Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has traveled the world extensively in the 11 years of his presidency.
In addition to his frequent trips to allied regional leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, he has exchanged numerous visits with Iranian and Russian counterparts, as well as holding frequent, often clandestine, meetings with senior officials of FARC, the ideologically bereft self-proclaimed Communist/leftist Colombian narco-trafficking scourge.
Together with Cuba, these relationships are the reasons why it is imperative the United States and allied countries in the Western hemisphere and Europe face the real threat that the Chavez regime presents. Treating the Venezuelan despot as a declining threat who is therefore not dangerous is a serious and unnecessary risk to regional peace and stability.
None of his close allies—together with a less threatening Chinese presence—will readily give up their extensive commitments. To the contrary, there are extensive indications that the leaders of Cuba, Iran and Russia are fully cognizant of Venezuela’s near catastrophic condition and are therefore prepared to see Chavez removed from office. They are not prepared, however, to see themselves blocked from enjoying the benefits of their Venezuelan involvement.
Iran Moves in to Stay
Venezuela’s Ministry of Mines and Energy has long operated a sophisticated laboratory staffed by experienced local technical personnel. Several years ago, Iranian advisors started working at the lab; today, the entire staff is Iranian to the chagrin of former Venezuelan employees.
The lab analyzes uranium samples and provides reports to Iranian nuclear program staff. The Caracas laboratory is a small but important part of what has become a major undertaking by Iran in Venezuela: exploration, mining and refining of Venezuelan uranium for its nuclear program.
On April 24 in Canaima, Bolivar State, in Southern Venezuela, the country’s Executive Vice President Elias Jaua sat in his official Beechcraft King Air turboprop aircraft with engines running, on the tarmac in front of remote Canaima’s tiny air terminal, awaiting the last of eight ministers who had journeyed with him the day before to Southern Venezuela.
Canaima National Park is a spectacular tourist attraction, including among other wonders Angel Falls, the tallest cascade in the world. However, the visit by key members of the Chavez regime was a business matter. Their mission was so important that four armed Russian helicopters and a C-130 military transport were on hand, along with more than a dozen senior military officers in Canaima on temporary duty.
In addition to Jaua’s retinue, Gen. Hector Francisco Ruiz, his wife and three senior army officers were billeted at Waku Lodge with another dozen at a nearby facility. A large room in the lodge had been set up as a tropical command post. Local residents said there were another 100-plus soldiers who had come to Canaima briefly before proceeding to secure the gold and diamond mine at Alto Caura approximately 62 miles to the west.
Vice President Jaua had formally accepted control of the mine on behalf of the government, in a show of concern about the way in which domestic and foreign “capitalist mafias” were destroying nature and illegally taking the country’s wealth. Defense Minister Mata Figueroa later announced the arrest of various citizens whom he said were responsible for the destruction of four square miles of virgin forest.
According to multiple informants, the mine was seized and some 4,000 residents expelled, in order for Brazilian and Iranian technicians to establish uranium mining operations in the area. Alto Caura will be the second mine to provide Iran uranium for its nuclear program—the first mine is also in Bolivar state, near the border with Guyana. According to locals, Iranian mining technicians are periodically joined by their Caracas-based wives in Canaima for relaxing weekends.
The mining area is located close to the Caura River, which runs north to the mighty Orinoco River and on to Ciudad Bolivar where a joint Venezuelan-Iranian tractor factory is situated. The factory actually produces few if any tractors, but serves as a convenient regional-armaments warehouse and explosives-manufacturing facility. It appears possible the factory will be expanded to refine uranium ore. From Ciudad Bolivar, the Orinoco flows east to the Atlantic Ocean.
The “tractor” factory is one of four touted joint industrial projects, including a ‘”bicycle” factory ironically intended to build “Atomic” brand bikes but actually refines uranium; a “cement” factory that warehouses and packs cocaine in bags marked “cement” that are exported to West Africa and transshipped to Europe.
River boats and barges navigate the Caura and Orinoco rivers carrying a variety of legal and illegal exports to waiting ocean-going craft. One reported carrier, the IRISL freight shipping line, a joint Venezuelan-Iranian venture, has a checkered past: in December 2008, authorities at the Turkish port of Mersin seized 22 containers labeled “tractor parts” that were actually filled with weapon-making materials bound for Venezuela.
Although uranium mining and refining is a major undertaking, Iran has numerous other interests, including food processing plants—dairy, tuna and corn flour—oil exploration, financial services—including money laundering—specialized military training and electronic intelligence gathering.
It is reliably reported that Iran’s Lebanon-based terrorist surrogates, Hezbollah, have focused on “converting” indigenous tribes in Venezuela and Bolivia to Shi’a Muslim radicalism, including training formerly innocent tribe members in suicide bombing tactics. In Venezuela, the activity is primarily focused in the Guajira sector among the Wayuu people, near the Colombian border.
From its strong base in Venezuela, Iran has established important activities in half a dozen Latin American countries, most notably a range of programs with Brazil and freewheeling banking in Panama.
From Russia with Guns
There has been much publicity about extensive Russian arms sales to the Chavez regime. It started with the purchase of 100,000 AK-47 Kalashnikov automatic rifles and licenses to produce the rifle and its ammunition in Venezuela. Besides the Venezuelan military, the arms have been distributed to Chavez’s domestic militias as well as to Colombia’s FARC narco-terrorists.
