes of Thursday’s meeting, Bijleveld-Schouten explained how the General Acts of Kingdom Government would work. She said a committee would monitor the progress and joint plans of approach would be drawn up. The Kingdom Council of Ministers would have the last say.
According to the State Secretary, this Plan B would be better than arranging the tasks that were not ready through the Governor, because it would be more effective, and the Kingdom Government would have a better grip on the matter. MP Johan Remkes of the liberal democratic VVD party sought clarity on the committee that would monitor the process. “What kind of animal is that?” He said that the State Secretary seemed to be “sinking deeper and deeper into the swamp.”
Due to time constraints, MPs didn’t have a chance to finish the discussion with the State Secretary on this issue, so it was decided to continue the debate on October 28, after the autumn recess.
Members of the NAAZ committee expressed their doubts about the date 10-10-10, when Curaçao and St. Maarten would become countries, and Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba (BES islands) would be integrated into the Netherlands as “public entities.”
MP Ronald van Raak of the Socialist Party, the biggest opposition party, said Bijleveld-Schouten was “drumming” on the date. “We all know that this date is not feasible. Why does the State Secretary keep organising disappointments? I understand this numerical poetry, but in the past these dates proved unfeasible. And that will happen again this time,” he said.
Johan Remkes compared the dismantling and the realisation of new statuses to an unfinished house. “When you build a house, you get a contractor and you decide on a date when the house should be finished. I am under the impression that the State Secretary has agreed to a completion of a house without a roof, doors or windows. The Final Declaration (of November 2006, -Ed.) clearly stated that everything had to be in order before country status could be attained,” he said.
MPs Bas Jan van Bochove (CDA) and Pierre Heijnen of Labour Party PvdA also didn’t seem too confident about the 10-10-10 deadline. MP Hero Brinkman of Party for Freedom PVV was the only one daring enough to mention a “more realistic” date. “Let’s forget 10-10-10 and make it 12-12-12,” he said.
MP Ineke van Gent of green left party GroenLinks said she was getting a “headache” from the process of constitutional reform. “The support is dwindling with each debate. We are in a downward spiral. GroenLinks wants to stick to 10-10-10, but we also agree that partners have to stick to the conditions that were agreed to,” she said.
Bijleveld-Schouten said she was “happy” that a date had been set. “Now everyone knows what they are up to, and parties can work towards that goal,” she said. She warned however that the date could only become a reality if the countries Curaçao and St. Maarten had their affairs completely in order. “We [will] stick to the agreement and we will check if they comply with all conditions,” she said.
The ban on plastic shopping bags because of the damage they inflict on the environment has taken effect in Curaçao. Through good cooperation between the association of local supermarkets and the Island Government, among others, an information campaign was held and re-usable bags supplied. The question is when St. Maarten will follow suit. That plastic bags also constitute a big problem here was once again confirmed during the recent cleanup of five local beaches, when they greatly outnumbered the pieces of paper removed. Preliminary results of an online survey conducted by Sundial School students in any case indicated that the vast majority of the 90 respondents support a ban on plastic shopping bags. A total of 67 per cent favours charging for plastic shopping bags to encourage the use of “green” bags, while 87 per cent fancies a reward for reusing shopping bags and 77 per cent supports an outright ban on free plastic bags. In Curaçao the new, durable shopping bags are sold at cost price for one guilder, considered the consumer’s contribution to safeguarding the environment. Of course, people can also bring their own non-plastic bags. The complaints there have been minimal so far. One rule is that people coming with their own bags most fold them to make clear they are empty, so there is no confusion between what was already inside and what was purchased inside the supermarket. It’s also important to have enough durable bags available, although empty carton boxes at the supermarkets and bags people bring from home can make quite a difference. The Executive Council of St. Maarten has been talking for some time about a possible plastic ban here too, but so far there is no indication as to when this can be achieved. It appears the cooperation between the food stores and government that was essential in preparing and introducing the ban in Curaçao has not really gotten off the ground here, at least not yet. There is no time to lose, however. The longer it is delayed, the greater the damage to nature and as a result the scenery that helps to make the island such a favoured destination. Surely, while preparation time is no doubt needed, the parties involved should be able to learn from Curaçao’s experience and use that to introduce a plastic bag ban here in the very short term.
