(June 5, 2019 / JNS) The ongoing instability in Venezuela under dictator Nicolás Maduro has continued the misery and suffering of tens of millions of Venezuelans. A failed uprising earlier this spring by National Assembly president Juan Guaidó, who the United States, Israel and many other Western democracies recognize as Venezuela’s leader, has only led to further entrenchment of Maduro and his regime.
At the same time, Maduro is being heavily supported by international pariahs such as Russia, Cuba, Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah, leading some to fear that the once prosperous South American country could turn into the next Syria as a hub for supporting international terrorism.
“Venezuela has opened its doors to Iran and Hezbollah, giving them full access to Latin America,” Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.
“Venezuela is their forward operating base in the Western Hemisphere. Iran and Hezbollah run many of their overt and covert activities from there. Preserving this relationship is paramount for their interests.”
This alliance comes as U.S. President Trump has sanctioned the Venezuelan government in the hopes of helping Guaidó come to power peacefully. Yet Trump has made it clear that all options remain on the table when it comes to Venezuela.
“Venezuela allies itself with a group of nations that the Trump administration is actively pressuring, including Russia, Iran and Cuba. Venezuela’s connections to Iran were well-known under the leadership of Maduro’s mentor, Hugo Chávez, who often met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” Ari Cicurel, a policy analyst with the JINSA Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, told JNS.
‘One of the world’s largest drug-trafficking operations’
Indeed, Maduro and Chávez have had a long history of ties with Iran and its terror proxies. Chávez used to meet regularly with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who infamously threatened to wipe Israel off the map. More recently, a New York Times report highlighted how close Maduro confidante Tareck El Aissami, who was indicted in the United States in March on drug-trafficking charges, played a crucial role in assisting Iran and Hezbollah in their operations in Latin America.
The story cited a confidential dossier by Venezuelan intelligence agents documenting El Aissami’s activities, provided to the outlet by a former top Venezuelan intelligence official that was confirmed independently by another. The United States sanctioned El Aissami in February 2017.
“Alongside Ghazi Atef Nassereddine, who is also under U.S. sanctions and wanted by the FBI, El Aissami has been an important facilitator for Hezbollah inside the Venezuelan regime,” said Ottolenghi. “Thanks to him, numerous operatives have likely acquired citizenship and entry into the country and, by way of that, they are now free to travel across the region visa free.”
El Aissami, who was born in Venezuela to a Lebanese mother and Syrian Druze father, has deep family connections to Ba’athist Party members in Syria and formerly in Iraq, including his great-uncle, who was close to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. El Aissami’s father was an early supporter of Chávez, backing him in his 1992 coup d’êtat attempt.
“El Aissami and his family have helped sneak Hezbollah militants into the country, gone into business with a drug lord and shielded 140 tons of chemicals believed to be used for cocaine production—helping make him a rich man as his country has spiraled into disarray,” according to the Times.
The publication, citing the dossier, wrote, “Informants told intelligence agents that Mr. El Aissami’s father was involved in a plan to train Hezbollah members in Venezuela, ‘with the aim of expanding intelligence networks throughout Latin America and at the same time working in drug trafficking,’ ” as El Aissami had the authority to issue residency permits, including to members of the terrorist group, thereby allowing them to remain in the country.
The dossier does not address if Hezbollah established a network there.
However, a Politico bombshell in December 2017 exposed the network of money-laundering and other crimes done by Hezbollah, which included operating in Venezuela. The Obama administration was reported as to have let it pass in order to reach the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
“Hezbollah has long operated one of the world’s largest drug-trafficking operations, including in Venezuela. As a senior member of the Venezuelan government linked to the drug trade and other illicit activities in Latin America and the Middle East, it is not surprising that recent reports have alleged Tareck El Aissami has aided Hezbollah militants to enter Venezuela,” said Cicurel.
With U.S. sanctions targeting Iran having a “significant” impact on Hezbollah’s funding from Iran, the drug trade for Hezbollah remains an important source of income for the terror group.
“Venezuela is a key transit point for cocaine, and Hezbollah has an important network of supportive businesses in Venezuela, many with connections to Colombia, Panama and the Dutch Antilles, which are then used to money-launder drug revenues,” said Ottolenghi.
“Given that, supporting Maduro is critical,” he added. “If Hezbollah and Iran were to lose Venezuela, many of their ongoing ops in Latin America would suffer. It wouldn’t be a mortal blow, but definitely a serious one.”
While Iran and Hezbollah’s track record of taking advantage of failed states such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen have only proven to exacerbate the instability in those places, it remains unclear whether or not Venezuela will become a launching ground for terrorism, according to Jonathan Ruhe, associate director of the JINSA Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.
“Currently, there are two more pressing concerns raised by Venezuela’s close ties with Iran and Hezbollah. First, that Hezbollah uses Venezuela to increase narcotrafficking revenues at a time when sanctions are crimping Iranian largesse; and second, that Russia uses its leverage over Caracas to secure a real political and military foothold in Venezuela,” he told JNS.
“This foothold would be smaller than what it has in Syria, but it would give Moscow both undue influence over one of the world’s largest oil players and a dangerous perch along the approaches to the Panama Canal, as well as threatening neighboring U.S.-allied Colombia—a country that has stabilized itself over the exact same period Venezuela has descended into chaos, but whose remarkable gains are now held at risk by potential spillover from Venezuela.”
‘There’s no direct anti-Semitism in Venezuela’
Aside from narcoterrorism, Iran and Hezbollah have had a history of targeting Israeli and Jewish interests in South America, such as the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing in Argentina that killed 85. Later, in 2015, Argentinian federal prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who was Jewish, was found dead at his home for exposing the cover up of Iranian involved by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
“Iran’s and Hezbollah’s networks in Latin America are not based in one country,” explained Ottolenghi. “The most recent public instances of Hezbollah operatives seeking to carry out attacks in Latin America and the U.S. involved two U.S.-based Lebanese nationals who became U.S. citizens. Iran’s and Hezbollah’s cells operate with impunity in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.”
However, it remains unclear if the situation regarding Iran and Hezbollah in South America would be a threat to Venezuela’s once vibrant Jewish community, which today only numbers in the thousands following years of emigration from the country.
“What we have heard from government officials in the U.S. and others in Latin America that we have spoken to, they know that money laundering is prevalent, they know because they are involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities. But nobody has been able to confirm that there are active cells that could carry out terror attacks,” Dina Siegel Vann, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Latin American Affairs, told JNS.
While the Jewish community in the past had been targeted by Chávez, today the regime is mostly interested in its own survival rather than attacking the small Jewish community, according to Siegel Vann.
“There’s no direct anti-Semitism in Venezuela presently as the Maduro regime is interested in surviving. They cannot be strategic in that sense. They are not in that type of mindset,” she said.
Nevertheless, Maduro has promoted hateful anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and allegations of Jewish or “Zionist” plots to take over the government. Interim President Guaidó has been repeatedly accused of being an agent of “Zionists” or the United States.
But while Israel has been a target for Maduro, the what little is left of the Jewish community in Venezuela continues to shrink.
“The Jewish community has dwindled and has continued to dwindle,” Siegel Vann affirmed. “The Jewish community, like the rest of the country, is suffering.”