Shadow Government

Hugo Chávez is up to no good

By José R. Cárdenas Kudos to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for scheduling a joint subcommittee hearing Tuesday on Iran’s activities in the Western Hemisphere. While the foreign-policy establishment has understandably been focused on myriad global crises elsewhere, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime has been steadily expanding its reach in what it undoubtedly sees as America’s “soft ...

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By José R. Cárdenas

Kudos to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for scheduling a joint subcommittee hearing Tuesday on Iran’s activities in the Western Hemisphere. While the foreign-policy establishment has understandably been focused on myriad global crises elsewhere, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime has been steadily expanding its reach in what it undoubtedly sees as America’s “soft underbelly.” The House hearing follows a blockbuster (but, unfortunately, little noticed) speech last month at the Brookings Institution by legendary New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau detailing the growing ties between Iran and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.

Morgenthau, whose base in New York makes him one of the country’s premier experts on international financial transactions (especially those of the unsavory kind), charged that Iran and Venezuela are establishing “a cozy financial, political, and military partnership” that is “rooted in a shared anti-American rhetoric and policy.” “The Iranians,” he said, “calculating and clever in their diplomatic relations, have found the perfect ally in Venezuela. Venezuela has an established financial system that, with Chávez’s help, can be exploited to avoid economic sanctions. As well, its geographic location is ideal for building and storing weapons of mass destruction far away from Middle Eastern states threatened by Iran’s ambition and from the eyes of the international community.” He said, “Now is the time for policies and actions in order to ensure that the partnership produces no poisonous fruit.”

As if on cue, two days after Morgenthau’s speech, the tiny principality of Andorra announced the freezing of bank accounts of several individuals said to have close ties to Chávez as part of an international investigation into terrorism financing. The move came amid a U.S. Treasury Department investigation of accounts and financial activity linked to Chávez family members and Venezuelan government officials, according to an Andorran newspaper. The paper said the bank accounts, in Miami, Panama, China and Andorra, could be used to transfer funds to terrorist groups including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Hezbollah, Hamas, and ETA.

Another recent worrying development is Chávez’s admission that Iran is helping Venezuela explore for uranium. According to a new paper from my colleague Ambassador Roger Noriega, a Canadian uranium exploration company, U308 Corp, recorded a substantial source of uranium in the border region between Guyana and Venezuela. It just so happens that Iranian companies and others with Middle Eastern backgrounds now operate mines, a “tractor factory,” and a cement plant in the same area; at least two of these facilities have direct access to the navigable Orinoco River, which provides a ready route to the Atlantic Ocean.

Chávez’s assurances that he would only use nuclear energy for peaceful means ring somewhat hollow when you consider yet another incident earlier this year where Turkish authorities seized cargo headed from Iran to Venezuela that contained lab equipment capable of producing explosives. The shipment was labeled “tractor parts” for the aforementioned “tractor factory.”

Complicating matters further for U.S. interests in the region is the fact that Chávez has used his friendly relations with other like-minded radicals to gain further entrée for the Iranians in the Americas. Iran has signed trade, investment, and assistance deals — and, in some cases, weapons deals — with Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Even the Big Boy of Latin America, Brazil, has gotten into the act, defending Iran’s nuclear program and preparing to host Ahmadinejad on a state visit in late November 2009.

Fortunately, these issues and no doubt many more will be examined by House subcommittee members. It is long past time to bring greater scrutiny to Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere and develop appropriate responses. Continuing to investigate shady financial transactions and sanctioning perpetrators is a given, as well as working with our allies to monitor Iran’s trading relationships with countries in the hemisphere. But more is needed. For starters, the Obama administration should strengthen our relationships with those countries who aren’t interested in what Chávez and Ahmadinejad are selling, and that means seeking congressional approval for the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements that have lain dormant since January. It should also breathe new life into the Pathways for Prosperity in the Americas initiative, a group of 14 hemispheric countries working together to extend the benefits of free trade throughout their societies. The point is the vast majority of Latin Americans are loath to see their countries getting involved in contentious global controversies in which they have no stake, but they need to see the United States visibly and actively promoting an alternative way forward.

Granted, the administration’s foreign-policy plate continues to be full with pressing matters. But when you recognize that the Iranian regime is playing for keeps, and that its Western Hemisphere strategy is an important part of its efforts to evade international scrutiny — and sanctions — regarding its nuclear program, then certainly its activities close to home merit more high-level attention and response.

Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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