Source: The Daily Herald
Mexico City – Bolivia has given US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers three months to leave the country – claiming that agents were stirring up political strife in the deeply divided nation.
This fall, Ecuadorians voted yes to a new Constitution that calls for the closure by next year of one of the most important US operations in its war against drugs.
And for the fourth year in a row, Venezuela was singled out by President Bush – as was Bolivia for the first time – for having “failed demonstrably” in antidrug cooperation.
The US has long had a presence in Latin America to stem the northward drug flow; Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are the world’s largest cocaine producers. The US still boasts strong partnerships with many countries, such as Colombia and Mexico. But in others, particularly those led by leftists who have risen in collective condemnation of Washington, leaders are increasingly severing ties.
Their push for more self-determination could represent an opportunity to improve a strategy seen by many as a failure, says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Bolivia.
But Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for western hemisphere affairs, takes a dimmer view. Moves like Bolivia’s expulsion of DEA agents could have an impact on US intelligence-gathering capabilities, he says, but they also appear to weaken some countries’ commitment to fighting drug production. “Drug cartels and all the illicit behavior – even the damage done to the environment by drug production – is a transnational challenge that requires international cooperation,” he says.
Early this month, Bolivian President Evo Morales, the nation’s first indigenous leader who rose to power as head of the coca grower’s federation, expelled the DEA, claiming that agents were stoking divisions in a country already violently divided over a new Constitution that seeks more state control over energy resources and more recognition for the indigenous.
“There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president,” Mr. Morales said last week
The DEA calls the claims baseless. “We go after drug traffickers.… We don’t get involved in things outside our lane,” says Garrison Courtney, spokesperson for the DEA. “These are really silly accusations.”
The DEA presence in Venezuela has also been dramatically reduced in the past 18 months, according to State Department officials who characterize the reduction as evidence of Venezuela’s weak support for international antinarcotics effort.
And Ecuador announced it will not renew the 10-year lease at the Manta airbase, one of the US’s most significant operation zones in the region since 1999. President Rafael Correa, who promised in his campaign to close the base, calls it a matter of reciprocity. During a visit to Italy last year, he joked that if the US wanted its base, it would have to allow an Ecuadorian base in Miami.
The closure of Manta “will leave a serious gap in our abilities to monitor antinarcotics operations in the eastern Pacific,” says one administration official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Today, an average of 150 US military and civilians are stationed in Manta, and in 2007, some 1,100 counternarcotics missions were launched, says Jose Ruiz, a spokesperson at US Southern Command (Southcom) in Miami. The Manta base missions are responsible for 60 percent of interdictions in the eastern Pacific.
Mr. Ruiz says Southcom will continue to operate out of El Salvador and Aruba and Curaçao – and partner with the US Navy and US Coast Guard.
While the closure may be a blow, the US still has a good working relationship with Ecuador, says Ruiz. US officials say cooperation in the rest of the region is also strong, and in some cases, such as Mexico and Central America, stronger than in the past. But relations with Venezuela and Bolivia have deteriorated to new lows.
During civil strife in Bolivia early this fall, Bolivia expelled US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, claiming he supported opposition leaders. Mr. Chavez followed suit by expelling Patrick Duddy, the US ambassador to Venezuela. Both countries were then singled out by President Bush for failure to cooperate in international antinarcotics efforts, and the US announced it would revoke trade benefits for Bolivia under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA).
“Relations between Bolivia and the US have been severed in more ways than people understand,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University.
Some see an effort in Latin America to reassert national sovereignty. “[The] region as a whole has greater suspicion of US unilateralism,” says John Lindsay-Poland, codirector of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean. “It’s a blow to the [old US] approach, and I do think it’s an opportunity to take a different tack.”
