Does Venezuela represent a threat to the United States?
Jaime Suchlicki, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami
The same week that the President of the U.S. downplayed the threat to U.S. security from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, a high level delegation from Hezbollah was visiting Caracas and Havana. Ammar Musawi, head of Hezbollah International Department, praised Cuba as a model on how to oppose "imperialist hegemony, arrogance, and plunder." In Venezuela, he met with the Vice-Foreign Minister and condemned the "ferocious attack" against their Syrian ally.
Venezuela’s growing relations with Iran and Chávez’ support for terrorist groups both in the Americas and the Middle East should worry the U.S.
The Venezuelan-Iranian Alliance
The most remarkable and dangerous foreign policy initiative of the Chávez regime has been allying Venezuela with Iran. During the past several years, Chávez has allowed the Iranians to use Venezuelan territory to penetrate the Western Hemisphere and to mine for uranium in Venezuela. Chávez policy is aiding Iran in developing nuclear technology and in evading U.N. sanctions and U.S. vigilance of the Iranian drug trade and other illicit activities. The Chávez regime is also providing Venezuelan passports to Iranian operatives. Venezuela’s Mining and Basic Industries Minister Rodolfo Sanz, acknowledged that Iran is “helping Venezuela to explore for uranium.” “Venezuela will soon start the process of, developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” he added, “not to build a bomb.” (1) Chávez himself suggested that Venezuela and Iran could pursue “nuclear cooperation.” (2)
The concern is not necessarily that Venezuela will build its own nuclear bomb. What, for example, would stop the Iranians, once they develop their own weapons, from providing some to their close ally in Caracas? Or worse, will the Iranians use Venezuela as a transshipment point to provide nuclear weapons to terrorist groups in the hemisphere or elsewhere. Or with the help of Venezuelans, would the Iranians smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States. (3)
Given Chávez’s erratic and irresponsible behavior, these possibilities should not be dismissed lightly. Not too long ago, Fidel Castro helped the Soviet Union surreptitiously introduce nuclear weapons into Cuba aimed at the United States. The October 1962 missile crisis is a grim reminder that poor U.S. vigilance, a daring leader in the Caribbean and a reckless dictator in Russia almost brought the world to a nuclear holocaust.
Since 2004, Iran has created an extensive network of installations throughout Venezuela. Most of these installations are designed to provide cover for illegal and subversive activities and to aid terrorist organizations in Latin America and the Middle East. (4) The Venezuelan government established a binational Iranian-Venezuelan bank, an alliance between the Banco Industrial de Venezuela and Iran’s Development and Export Bank, and facilitated the formation of an entirely Iranian-owned bank, the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo. It also created a binational investment and development fund and opened offices in Caracas of Iranian commercial banks. (5)
The Iranians have acquired “industrial” installations throughout Venezuelan territory, including a “tractor” factory in the State of Bolívar, a “cement” plant in the State of Monagas, a car-assembly plant in the State of Aragua and a bicycle factory in the State of Cojedes. Some of these installations in reality are used primarily as warehouses for the storage of illegal drugs, weapons and other items useful to Iran and its terrorist clients. In addition, the Islamic Republic bought a gold mine in Bolívar that indeed produces gold, but also produces uranium. (6) As part of a mineral survey in Guyana, a Canadian uranium exploration company recorded a substantial source of uranium in the Roraima Basin, which straddles the border between Guyana and Bolívar. Iranian companies and others with Middle Eastern backgrounds operate mines in this region; at least two of these facilities have their own ports on the navigable Orinoco River, through which uranium and other contraband can be smuggled to the Atlantic.
Iran is also providing Venezuela with technical assistance in the areas of defense, intelligence, energy and security. Iranians, as well as Cuban personnel, are advising and protecting Chávez and training his security apparatus. A close relationship between the three countries, with a clear anti-American tone, has developed. This triple alliance represents a clear threat to U.S. security interests and to the security of several countries in Latin America.
Chávez is also using Venezuela’s oil wealth for other purposes. Chávez’ support for Cuba exceeds $7 billion per year in subsidized petroleum shipments and investments in Cuba’s oil infrastructure. The Venezuelan regime supports a variety of leftist, anti-American regimes in Latin America including Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. In the past few years Chávez has spent more than $6 billion in purchasing Russian weapons, creating a long term Venezuelan military dependency on the Russian military. Besides Cuba's principal financial backer, Venezuela remains an open back door for Cuba's acquisition of sophisticated Russian weapons.
