Is Venezuela Harboring Hezbollah Extremists?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The presence of Hezbollah on Venezuelan soil would represent a fresh flashpoint in relations with the U.S.
In the days after the January U.S. drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, a condolence book lay open 6,500 miles away at the Iranian Embassy in Venezuela, in a leafy district of Caracas.
Among the visitors who signed the book was Diosdado Cabello, one of the most powerful men in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan government. Tareck El Aissami and Tarek William Saab — senior state officials — expressed their outrage at the assassination of the general blamed by the United States for commanding Iran’s foreign proxy forces.
For the Maduro government, these were simply expressions of solidarity from one embattled nation to another. Venezuela and Iran are both oil producers (and founding members of OPEC), both are laboring under U.S. sanctions and both are implacably opposed to what they regard as Washington’s interference in their internal affairs.
But the U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition led by Juan Guaidó accuse Maduro of supporting not only Tehran but also its Lebanese-based proxy Hezbollah, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization.
“Hezbollah has found a home in Venezuela under Maduro,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an anti-terrorism conference in Colombia, days after Soleimani’s assassination. “This is unacceptable.”
A U.S. campaign to isolate the group is gaining traction in Latin America, where many countries are worried about the destabilizing influence of Venezuela and, by extension, its allies.
Colombia and Honduras recently declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization, following the example of Argentina and Paraguay last year. The new government in Guatemala has vowed to do the same.
“The U.S. has done our part to take down the threat of Iran’s proxies,” Pompeo said in Colombia. “[We’re] encouraged to see how other nations have also confronted Hezbollah.”
It’s an open secret that Hezbollah has had a presence in South America for years, particularly in the so-called tri-border area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. Lebanese migrants arrived there in the 1970s and ’80s escaping civil war in their homeland and many support the organization.
Further south, Argentine investigators blame Hezbollah for the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. A Palestinian organization with close links to Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack.
The alleged link with Venezuela is more recent, although Guaidó says Iran’s presence in Caracas dates back over a decade to when former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez struck up a friendship with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Iranian influence in Venezuela has been there for about 12 or 13 years through companies that have been sanctioned for links to terrorism,” Guaidó told us on a recent trip to London. He added that in 2017 the authorities in Caracas issued around 17 passports a day to Iranians at a time when Venezuelans were struggling to get passport applications approved.
They [Venezuelan and Hezbollah officials] are conducting these meetings for far more sinister purposes.
Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary, U.S. Treasury Department
If that is true, it means Caracas dished out more than 6,000 passports to Iranians in 2017. SAIME, the agency that issues Venezuelan passports, did not respond to a request for comment.
Marshall Billingslea, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Treasury Department and an expert on the financing of terrorism, says Maduro has sent senior officials to Lebanon to meet Hezbollah counterparts, including Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader.
“They’re not flying that long distance simply for pleasantries,” Billingslea says. “They are conducting these meetings for far more sinister purposes.”
For years, U.S. authorities have alleged Hezbollah has a training camp on Margarita Island, just off the Venezuelan coast. In 2012, Roger Noriega, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, told the U.S. Senate that the island had “eclipsed the infamous tri-border area” to become “the principal safe haven and center of Hezbollah operations in the Americas.” He also said Iran had found uranium in Venezuela and laundered billions of dollars through Caracas.
To the Maduro government, these claims are nonsense.
“Where do these reports come from? The United States!” says Cabello. “Not only do we deny any ties [to Hezbollah], we have nothing to do with them. We condemn terrorist attacks anywhere in the world.”
Even in Washington, some officials question the idea of Hezbollah operatives training under the Caribbean sun for attacks on the United States.
“Hezbollah has in the past seen Venezuela more as a place to raise money than as a place to conduct or to plan terrorist activities,” one senior U.S. government official says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last week, the Crisis Group published a report that concluded: “The supposed presence of Hezbollah in and around Venezuela appears to be based largely on sightings of individuals reportedly connected to the organization.…. Crisis Group has until now encountered no evidence that the group has an organized, armed presence in Venezuela.”
Élodie Brun, a research professor who has written about Latin American relations with Iran, makes the distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings. While Washington regards both as terrorist organizations, the European Union targets only the latter.
“Some people of Lebanese descent in Latin America adhere to the political party, and consequently they pay an annual membership,” Brun says. “Is that enough to conclude that they finance international terrorism?”
The U.S. says Hezbollah is profiting from Venezuelan gold, mined from the country’s southern jungles and exported to Turkey, just a hop across the Mediterranean from Hezbollah’s headquarters in Beirut. On his recent trip to Europe, Guaidó urged the EU to ban trade in what he described as Venezuelan “blood gold.”
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