Whether geopolitically that can hold is another question, he notes. “The cost for asserting self-determination can be really high,” Mr. Lindsay-Poland says, pointing to the rescinding of Bolivia’s ATPDEA benefits, which could impact thousands of jobs.
Ms. Ledebur agrees there is an opening for fresh thinking. “The way the war on drugs has been structured in the Andean region hasn’t worked for anyone,” she says.
She condemns the conditions placed on US aid, saying it doesn’t address the poverty, for example, that often drives coca production.
Others say the US is too focused on supply, and needs to target demand in the US.
But Mr. Gamarra is dubious. “Any approach that we’ve used has not worked,” he says. “You can make the argument that … if only we had well-funded addiction-treatment programs in the US … [but] even that doesn’t work. Recidivism among addicts is very high, treatment is very expensive. We’ve gone around and around on this debate.”
On Thursday, Morales said that Bolivia can take over antidrug operations on its own. He recently announced that Bolivia had met its goal of eradicating 12,300 acres of illegal coca this year – the amount required under law. A UN report from June shows that coca crop cultivation in Bolivia increased by 5 percent in 2007 – compared with 27 percent in Colombia, which is among the US’s most loyal allies.
The impact of expelling the DEA will be more heavily felt in transit countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, as well as Europe, where the majority of cocaine from Bolivia heads. Less than 2 percent makes it to the US market, according to a State Department official familiar with counternarcotic programs in the region.
“It takes away our eyes and ears in country itself,” says Mr. Courtney. But he says through partnerships with other law enforcement agencies in the region, they will find their way around it. “The same thing happened in Venezuela; we work around it,” he noted.
By Sara Miller Llana, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
WILLEMSTAD, Curacao (NNS) — USS Farragut (DDG 99) departed Willemstad Sept. 3 after five days of conducting theater security cooperation events with the Dutch Navy and the people of Curacao during Partnership of the Americas (POA) 2008.
POA 2008 is a U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)-sponsored program, implemented by 4th Fleet and Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 40, designed to foster greater interoperability and cooperation between partner nations throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Farragut Sailors have participated in POA 2008 since April and worked with countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. Farragut is currently participating in POA 2008 with USS Kauffman (FFG 59), their embarked LAMPS SH-60B Helicopter Squadron 42 Detachment 7 and DESRON 40.
“Theater Security Cooperation engagements ensure that partners in the region have the opportunity to work together to promote regional security and to ensure the free flow of commerce in the shipping lanes that our economies so heavily rely on,” said Cmdr. Scott Dugan, Farragut commanding officer.
“The Dutch Navy is a leader in promoting security and countering drug trafficking here in the Caribbean, so we are very excited to have had the opportunity to learn from each other.”
Curacao is a part of the Netherlands Antilles and serves as a forward operating location (FOL) for the Dutch Navy to conduct counter narco-terrorism (CNT) operations. Consequently, Farragut’s crew, who will conduct CNT operations during the final month of POA 2008, had much to share with their Dutch counterparts. The Dutch Navy is highly adept at combating narco-terrorism throughout the Caribbean. In late August, while working in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard, Dutch forces made one of the largest drug busts in history, capturing more than four tons of cocaine.
Farragut Sailors commenced their cooperation with Dutch Naval forces Aug. 29, during a maneuvering exercise with the frigate HNLMS Van Speijk (F 828). The mission continued with a flight deck reception for later that evening, a subject matter expert exchange (SMEE) tour of the Dutch Command Center Sept. 1 and a community relations project Sept. 2. Additional events included ship’s tours for more than 25 people, a soccer match with teams from the Dutch and Brazilian navies and the commanding officer’s luncheon aboard the British fast fleet tanker RFA Wave Ruler (A390) with the ship’s Commanding Officer, Capt. Nigel Budd, as well as the consulate generals from Great Britain and the United States.
