By Olga Imbaquingo
The controversy unfolds as four Latin American countries – Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador – ignored pressure from the United States to distance their politics from those of Iran. Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Raúl Castro of Cuba, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua welcomed the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a moment when tensions were on the rise concerning increased Iranian military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and an embargo on Iran in response to its continued nuclear energy program. Citing his country’s right to national sovereignty, the Ecuadorian chancellor, Ricardo Patiño said that “Quito does not receive instructions from the U.S. State Department.” His words, summarizing the attitude of like-minded governments in the region, state that “no one dictates what [we] have to do.”
Ahmadinejad arrived in search of international backing and support. With this trip, he attempted to prove that Iran is not the only country concerned over the possibility of air attacks on Iranian nuclear installations. It is assumed that Ahmadinejad also discussed the future of the oil market while in Caracas, since seventy percent of Iran’s income is from crude oil exports, a figure similar to that of Venezuela. Caracas is the only influential actor in this market; Ecuador has a limited production while Nicaragua and Cuba are marginal importers of crude oil. In light of these circumstances, Latin America does not have much to offer Iran, but rather these regimes could have a lot to lose.
Due to its status as a powerful oil state, Iran cannot circumvent current international organizations. Since Iran has the third largest reserve in the world, these four Latin American governments that the Iranian leader visited all suspect that the U.S.’s policy towards Iran is an attempt to control the oil market in order to help maintain its hegemony. According to the Venezuelan President, the U.S. “wants to terminate the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in order to control the market price of hydrocarbon…there we are standing, trying to prevent the empire from picking [OPEC] into pieces.” In addition, some go so far as to say that U.S. threats are not only intended to end Iranian atomic projects. “The prices of oil have remained high due to the alliance of interests between Venezuela and the former Persian Empire. It seems that it is necessary to cut Iran’s wings.”
In addition, Ahmadinejad’s government has a deplorable record of human rights’ violations against women, homosexuals, intellectuals, journalists, ethnic groups, political dissidents and foreigners who are routinely accused of spying without sufficient evidence and have been jailed, tortured and even killed. If the Latin American hosts use this visit to only challenge Washington, without demanding greater respect for marginalized groups in Iran, they trivialize the aspirations of their own nations to build just societies. Aside from the growing tension between Tehran and Washington, the Iranian President’s visit coincides with a measured increase of denouncements of human rights’ violations in Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, even if they have not reached the level of impunity of Iran or are viewed with any true gravity.
In light of these recent events, it seems that the visit was in part an attempt to prove the sovereignty of the region’s host nations. For Ahmadinejad, this tour could prove to be little more than a modest attempt to show that Iran is not alone in its threats to the U.S. and the European Union. For example, Ahmadinejad used his time in Cuba to warn that capitalism is “ in a box without an exit” and his time in Ecuador to inform President Barack Obama that, “from now on, Latin America will no longer be the backyard of the U.S.”
For the Venezuelan President, Ahmadinejad was the wildcard of the moment to remind Washington that he cannot be manipulated. Chávez knows that the U.S. has the capacity to embargo Iranian oil, but it cannot close off access to one million barrels of Venezuelan oil that arrive daily to U.S. refineries. For Washington, cutting off both sources of oil would effectively mean tying the rope around its own neck. Chávez uses this leverage in order to maintain his position as the champion of anti-U.S. imperialism. “The Yankee empire has its eye on Iran, which is why we are demonstrating our solidarity… When we join, the devils go crazy,” quipped Chávez.
On the other hand, President Correa’s agenda could be viewed as more disconcerting. He takes great strides to distance himself from the U.S. by means of his ideology-ridden diplomacy, despite the fact that the U.S. is Ecuador’s principal trading partner and the home of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who sent upwards of $700 million in remittances to Ecuador last year. This visit shifted to the exclusive ideological territory that the Ecuadorian Chancellor has delineated for current international politics, due to the fact that Ecuador relies on both U.S. and European markets. In this encounter, Ecuador aligned itself with Iran without reservations. “If truth be known, we believe in the Iranian government…Iran can count on the total backing and support of Ecuador.”
United in their political isolation, President Daniel Ortega and Ahmadinejad arranged a mutually beneficial favor. Ortega added another official to the initial few who attended his second consecutive presidential accession. At the very least, Ahmadinejad intended to convince the world, as well as his skeptical fellow citizens, that he is not alone in his crusade against capitalism, which he claims to be “decadent,” but so did the pope. The real question is how thoughtful is the Ecuadorian President in administering democratic recipes at home. Ortega expressed his support for the Iranian plan to develop atomic energy with peaceful objectives. “The western powers ignore that those (Israel) with nuclear arms threaten a country (Iran) that only wants atomic energy for peaceful reasons.” In reality, Nicaragua has not even managed to convince Iran to forgive part of the $150 million debt it acquired during the Sandinista Revolution. Despite the position of Ortega, the U.S. continues to be the socio-commercial leader in Nicaragua.
The U.S. shares responsibility in the emerging order in Latin America. Within the last ten years, it has hardly shared common objectives in the region. Many Latin Americans celebrate this lack of attention because it has given them the right to exercise their sovereignty. Due to U.S. “forgetfulness,” Latin American governments do not stutter when contradicting the U.S. and other actors have expressed interest in the region as a result. For example, Brazil’s growing economic power is earning it the right to play an important role in representing southern interests. China has powerful economic interests in South America as well, and Washington can no longer benefit from an embargo on Latin American products if it wants to control a rebelling nation. In this new context, it is important to note the profuse amount of hospitality that these governments have displayed towards one of the most unattractive political figures on the world stage.
Olga Imbaquingo is a Research Fellow for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs