The Magazine

Qaddafi’s Pal in Caracas

Hugo Chávez had better hope he doesn’t end up like his dictator friends.

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By VANESSA NEUMANN
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If Washington is apt to see the recent uprisings in the Middle East—against U.S. allies like Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as well as adversaries like the Islamic Republic of Iran—in terms of challenges to and opportunities for U.S. strategic interests, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez sees nothing but an opening to boost his own Bolivarian brand. 

Qaddafi’s Pal in Caracas

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Consider Chávez’s stance toward his OPEC colleague Muammar Qaddafi. Early during the fighting in Libya, there were rumors, maybe even floated by Chávez himself, that the Libyan dictator was about to flee to Venezuela. The government-friendly Venezuelan press speculated that when Qaddafi arrived he would be bearing with him the replica of Simón Bolívar’s sword that Chávez gave him in 2009 when he bestowed on his “revolutionary brother” the Order of the Liberator, Venezuela’s highest civilian honor. “What Simón Bolívar is to the Venezuelan people,” said Chávez, “Qaddafi is to the Libyan people.”  

When Qaddafi started bombing the Libyan people, and showed that he was not going anywhere, the Venezuelan ruler adjusted accordingly, offering to mediate between the colonel and his rivals. Aides to Chávez said Qaddafi accepted the proposal, though his son did not, and, not surprisingly, the rebels rejected his offer, as has the entire international community. But Chávez is hardly finished meddling in the Middle East, for the relationship between that region’s state sponsors of terror and the countries under the influence of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution is more than just a puppet show. The irony is that if the Venezuelan strongman isn’t careful, those Middle Eastern revolts might come back to haunt him. 

Of course, Libya isn’t the only rogue state under internal pressure that Chávez has warmed to. Venezuela has assiduously nurtured its relationship with Iran such that the Caracas-Tehran alliance may now represent the greatest threat to stability in Washington’s direct sphere of influence. 

Chávez and Ahmadinejad call each other “brothers” and last year signed 11 memorandums of understanding for, among other initiatives, joint oil and gas exploration, as well as the construction of tanker ships and petrochemical plants. Chávez’s assistance to the Islamic Republic in circumventing U.N. sanctions has got the attention of the new Republican leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack (both R-FL) have said they intend to launch an investigation into the Venezuelan state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA). In July, the EU ordered the seizure of all the assets of the Venezuelan International Development Bank, an affiliate of the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI), one of 34 Iranian entities implicated in the development of nuclear or ballistic technology and sanctioned by the Treasury Department. In the meantime, Tehran and Caracas have announced that PDVSA will be investing $780 million in the South Pars gas field in southern Iran.

Another key aspect of the two countries’ strategic relationship is uranium exploration. Iran is reportedly helping Venezuela find and refine its estimated 50,000 tons of uranium reserves—a deal modeled after Caracas’s arrangement with Moscow, which has already signed agreements to build two 1,200-megawatt reactors in Venezuela.

And then there’s terrorism and the role that Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese-based asset, plays in the relationship. Hezbollah’s past work in Latin America includes its alleged involvement in two Buenos Aires bombings—the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center. And now, reports are surfacing that Venezuela has provided Hezbollah operatives with Venezuelan national identity cards—a concern raised in the July 27, 2010, Senate hearing for the recently nominated U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Larry Palmer. 

Elsewhere in Latin America, Iran has developed significant relationships with Chávez’s allies and fellow Bolivarian Revolutionaries, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. For instance, in December 2008 the EDBI offered to deposit $120 million in the Ecuadorean Central Bank to fund bilateral trade, and Iran and Ecuador have signed a $30 million deal to conduct joint mining projects in Ecuador through the Chemical-Geotechnical-Metallurgical Research Center in Ecuador. Even as that deal carefully avoids mentioning uranium, the IAEA’s March 2009 plans to help Ecuador explore its vast uranium reserves were largely intended to highlight and preclude Iranian involvement. In February 2010 the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, a multilateral organization that combats money laundering and terrorist financing, placed Ecuador on a list of countries that failed to comply with its regulations.

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