Farragut’s flight deck reception hosted several high-profile guests, including the Governor of the Netherlands Antilles, Fritz Goedgedrag; the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Antilles, Emily de Jongh-Elhage; Commodore P.W Lenselink, Commander Netherlands Forces Caribbean, and the U.S. Consul General of the Netherlands Antilles, Timothy J. Dunn; Afterward, guests enjoyed guided tours provided by members of the crew.
The tour of the Dutch command center offered Farragut’s department heads and senior operations leadership insight into the organization and operations of the Dutch Navy and Coast Guard’s Curacao command and control center
Lt. Andy Strickland, Farragut’s weapons officer, gained valuable insight during the visit.
“The two entities [Dutch Navy and Coast Guard] share a relationship much like our Navy and Coast Guard and work very closely with respect to the counter narco-terror mission. The visit was very informative, and their capabilities are extremely impressive.”
Farragut Sailors interacted with the community of Curacao during a community relations project and a Project Handclasp exchange. Project Handclasp supplies large pallets of provisions to various hospitals, schools, and other community groups to express the United States’ continuing commitment to partner nations. During the Curacao Project Handclasp exchange, 10 Farragut Sailors unloaded numerous pallets filled with medical supplies and children’s toys at the Christian Children’s Hospice Center in Siloam, Curacao, which serves as both a home for terminally ill children and an orphanage.
Later in the week, Farragut crew members painted three buildings; repaired fences; and did some landscaping at the Dr. Nelly Winkel School, which accommodates approximately 200 elementary level students.
Lt. Andre Trofort, DESRON 40 chaplain, coordinated both the community relations event and Project Handclasp events. He attributed the mission’s success to the hard work and willingness of Farragut Sailors and lauded the contributions of U.S. Air Force units stationed in Curacao.
“Their assistance in both the planning and contribution was a very great asset to the COMREL project,” said Lt. Trofort. “The principal welcomed and thanked us for coming. I believe our efforts were greatly appreciated.”
Not all interactions were work-related. The Farragut soccer team demonstrated their on-field diplomacy in a series of games against teams from the Dutch and Brazilian navies. Farragut’s team captain, Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Casey Lima, said the competition was friendly and productive.
“It was a great opportunity to be able to associate with players from other navies, especially when it involves playing a game we both love.”
Dugan said he believes the visit was a great success.
“Our visit to Curacao allowed our Sailors to support the theater security cooperation missions which are so important to our overarching objectives. TSC missions demonstrate that interoperability is essential to any form of progress, whether it be repairing a school or combating narco-terrorism.
“We are forging important relationships with our neighbors. As a result, we will be able to better work together to ensure maritime stability throughout the region.”
For more news from USS Farragut, visit www.navy.mil/local/ddg99
CARACAS (MarketWatch) — While the dollar’s reputation has taken a beating in many of the world’s financial capitals, here in Venezuela the fallen-from-fashion greenback reigns supreme.
Middle-class Venezuelans routinely hop the borders to neighboring countries to get their hands on illicit dollars, spawning a thriving and lucrative black market in local currency exchange. Some gamble on nearby islands, while others make fake shopping excursions to Panama or Colombia.
Middlemen, taking a hefty cut, deliver the dollars and manufacture an elaborate trail of fake receipts in case the Venezuelans are later audited by the currency control board at home.
Locals do all of this in a bid to protect themselves from the region’s highest rate of inflation and to circumvent stiff exchange controls President Hugo Chavez imposed in 2003 to halt the flow of capital out of the country.
“People outside Venezuela don’t understand how uncomfortable this situation is … and the things we have to do to avoid the law,” said one young woman who works as an administrative assistant for an international company. She declined to be identified.
Playing the black market
The government sets the official exchange rate at 2.15 bolivars to the dollar, but on the black market $1 is currently trading for around 3.40 bolivars, or 58% higher than the official peg.
The spread between the two rates opens a world of opportunity for profit-loving capitalists happy to exploit the quirks of Chavez’s experiment in “21st century socialism.”
Here’s how the simplest and most common scheme works: In an effort to control access to dollars, Venezuela limits its citizens to $5,000 in credit-card purchases abroad. A government currency-control authority, known locally by the acronym Cadivi, makes that sum available at the official exchange rate, or 10,750 bolivars.
With those cheaply bought dollars loaded onto a credit card issued by a Venezuelan bank, a traveler can head to Panama, Aruba or Curacao; get a cash advance in dollars; and, finally, convert the hard cash back into bolivars, which at the current black-market rate would net 16,000 bolivars.
For those unable to make a trip abroad, smaller amounts can be exchanged by using credit-card quotas for Internet purchases to play online casino games. People play the required hand or two and then cash their chips, which are payable in dollars.
It isn’t avarice alone that drives people to play the credit-card game or devise similar ruses to secure dollars. For many Venezuelans, holding on to dollars is their only hedge against soaring inflation.
In a recent report, Morgan Stanley said it expects inflation in the country to reach 30% this year, up from 22.5% in 2007. The investment bank’s expectations are in line with many other forecasters.
“It doesn’t make sense to save bolivars,” said the unidentified young woman.
In the uncertain days leading up to the referendum last December on President Chavez’s constitutional reform, the parallel — or black — market sank to nearly 7 bolivars to the dollar. Virtually all airline seats to Panama and Curacao were booked weeks in advance, and international charter flights popped up around the country as Venezuelans made a run at booking their profits.
As the rate hovered near 6 bolivars to the dollar, I called all my friends and family in the States to see if anyone wanted to come to Venezuela. In those days, Continental, which flies direct from Houston to Caracas, allowed customers to choose whether they wanted to buy a ticket in bolivars or dollars — even for flights originating in the U.S.
The airline converted a ticket’s cost using the official exchange rate. Therefore, if one had purchased bolivars on the black market, a $1,000 ticket on the airline’s Web site actually cost less than $400 when purchased locally — literally, a steal.
Filed under: Government & Politics, St. Maarten News, Travel and Tourism
PHILIPSBURG–The Netherlands is willing to assist St. Maarten in setting up a registry for big yachts. “If St. Maarten wants to, the Netherlands will assist in building up the capability for the island to register big yachts. That would be an economically interesting activity. It’s in line with the tourism activities on the island,” said Dutch Minister of Transport and Waterways Camiel Eurlings.
He met with the Executive Council when he visited St. Maarten during his five-day tour of the Netherlands Antilles. He also visited the harbour facilities and received a tour of Princess Juliana International Airport before leaving for Saba.
Eurlings is promoting in his talks on all islands the establishment of a maritime consultative body with the participation of all partners in the Kingdom. This body will give Eurlings a tool to keep the cooperation with the islands “practical” after the dismantling of the Netherlands Antilles.
He said the body was necessary because there were complex matters to be solved. However, he saw the constitutional changes ahead also as an opportunity to “make each other stronger.”
Eurlings described his talks with the Executive Council yesterday as “constructive” and said they had served the purpose of his visit to the six islands of the Dutch Caribbean as the Minister of Transport.
“What we tried to do is to prepare ourselves for the new situation of two new countries St. Maarten and Curaçao, the BES islands Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba for which I will be directly responsible, and Aruba.”
He also discussed with the Executive Council the possibility that the Air Traffic Control of St. Maarten could continue serving Saba and St. Eustatius in the future.
“We are satisfied with the service of the Air Traffic Control in St. Maarten. It would be inefficient if the Netherlands would have to build an Air Traffic Control for Saba and St. Eustatius. Of course, financial agreements will have to be made with St. Maarten, determined by the cost of service rendered.”
However, there are still many more questions on aviation matters that need to be answered, such as how legal aspects will be arranged in the future and how the air space can be divided. “That’s why we agreed to organise an aviation conference in Curaçao early November.” All Kingdom partners will participate in this conference.
