From the July 18, 2007 New York Sun
July 18, 2007
by Jaime Daremblum
In Tehran, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, recently completed his tour of visits to three of his role models: Russia's Vladimir Putin, Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko, and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Chavez used his tour to voice his well-known anti-American rancor. He also invited the state oil companies of Russia and Iran to take over the business of American corporations in Venezuela, which refuse to accept a 60% government take. In addition, he struck a deal with Mr. Ahmadinejad for Iran to buy Venezuelan gasoline.
Most importantly, however, Mr. Chavez used his tour to shop for modern weapons. In Moscow he proposed the purchase of nine advanced missile launching submarines. This purchase comes on top of $4 billion in previous acquisitions, including Russian fighter planes, helicopters, and thousands of assault rifles.
In Minsk the shopping spree included anti-aircraft missile systems, while in Tehran Mr. Chavez attempted to move forward on a joint venture to manufacture weapons in Venezuela. With these acquisitions, Venezuela's huge arsenal, which already far exceeds the needs of national defense or border protection, will expand even further.
Quite rightly, many in the region see Mr. Chavez's stockpiling of weapons as a destabilizing factor. Yet it has not been much recognized that this problem is compounded by Mr. Chavez's efforts to open up Latin America to the dangerous influence of Iran and its coterie of radical Islamist groups.
Caracas, along with Damascus and Beirut, openly host terrorist organizations from the Middle East. With the express approval of Mr. Chavez, the radical Lebanese of Hezbollah and the Palestinians of Hamas have opened offices in the Venezuelan capital, raising legitimate fears that some of the weapons amassed by Venezuela might end up in the hands of radical groups in Latin America.
For years now members of Hezbollah and Hamas, amongst others, have used the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay for fundraising and recruitment.
Indeed, Islamist radical group supporters from the TBA, Margarita Island in Venezuela, and other nations of the Caribbean Basin have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars back to their parent organizations in the Middle East, consequently extending the global support structure of international terrorism to the region. The recently foiled plot to bomb John F. Kennedy airport in New York, for example, was hatched in Trinidad and Tobago. No surprise then that diplomats and foreign observers have dubbed the Venezuelan capital "Caracastan."
In this light it is not unexpected that Iran's mullahs have found in Mr. Chavez an ally for their messianic and anti-Western goals. Caracas currently hosts a robust Iranian embassy and daily, direct flights to Tehran and Damascus.
In fact, the Venezuelan strongman and Mr. Ahmadinejad seem like kindred spirits. Both are obsessed with the idea of an impending American military invasion of their respective countries. This fixation permeates their rhetoric, actions, and world view. Ominously, in 1992 and 1994, Hezbollah directed terrorist operations from the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires. The Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Center were bombed, leaving hundreds of victims. Due to this, INTERPOL ordered the capture of Iran's ex-president, Ali Rafsanjani, and other high officials of the Islamic regime. The violent dimension of Iran's so-called diplomacy is a direct consequence of the Khomeini doctrine of exporting the Islamist Revolution.
The expansion of Iran's presence in Latin America and the Caribbean signifies a break with its diplomatic isolation, caused by its terrorist activities abroad, by its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and by Mr. Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying antics. Helped by Mr. Chavez, who realizes how his relationship with Iran complicates the stability of the hemisphere, Iran intends to find more allies in America's Latin and Caribbean neighbors.
Since September 2006, at the invitation of Mr. Chavez, Mr. Ahmadinejad has already made two visits to the continent, with a third announced for the upcoming weeks. A few months ago Iran's minister of foreign affairs visited Caracas, Managua, and Havana. And as a result of last February's Latin American conference held in Tehran the government of Iran said it would not only install a new embassy in Managua, but also that it would reopen diplomatic missions in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, as well as a representative office in Bolivia. Clearly, allowing Messrs. Chavez and Ahmadinejad to fill Latin America with potential nests of terrorism is unacceptable to those who live in liberal democracies.
Although the Inter-American system has mechanisms in place to combat terrorism, all must begin by creating a public consciousness regarding the dangerous paths down which Venezuela's president wants to drive the whole region.
Mr. Chavez promotes a political system based on absolute rule shielded by a façade of democracy. This model has already spread to Bolivia from Venezuela, and it threatens to advance to Ecuador and Nicaragua. Failure to counter the activities of Mr. Chavez would be a victory for authoritarianism, for the Mullahs, and for the terrorists, but a terrible setback for Latin America.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.