Latin America experts are warning about the growing threat from Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, citing new evidence of Chavez’s expanding ties with Iran and Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.
The Venezuelan president also has demonstrated his willingness to buy elections throughout the hemisphere to empower enemies of the United States, several experts said in presentations Thursday during a conference that the Center for Security Policy sponsored on Capitol Hill.
“Today, Venezuela airports are being freely used by drug cartels to export drugs to Europe and the United States,” said Luis Fleischman, senior adviser for the center’s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. “Chavez has helped the FARC fight against Colombia, [while] Hezbollah cells have increased their fund-raising and other activities in the area.”
What’s more, Fleischman said, “Young Venezuelans are being trained in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon . . . and Venezuela has reportedly produced uranium for Iran.”
Because of the close ties between Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “there is a real possibility” that Chavez could get a nuclear weapon from Iran after Iran acquires that capability itself, he said.
Obama’s “friendly interaction” with Chavez at last year’s Summit of the Americas has only emboldened the Venezuelan strongman in thinking that the United States will do nothing to oppose his regime or his anti-American activities, a panelist said.
Also hammering that point was Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who blasted the Obama administration for helping to bring back to power a communist dictator in Honduras and for empowering a return of Sandinista thugs to Nicaragua.
The Cuba-born Floridian also warned of the “growing Iranian influence throughout the hemisphere.”
“The flights that take place all the time between Tehran and Caracas should be a worry to anyone who cares deeply about our national security,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Norman Bailey, a senior Latin America intelligence analyst whom National Intelligence Director Admiral Mike McConnell fired for warning about the Chavez threat, said Tehran-to-Caracas flights by Iran Air and the Venezuelan national carrier “are permanently full,” although ordinary citizens are not allowed to use them.
“The people on those flights don’t go through customs,” he said. “But the cargo area is always full.”
He alleged that Iranian-built factories in Venezuela are being used for nefarious purposes.
“The tractor factory doesn’t make tractors, and the cement factory doesn’t make cement,” Bailey said. “The tractor factory makes weapons, and the cement factory is used for the export of cocaine.”
Bailey believes that Iran has cultivated Chavez in part “to make it possible for Iran to retaliate against the United States in the event Iran is attacked by Israel or the U.S.”
Iranian experts have mined Venezuela’s main port and refineries, and have trained Venezuelan state oil workers to trigger the bombs in the event of a conflict, Bailey said.
“For all practical purposes, Venezuela is on a war footing,” he said.
He also noted the ability of drug traffickers tied to Venezuela to weld special compartments onto the outside of ships to carry drugs to Europe.
“They could just as easily put cylinders of high explosives on those ships instead of drugs, and blow them up in the Panama Canal,” he said.
Chavez’s strategy was to build allies in the United States by offering low-cost heating oil to lower-income Americans through Joseph Kennedy Jr. and his Citizens Energy nonprofit, in the hopes that security-conscious voices would be drowned out.
“My favorite Chavez quote is, ‘I will put my enemy to sleep, so that one day he will wake up dead,’” said Jon Perdue, Latin American programs director at the Fund for American Studies.
The Venezuelan-funded Telesur network sent a reporter and cameraman to the conference, and attempted to take over the meeting by making long speeches and challenging the evidence the experts cited about the ties between Chavez and the FARC guerillas.
At one point, former Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich accused the Telesur reporters of “harassment,” and threatened to call the sergeant at arms to get them tossed out of the House meeting room.
“You are not reporters,” he said. “You are probably in violation of the Foreign Agent Registration Act, because you work for a foreign government.”
Reich called Chavez the “head of the snake” of a revolutionary movement aimed at subverting his neighbors. “The brain is in Havana, but the head of the snake is in Caracas,” he said.
Several years ago, the Colombian armed forces seized a computer during a raid on a FARC compound that included documents detailing the financial ties between Chavez to the FARC.
Since then, Chavez has sought the overthrow of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who has spearheaded the crackdown on the FARC.
Tensions between the two presidents flared during a “Unity Summit" near Cancun, Mexico, in February, when Chavez shouted that Uribe should “go to hell.”
Reich said the evidence of Venezuela’s support for the FARC and other terrorist groups is so overwhelming that the United States “should declare Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. The evidence is there. The Defense Department has it. The Congress has it. The political will is missing.”
The United States should revoke the visas of Chavez’s business partners, the “Bolivarian billionaires . . . who own homes in the United States and travel back and forth and who are the ones who carry those bags of money to the Daniel Ortega’s” and other Chavez political allies in the region, Reich said.
“This is a subversion of democracy under our noses and the United States is saying nothing,” he said.
The third measure Reich advocated is to end U.S. dependence on Venezuelan oil.
“People say we can’t do this. Of course we can do this. We import 6 percent of our consumption from Venezuela.” But two years ago, with rising oil prices, “we reduced our consumption by 8 percent . . . Of course we can replace Venezuela.”
Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, blasted the State Department for what he described as its “malign neglect” of Chavez’s misdeeds, and warned of the peril if the United States doesn’t take action.
“We don’t have the luxury of ignoring this,” he said. “We will be hurt badly by it . . . We have enemy armies now operating from safe havens in our hemisphere that we know have the capacity to bring weapons of mass destruction” into the United States. “So the cost of waiting could be high.”
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