Another topic discussed was the Meteorological Service of the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba. Again Eurlings said he would like a practical approach for when the Netherlands starts assuming responsibility for meteorological services for the BES islands.
“The Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute KNMI will be responsible for the three islands. Also here we try to be practical. If we can avoid building a Dutch organisation, we will do so.”
He said the level of expertise of the Meteorological Service of the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba was high and the Netherlands would seek to have it continue rendering service to the other islands.
However, St. Maarten criticised the quality of service it had been receiving and in this light, the Minister said he had agreed with the Executive Council that he would look into whether it would be possible to continue using the service of the meteorological office, but also guaranteeing that the organisation could really become an institution of all the islands.
Source: The Daily Herald St. Maarten
La Orchila, Venezuela, Jun 6 (Prensa Latina) Venezuela denounced the US decision to reactivate the 4th Fleet as a threat for the Caribbean and regional peace and reaffirmed its right to strengthen defense.
At a military exercise held in La Orchila Island Defense Minister, General Gustavo Rangel, said his country has a right to defense.
La Orchila was recently over flown by a US aircraft that came from the US military base in Curacao, just 30 minutes from Caracas, that moved Venezuela to protest and the US apologized.
Rangel voiced respect for sovereign decision by the US and Curacao but reminds that Venezuela is sovereign and can adopt any measure suiting its location.
He also termed the base a threat to Caribbean peace and confirmed Venezuelan readiness for defense. Let’s not ask why we ready for an attack but why do they ready to attack. It is important to respect each other.
The general said they continue to receive weaponry purchased to Russia: a lot of Ak-103 automatic rifles and this week they expect the last four of a lot of 24 Sukhoi aircraft.
He also mentioned a copter maintenance center in construction when they are a few copters short to complete the contract with Russia.
Source: Prensa Latina
Calle 23 esq. N Vedado, La Habana – Cuba
Filed under: Business and Economy, Government & Politics, Travel and Tourism
WILLEMSTAD, Curaçao — Stroll down Columbusstraat. Enter the smoke-filled lobby of the San Marco Hotel and Casino. Proceed up a flight of stairs to the front desk. Dial Room 106. Bring a credit card issued in Venezuela.
In a quest to get their hands on American dollars, Venezuelans are flocking to this island in the Netherlands Antilles to take part in this elaborate back-room scheme and others like it to get around currency controls imposed by the government of President Hugo Chávez.
“These Venezuelans come here to get their dollars, and we’re happy to help them out,” said Ronald Veenstra, 36, owner of the Supreme and Real, a bar opposite the San Marco Hotel, while mixing a mojito. “I’ve never poured more drinks for any one group in my entire life.”
For Venezuelans, the Curaçao option for obtaining dollars emerged last year when the value of Venezuela’s currency, the bolívar, fell sharply against the dollar as fears intensified over Mr. Chávez’s economic policies, including the nationalization of oil and telephone companies.
Faced with the highest inflation rate in Latin America, about 23 percent, and the dwindling value of the bolívar, Venezuela became an economic oddity in an age of ascendant currencies as varied as the Brazilian real and the Peruvian sol: a place where the dollar is still sought after.
That’s where Curaçao comes in. “Venezuela has always been a natural market for Curaçao,” said Johannes Henriques, 63, a manager at the St. Michiel Bay Inn, reminiscing about past oil booms, when flush Venezuelans filled Willemstad’s boutiques and hotels. “Now the Venezuelans come to do their card thing, and it’s an opportunity for them to get to know us again.”
The “card thing” is an intricate scheme involving merchants, Socialist bureaucrats, Venezuelan travelers and middlemen.
Trying to slow capital flight, Venezuela limits its citizens to $5,000 in annual credit card purchases abroad. That is 10,750 bolívars, at the official exchange rate of 2.15 to the dollar. But at the prevailing black market rate of 4.50 to the dollar, the amount more than doubles to 22,500 bolívars.