Should Chávez Worry the U.S.?
The emergence of the Chávez regime in Venezuela represents the most important threat to U.S. national interest and security in Latin America. Emboldened by Venezuela’s vast oil resources and his close relationship with Iran and Russia, Chávez has laid claim to the leadership of the anti-American movement in the region.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro’s illness and Cuba’s weak economic situation, thrusted the leadership of the Latin America left onto Chávez. If Fidel was the godfather of revolutionary/terrorist/anti-American groups, Chávez is the trusted “capo,” the heir to “the struggle against Yankee imperialism.”
The Venezuelan leader has no desire to relinquish power. He has manipulated past elections, and will manipulate future ones. He is increasingly deepening his Bolivarian revolution by weakening and subverting Venezuela’s democratic institutions. In the process of consolidating his authoritarian rule, he is now aiming his control at the culture-conserving democratic institutions. The press, the church, the education system and the family are all under attack, in a relentless move toward establishing a unipersonal dictatorship.
Chávez’s threat is not only internal. The militarization of Venezuela and the ambitions of its leader represent a major threat to neighboring Colombia. Chávez has threatened Colombia, a close ally of the United States, and has warned of a possible military conflict. The border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela also offers Chávez an opportunity to flex his muscles with a much weaker neighbor.
At best, Venezuela’s weapons purchases are leading to a major arms race in the region, with Colombia acquiring U.S. weapons and Brazil turning to France. Other countries, such as Ecuador and Peru, are also spending their much-needed resources in the acquisition of weapons. A coalition of Venezuela and its allies, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, may develop into a club of well-armed, anti-American regimes capable of intimidating its neighbors and exercising significant influence in the region.
U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela
For the past years, U.S. policy has either ignored or mildly chastised Chávez for his policies and activities. That policy is no longer viable or prudent. The United States needs to develop policies that undermine the Chávez regime, organize the opposition and accelerate the end of his rule. Covert operations to strengthen opposition groups and civil society are hopefully being implemented. Vigilance and denunciation of Venezuelan-Iranian activities and Chávez’s meddling in Colombia and elsewhere are critical to gain international support for U.S. policies.
While regime change in Venezuela may be a difficult policy objective, U.S. policy makers need to understand that the long-term consolidation of Chavista power in Venezuela may present a greater threat than the one posed in the 1960s by the Castro regime. Unlike Cuba, Chávez has significant oil wealth and Venezuela is a large country that borders on several South American neighbors. Chávez’s alliances with Iran, Syria and other anti-American countries, and his support for terrorist groups, while representing an asymmetrical threat, are as formidable a challenge as the Cuba-Soviet alliance.
The United States can also weaken Chávez’s power, as well as that of Russia, Iran and other countries, by a systematic policy of lowering the world price of petroleum. A combination of accelerated domestic policies in the area of conservation, domestic production, and alternate sources of energy is urgently needed. Regulation of speculation in the futures oil market would also help. Washington could furthermore release some of the petroleum currently stored in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). An arrangement could perhaps be developed with Canada or Mexico for these countries to lease storage facilities and store petroleum for future use in an emergency by the United States while Washington reduces its own SPR.
A comprehensive, alert policy is required to deal with the threat posed by Chávez’s actions and Iranian inroads in the hemisphere. Chávez is, after all, Fidel Castro’s disciple and heir in the region. The lessons of the Missile Crisis of 1962 should increase our uneasiness about Chávez’s adventurism and Iranian motivations in Latin America.
(1) Gustavo Coronel, “The Iran Nuclear Axis” Human Events, October 29, 2009.
(2) “Venezuela Defends Nuclear Ambitions,” UPI, September 15, 2009.
(3) See Jaime Suchlicki's “The Cuba-Venezuela Challenge to Hemispheric Security: Implications for the United States.” Center for Hemispheric Policy. University of Miami. December 3, 2009.
(4) See Norman A. Bailey, “Iranian Penetration into the Western Hemisphere Through Venezuela,” New York Federal Reserve Bank, February, 2009.
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