The Caracas connection

Hizbullah's growing presence in Venezuela has Israel worried.

Ahmadinejad Chavez 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Ahmadinejad Chavez 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
As Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman concluded his visit to Brazil on Thursday - the first stop of his 10-day Latin American tour - Israel expressed concern over Hizbullah's growing strength in the region, especially in a country not on Lieberman's itinerary: Venezuela. The minister was expected to discuss the progress that Iran and Hizbullah have made in Venezuela, as well as a report released by the Foreign Ministry in May which details how its president, Hugo Chavez, helped Iran bypass UN Security Council economic sanctions and provided it with uranium. Iran moved into Latin American in 1982, starting with Cuba, and developed economic ties and opened embassies in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Uruguay, according to the report. Lieberman met with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Wednesday and asked Latin America's biggest nation to use its influence to help stop Teheran's nuclear progress. "I think that Brazil more than other country can try to convince the Iranians to stop their nuclear program and, of course, to convince the Palestinians to start direct talks," Lieberman said after the meeting. Da Silva made no comments after the hourlong meeting. But Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said Brazil's constitution prohibits the construction of nuclear weapons, and "we hope other countries also have nuclear research only for peaceful purposes." Israeli officials have expressed concern at the Islamic republic's growing ties with leftist-led nations in Latin America. Iranian companies are building apartments, cars, tractors and bicycles in Venezuela and the two countries' leaders have exchanged several visits. Iran has opened new embassies in Bolivia and Nicaragua, and a secret Israeli report recently suggested that Bolivia and Venezuela are supplying uranium to Iran - an allegation sharply denied by both South American countries. A top Israeli diplomat accompanying Lieberman told The Associated Press that Israel wanted to halt all Hizbullah activities in the region. "Ever since [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was first elected as president [in 2005], it seems Iran is making a big effort to penetrate Latin America," said Dorit Shavit, deputy director-general of Latin American and Caribbean affairs at the Foreign Ministry. "This is worrying for us." There are Hizbullah cells in Venezuela's border area with Colombia, Shavit said. "It may be right now they're not active, but they might be active tomorrow." And Hizbullah's presence has significantly increased in the northwestern region of Guarija and on the Caribbean island of Margarita, she said. Venezuela has denied the allegation, but copious evidence of cooperation between Hizbullah, Iran and Venezuela has intelligence and terrorism experts concerned. The relationship between Iran, Hizbullah's chief sponsor, and Venezuela has intensified, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting Caracas three times since 2006, and Chavez visiting Teheran several times. "We've heard that they [Hizbullah] are training and financing in Venezuela, especially in Margarita Island, which is a logistical hub and center of money, document fraud, and visa fraud," said Fred Burton, former US counter terrorism agent for the State Department and currently vice president of the Austin, Texas-based STRATFOR private intelligence agency's Counter Terrorism and Corporate Security Division. Hizbullah efforts in Venezuela have been aided by that nation's close oil and diplomatic ties with Iran, and the large Shi'ite Lebanese population that resides in Venezuela. "Hizbullah has a history of being active in Latin America and using the vast Lebanese Shi'ite expatriate population to its advantage, specifically as it relates to the production and trafficking of narcotics," said Mathew Brodsky, legacy heritage fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. "Also, last year the US targeted a Hizbullah drug trafficking ring in the Tri-Border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and they identified and dismantled an international cocaine smuggling and money-laundering ring comprised of a Columbian drug cartel and Lebanese members of Hizbullah," he said. Hizbullah's presence in Venezuela is particularly troublesome for Israeli government due to its distance from the long arm of the IDF. "This is where you begin to worry if you're in Israeli intelligence, because you know you only have fixed number of assets to look at, and logistically this is a long way away from Israel," Burton said. "The farther Hizbullah gets away from home base, the more difficult it is for the Israelis to operate against them." The US government directly linked Hizbullah to Venezuela in June 2008 and saw the connections as troubling when the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assists Control designated several entities there as tied to Hizbullah, according to Brodsky. He sees the growing Hizbullah presence in Venezuela as part of a larger Iranian effort to gain influence in the region. "In sum, Hizbullah's connection to Venezuela is part of a much larger and more threatening pattern of behavior by Iran in South America," said Brodsky. "Earlier, Iran also began banking operations in Venezuela in an effort to bypass the international sanctions already in place. So Hizbullah has been engaged in fund-raising and facilitating the travel of senior operatives - which has become easier since weekly flights between Iran and Venezuela began in 2007 with return stops in Syria. Nevertheless, the degree to which Hizbullah, as opposed to Iran, remains active in Venezuela today, remains unclear." AP contributed to this report.