Seizing on that gap, some Venezuelans began coming to Curaçao’s casinos last year and using their credit cards to buy chips. They played a few hands and cashed in the chips for dollars, which circulate here along with guilders, the Dutch currency. But the casinos soon prohibited them from buying chips with their cards because few actually used the chips to gamble.
Middlemen then moved in, organizing trips for Venezuelans and charging a 20 percent commission for cash advances at the office of a merchant, like the travel agency in Room 106 of the San Marco Hotel. The middleman and merchant divide the $1,000 commission, leaving the Venezuelan with $4,000 in cash.
The middlemen say they doctor receipts, with a wink and a nod from local banks that process the transactions. These intermediaries say the receipts, often for electronic items, offer the travelers alibis in case they are audited in Venezuela by bureaucrats ideologically loyal to Mr. Chávez. If problems arise, the middlemen say, a small so-called commission to some of the bureaucrats can smooth things over.
Some Venezuelans hold the dollars as a hedge against economic uncertainty, while others exchange them back in Venezuela for bolívars at the black-market rate, for a profit. The merchants get hefty commissions for swiping credit cards.
And in an illustration of where some of Venezuela’s oil wealth is going, some middlemen have accumulated fortunes. “I made $300,000 in December alone,” said Roberto, 31, a middleman who would not give his full name out of concern of being identified as a profiteer.
Rosann Jansen, a researcher at the Curaçao Tourist Board, said Venezuelan visitors roughly tripled in 2007 to 60,000 from a year earlier as airlines added flights from Caracas and smaller Venezuelan cities like Maracaibo, Valencia and Las Piedras. With flights booked months in advance, that number could rise to 100,000 this year.
“I’m doing this to have some savings when I’m older,” said Yesenia Castro, 53, a Venezuelan office worker who came here for dollars twice in less than a year.
Once the flights arrive, the middlemen’s employees swarm the airport lobby trying to steer the Venezuelans to their bosses. As competition increases, commissions on these deals have dropped recently to around 15 percent, travelers say.
Officials in Caracas have been trying to end the practice after Venezuelan credit card purchases abroad surged 312 percent in 2007 to $5.1 billion. They made it illegal to publish the black market currency rate and renamed the currency the bolívar fuerte, or strong bolívar.
They have audited thousands of travelers while requiring others to stay abroad seven days to tap their quota of credit card dollars. But the new rules have simply bred more creative ways to bypass them.
Some middlemen simply foot the bill for modest two-day trips, then keep the exchange profits for themselves, effectively duping Venezuelans out of their quotas while plying them with liquor at beaches here, usually occupied by Dutch tourists focusing on their paperbacks.
Little soul-searching about exploiting Venezuela’s idiosyncrasies seems to have emerged in Curaçao, which has long been finding ways to grow prosperous off its neighbor to the south.
So many shops in downtown Willemstad have signs saying “We welcome Venezuelan cards” that it is a surprise to find one that does not. The explanation, when it comes, is simple. “We don’t do it,” said Manish Chandhani, 25, a salesman in Baba’s, an electronics store. “My boss does not like to earn easy money.”
Sandra La Fuente P. contributed reporting.
Source: Willemstad Journal
Identification (ID) cards are available again at the Census Office. The provision of ID cards was halted temporarily because the Census Office had run out of the plastic material to print them.
The material necessary to process the cards had been ordered via the Civil Registry in Curacao, but was not forthcoming for quite some time.
ID cards can be purchased at a separate window at the Census Office. ID cards cost NAf. 25 for persons 17 years and older, and NAf. 5 for those under 17. If a person is not able to turn in the old ID card, there will be an extra charge of NAf. 15.
The credit card-size ID cards carry the digitized photo and signature of the bearer, along with personal information.
In compliance with article 1 of the Central Government ordinance pertaining to the issuance of ID cards, all persons 12 years and older who are duly registered in the basic administration of the civil registry at the Census Office must be in possession of valid ID cards.
Source: The Daily Herald St. Maarten