US authorities takes aim at Hezbollah’s sanctuary in Venezuela
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In the days after the US drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last month, a condolence book lay open 11,000km 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 US 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 — founding members of Opec — both are labouring under US sanctions, and both are implacably opposed to what they regard as Washington’s interference in their internal affairs.
But the US and the Venezuelan opposition led by Juan Guaidó accuse Venezuela of supporting not only Tehran but its Lebanese-based proxy Hizbollah, which the US regards as a terrorist organisation.
“Hizbollah has found a home in Venezuela under Maduro,” US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told an antiterrorism conference in Colombia, days after Mr Soleimani’s death. “This is unacceptable.”
A US campaign to isolate the group is gaining traction in Latin America, where many countries are worried about the destabilising influence of Venezuela and, by extension, its allies.
Colombia and Honduras recently declared Hizbollah a terrorist organisation, following the example of Argentina and Paraguay last year. The new government in Guatemala has vowed to do the same.
“The US has done our part to take down the threat of Iran’s proxies,” Mr Pompeo said in Colombia. [We’re] encouraged to see how other nations have also confronted Hizbollah.”
It is an open secret that Hizbollah has had a presence in Latin America for years, particularly in the “Tri-border” area where the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. Lebanese migrants arrived there in the 1970s and 1980s escaping civil war in their homeland and many support the organisation.
Further south, Argentine investigators blame Hizbollah for the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish centre in Buenos Aires which killed 85 people. A Palestinian organisation with close links to Hizbollah claimed responsibility for the attack.
The alleged link with Venezuela is more recent, although Mr 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 Ahmadi-Nejad.
“Iranian influence in Venezuela has been there for about 12 or 13 years through companies that have been sanctioned for links to terrorism,” Mr Guaidó told the Financial Times on a recent trip to London. He added that during 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.
If that is true, it means Caracas dished out over 6,000 passports to Iranians during the year. SAIME, the agency that issues Venezuelan passports, did not respond to a request for comment.
Marshall Billingslea, an assistant secretary at the US Treasury and an expert on the financing of terrorism, says Mr Maduro has sent senior officials to Lebanon to meet Hizbollah counterparts, including Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader.
“They’re not flying that long distance simply for pleasantries,” he said on a recent visit to Colombia. “They are conducting these meetings for far more sinister purposes.”
For years, US authorities have alleged Hizbollah has a training camp on Margarita Island, just off the Venezuelan coast. Back in 2012, Roger Noriega, a former US assistant secretary of state, told the US Senate the island had “eclipsed the infamous Tri-border area” to become “the principal safe haven and centre of Hizbollah operations in the Americas”. He also said Iran had found uranium in Venezuela and laundered billions of dollars through Caracas.
For the Maduro government, this is all nonsense.
“Where do these reports come from? The United States!” Mr Cabello told the Financial Times. “Not only do we deny any ties [to Hizbollah] we have nothing to do with them. We condemn terrorist attacks anywhere in the world.”
Even in Washington, some officials question the idea of Hizbollah operatives training under the Caribbean sun for attacks on the US.
“Hizbollah 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 US government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last week, the Crisis Group published a report which concluded: “The supposed presence of Hizbollah in and around Venezuela appears to be based largely on sightings of individuals reportedly connected to the organisation . . . Crisis Group has until now encountered no evidence that the group has an organised, armed presence in Venezuela.”
Élodie Brun, a research professor who has written about Latin American relations with Iran, makes the distinction between Hizbollah’s political and military wings. While Washington regards both as terrorist organizations, the EU targets only the latter.
“Some people of Lebanese descent in Latin America adhere to the political party, and consequently they pay an annual membership,” she said. “Is that enough to conclude that they finance international terrorism?”
The US says Hizbollah is profiting from Venezuelan gold, mined from the country’s southern jungles and exported to Turkey, just a short hop across the Mediterranean from Hizbollah’s headquarters in Beirut. On his recent trip to Europe, Mr Guaidó urged the EU to ban trade in what he described as Venezuelan “blood gold”.