Numerous other military deals have followed, marked by extraordinarily liberal terms including a $1 billion purchase loan to Venezuela, the wealthiest country per capita in Latin America. If that were not enough, visits by a Russian navy task force and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—the former to participate in joint naval exercises and the latter to sign numerous previously negotiated agreements—underscore Russia’s interest in close relations with the Chavez regime.
The Kalashnikov acquisition has resulted in wide distribution of the world’s most popular and effective automatic assault rifle being distributed to thousands of Venezuelan citizens, as well as to Colombian FARC narco-terrorists. As recently as June, workers at Petrolera Sinovensa, the joint-venture heavy-crude oil project of PDVSA and China National Petroleum Corporation, received AK-47 training.
To the FARC with comfort
AK-47s supplied to the FARC are just one example of Venezuela’s support for the leftist guerrilla group that has bedeviled Colombian society for 50 years.
Colombian intelligence has identified 27 FARC training, rest and medical camps inside Venezuelan territory, providing safe havens for hundreds of guerrillas and protected staging points for the export of cocaine. In a recent development, members of Iran’s elite Quds Force have been training FARC personnel in irregular warfare tactics.
In Apure state, airstrips have for several years flown thousands of tons of cocaine to Central American, Dominican and Mexican transit points. Much of the air-expressed product starts its journey in FARC camps. They also send drugs on barges down the Orinoco River for shipment to Africa and Europe. Cocaine shipments increasingly embark from established official air and seaports, since the military took control of all such facilities in January, a step which also allows unfettered import of illegal supplies for the FARC.
Cocaine sales, profits from which are shared with high-ranking Venezuelan officials, fund the FARC’s activities including arms purchases and bribery of key Colombian officials. They are thus a serious threat to Colombia and its government, the closest U.S. ally in Latin America.
The Cuban, Iranian and Russian relationships, plus very close regional ties with radical leftist, corrupt Argentine, Bolivian, Ecuadorean and Nicaraguan regimes, create a revolutionary axis that threatens every other government in the Western hemisphere. However, it seems fashionable in today’s Washington to assume that Hugo Chavez’s days are numbered and that he and his partners, at home and abroad, are not a serious threat to the United States and other freedom-loving countries.
It can be safely assumed that the Castro brothers, Iran’s ruling mullahs and Russia’s Vladimir Putin fully understand that Hugo Chavez is at the least an unstable personality and that he is driving Venezuela towards cataclysm. It can also be assumed that they—together with a more subtle Chinese leadership—will not readily give up their extensive investments in Venezuela.
• Cuba will not willingly forego the economic lifeline that cheap bartered petroleum provides and profitable participation in the cocaine trade.
• Iran’s uranium investments are critical to their nuclear development plans and Caracas has become a center for its illegal financial dealings and large profits are forthcoming from the cocaine trade.
• Russia’s foothold in Venezuela is much more than a way to annoy the United States: It has become the regional base for commercial, industrial and military activities from San Salvador to Buenos Aires.
According to highly respected polling organization Hinterlaces, Hugo Chavez continues to lose popular support. Hinterlaces’ most recent national survey found 64% of respondents had little or no confidence in Mr. Chavez, and 68% blamed the president or the people around him for not solving the country’s grave problems. Regarding the flagrant scandal of more than 100,000 tons of food found rotting in government warehouses, 72% believe Mr. Chavez is not doing enough to investigate and punish those responsible.
Unfortunately but understandably, as September legislative elections approach, there is limited support for the opposition. While 50% say they will vote for opposition or independent candidates vs. 27% planning to vote for pro-Chavez candidates; only 19% support the opposition parties. In short, although more than 80% in the Hinterlaces survey say they intend to vote, there is little appeal for the faltering, feckless opposition.
It is possible that the economic woes facing Venezuela will soon bring an end to Mr. Chavez’s 11 years of misrule. However, his cell system when completed and his armed militias, plus his ties to powerful regimes and alliances with other Latin American governments are significant deterrents. Moreover, a new program to establish self-governing communes—some 200 are already in formation—is designed to effectively replace existing local political entities. What’s more, Chavez can be replaced by another, more balanced despot, an option Castro’s man in Caracas Ramiro Valdes has reportedly been exploring.
While repugnant corruption and human rights violations within the boundaries of, say, Zimbabwe might be ignored with the argument that it is a domestic matter for the people of the nation to resolve, aggressive subversion throughout an entire region is something far different.
The situation in Venezuela requires a concerted effort to unite the majority of hemisphere governments that are against Hugo Chavez and his cohorts. Venezuela and its allies should be expelled from regional associations where possible and not invited to future regional and international meetings and summits. Continuing economic pressure should be applied by all governments and embargos placed on transfer of technology to the Venezuelan and other rogue regimes. In short, every step short of outright military action should be considered and implemented.
To underestimate—indeed, pay little or no heed to—the threat and to take virtually no steps to counteract it, is to ignore multiple fires that are burning out of control in the United States’ near abroad. The careening career of Hugo Chavez and his allies must be curtailed.