With U.S. saber rattling towards Venezuela now at its height, the Pentagon has decided to reactivate the Navy’s fourth fleet in the Caribbean, Central and South America.
It’s a bold move, and has already stirred controversy within the wider region.
The fleet, which will start patrolling in July, will be based at the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Florida and will answer to the U.S. Southern Command in Miami. Rear Admiral Joseph Keran, current commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, will oversee operations. About 11 vessels are currently under the Southern Command, a number that could increase in future. The Navy plans to assign a nuclear-powered air craft carrier, USS George Washington, to the force.
It’s difficult to see how the revival of the Fourth Fleet is warranted at the present time. The move has only served to further antagonize Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, already rattled by a U.S. navy plane’s violation of Venezuelan airspace over the weekend. In the long-term, the Pentagon’s saber rattling may encourage South American militaries to assert great independence from Washington, a trend which is already well under way as I discuss in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan).
Reacting angrily to the Navy’s announcement, Chávez said: “They don’t scare us in the least.” Chávez remarked that “along with Brazil we’re studying the creation of a South American Defense Council” which would defend South America from foreign intervention. “If a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) exists,” the Venezuelan leader postulated, “why can’t a SATO exist, a South Atlantic Treaty Organization?"
Though the resuscitation of the Fourth Fleet has led many to believe that the U.S. is pursuing a course of gunboat diplomacy in the region, there was a time when the force arguably served a real need. What is the history of the Fourth Fleet in Venezuelan waters?
Venezuela in World War II
On the eve of the Second World War, Venezuela was the world’s leading oil exporter and during the conflict the oil rich Maracaibo fields, located in the westernmost Venezuelan state of Zulia, were considered a crucial resource for both the axis and allied powers.
British and American oil subsidiaries of Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil and Gulf had in fact long operated in the Maracaibo Basin prior to the outbreak of European hostilities. Transportation of crude from Jersey Standard’s producing fields in Lake Maracaibo region was carried out through use of specially constructed shallow draft tankers. A refinery owned by Royal Dutch Shell located on the island of Aruba, which processed Maracaibo crude, was strategically important as it supplied products not only to Britain but also to France.
In 1940, Britain received fully 40 percent of her total oil imports from Venezuela, and during the first years of the war that total jumped to as high as 80 percent. Venezuelan oil also represented a vital commodity for the Nazis and the ability of the German state to wage war in Europe. As late as 1938, oil produced from Aruba, Curacao and Venezuela accounted for 44 percent of German oil imports. Germany did not buy oil directly from Venezuela but from U.S. and British-Dutch oil companies which shipped Venezuelan crude to refineries in Aruba and Curacao and then sold the final product in Europe. Venezuelan-German trade remained at normal levels but ended abruptly in September 1939 with the beginning of the British naval blockade of Germany.
By 1940, with Britain increasingly isolated as the result of German attack and prior to the entrance of the U.S. into the war, Venezuelan sentiment was bitterly anti-German. Meanwhile Venezuela moved into the U.S. orbit and became a chief recipient of American economic aid. U.S. military officials preferred that Venezuela publicly stay neutral in an effort to preempt any German moves to shell Venezuela’s coast.
Venezuelan neutrality however was a mere legal fiction: in reality, the South American nation had granted U.S. ships and airplanes special access to ports and airstrips. Two days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Venezuela declared its solidarity with the United States and on December 31, 1941 the Andean nation severed relations with the Axis powers.
Operation “Roll of Drums”
It wasn’t long before the Venezuelan government’s decision to sell oil to the allies resulted in Nazi counter measures. On December 12, 1941 Hitler met with his naval advisers and approved PAUKENSCHLAG or “ROLL OF DRUMS” a U-boat operation in Western Atlantic/Caribbean waters. In February, 1942 German submarines plied the Caribbean, sinking 25 tankers in one month.
The Nazis were chiefly concerned with the Dutch islands of Curacao and Aruba, Dutch colonies where U.S. forces had set up defensive fortifications in order to protect refineries processing Venezuelan crude from Maracaibo (with an estimated crude capacity of 480,000 barrels a day, the Aruba refinery, owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey, and the Curacao refinery, owned by Royal Dutch Shell, outranked Abadan in Iran with 250,000 barrels; the Baku complex in the U.S.S.R. with about 230,000 barrels; and the largest plants in the United States at Baytown, Port Arthur, Bayonne, Baton Rouge, and Whiting with over 100,000 barrels each).
On 15 February 1942, a convoy of oil tankers and ships left the Maracaibo Bar. The first ships in line were the ‘Monagas,’ of the Mene Grande Oil Company, followed by the ‘Tia Juana’ and ‘Pedernales’ both belonging to the Lago Petroleum Corporation. These tankers were followed by the ‘Rafaela’ belonging to Shell, and the ‘San Nicolas’and ‘Orangestad,’ belonging to Lago Oil and Transport Co, based in Aruba. A number of other tankers joined the column.
German U-Boat Attack and Creation of the U.S. Fourth Fleet
Suddenly a German U-boat torpedoed the ‘Monagas’ which sank immediately. The tankers ‘Tia Juana,’ ‘Pedernales,’ ‘Rafaela,’ ‘San Nicolas,’ and ‘Orangestad’ were also hit and sustained casualties. On the same day, the oil refinery on Aruba was attacked by German submarine shellfire. The political fallout from the attack was predictable: soon, angry street protesters hit the streets of Caracas, denouncing German aggression.
In response to stepped up German escalation in the Caribbean, the U.S. Navy created the Fourth Fleet to hunt submarines in the South Atlantic. The U.S. moves came none too soon: as the naval war raged in the Caribbean, Venezuela suffered tremendous economic losses. As a result of the lost tankers, production in the Lake Maracaibo Basin had to be cut back by nearly 100,000 tons of crude daily. By July 1942 the situation was still dire, with tankers operating at only one-third their average capacity of 30,000 barrels.
German attacks on the Aruba refinery marked the beginning of the Battle of the Caribbean. It wasn’t until August, 1943 that the Fourth Fleet was able to turn the tables on the submarine menace in Venezuelan waters. In 1950, with German U-boats now long gone, the U.S. Navy disbanded the fleet.
Reviving the Fourth Fleet
The Navy claims that it needs to resuscitate the Fourth Fleet now to combat terrorism, to keep the economic sea lanes of communication free and open, to counter illicit trafficking and to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
However, the move comes at a particularly sensitive moment within the region. U.S. ally Colombia launched a deadly raid across the Ecuadoran border in March, killing 16 members of the FARC guerilla insurgency including the organization’s number two, Raúl Reyes. Last weekend, Chávez accused Colombia of launching a cross-border incursion, while the Pentagon routinely lambastes Venezuela for its arms buildup including acquisition of high performance fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and diesel submarines.
Unlike the Second World War, when many South Americans welcomed the Fourth Fleet in Caribbean waters, some view the current U.S. naval presence as a veiled threat directed at the region’s new Pink Tide countries. In an interview with Cuban television, Bolivian President Evo Morales remarked that the U.S. naval force constituted "the Fourth Fleet of intervention."
Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro has asked why the U.S. has sought to revive the Fourth Fleet at this precise moment. Writing in the Cuban newspaper Granma, Castro suggested that the move constituted a return to U.S. gunboat diplomacy. Castro, whose island nation confronted a U.S. naval blockade during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, remarked "The aircraft carriers and nuclear bombs that threaten our countries are used to sow terror and death, but not to combat terrorism and illegal activities.”
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan)