Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has defied the United States unlike any other leader in the Western Hemisphere since Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Chavez has strong ties with state sponsors of terror, suppresses democracy at home, and has worked to destabilize his neighbors. Recently, Chavez has also helped the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah establish a base in the Western hemisphere.
For years, the U.S. State Department has stated its concern that Hezbollah raises funds “among the sizable Muslim communities” the South America, and that weak rule of law could “tempt terrorist groups to seek to establish safe havens” in the tri-border area between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Indeed, with the aid of Iranian embassies, the area was believed to be a staging ground for Hezbollah’s 1992 and 1994 bombings of Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It was the U.S. Treasury Department, however, that provided recent evidence that Hezbollah had found a safe haven in Venezuela. In January 2008, Treasury’s Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) placed two Venezuelans—including one prominent diplomat—on its Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, for providing financial support to Hezbollah. Adam Szubin, director of OFAC, noted that the Venezuelan regime was “employing and providing safe harbor for Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.”
According to the Treasury, Ghazi Nasr al-Din, a former official of the Venezuelan embassies in both Lebanon and Syria provided counsel on fundraising to Hezbollah supporters, and provided information on where to deposit money that would go directly to Hezbollah.
Fawzi Kanan, a businessman, was also designated by OFAC. The owner of two travel agencies, Kanan used his businesses in Venezuela to transfer funds to Hezbollah and to facilitate travel for Hezbollah operatives. He even met Hezbollah officials in Lebanon about possible kidnappings and terrorist attacks.
Instead of opening an investigation, Chavez said that the world was using the allegations to “make a move” against him. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro lashed out at the United States: “If they want to search for terrorists, look for them in the White House.”
Venezuela’s support for Hezbollah doesn’t end there. It was reported a few months later that the Venezuelan minister of the interior, Tayek al-Ayssami, was working directly with al-Din to recruit young Venezuelans of Arab descent that were supportive of the Chavez regime to train in Lebanon with Hezbollah. Reportedly, the purpose was to prepare these youths for asymmetric warfare against the United States in the event of a confrontation. According to this report, Hezbollah also established training camps inside Venezuela, complete with ammunition and explosives, courtesy of al-Ayssami.
Reports also indicate that Hezbollah has been responsible for converting a number of indigenous tribes in Latin America to their radical version of Islam, including the Venezuela-based Wayuu tribe. These tribe members now make up much of the membership of “Hezbollah Venezuela,” a group tied to the attempted bombing of the U.S. embassy in Caracas in 2006.
Chavez, meanwhile, is perhaps the most open apologist for Hezbollah in the hemisphere. During the Israel-Hezbollah War in 2006, Chavez withdrew the Venezuelan ambassador to Israel. He later accused Israel of conducting its defensive war in “the fascist manner of Hitler.” After making those comments on al-Jazeera television, Chavez returned home and continued to malign Israel on his weekly television broadcast, Aló Presidente, where he labeled the United States “a terrorist nation” for supporting Israel.
Chavez’s rhetorical and material support for Hezbollah likely stems from his affinity for the group’s benefactor and ideological inspiration, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who refer to each other as “dear brother,” are proud to share “revolutionary views.” Chavez says the two countries are “united like a single fist.” Despite their differing faiths, they joined hands and prayed for the peoples of the world “to destroy [U.S.] world hegemony.”
The U.S. Treasury should be commended for designating Venezuelan individuals and entities that support Hezbollah. Effective sanctions against the Venezuelan government, however, will be impossible to implement until the United States breaks its reliance on Venezuelan oil. Until that day comes, Washington should strengthen its alliances with Venezuela’s neighbors in an effort to weaken Chavez’s power. Congress can assist by passing a free trade agreement with Colombia, a staunch anti-Chavez ally. Failure to take these and other important steps will only encourage Hezbollah to expand in America’s backyard.
Alan Levine is an intern at the Jewish Policy Center, and a fourth year undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.