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Chavez On Tour – Analysis

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By Peter Cannon

Chavez and Gaddafi

Despite his increasing isolation, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has been able to count on outspoken support from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In 2009, Chavez had said of Gaddafi: “What Simon Bolivar is for Venezuelans, Muammar Gaddafi is for the Libyan people.” [i] Gaddafi, meanwhile, presented Chavez with ‘the al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights’ – to which Chavez was recently able to add the astonishingly inappropriate Rodolfo Walsh Award for commitment to liberty, human rights and democratic values from Argentina’s University of La Plata. [ii]

Gaddafi’s brutal attack on his own people this year did nothing to change his mind. Following the beginning of the NATO intervention, Chavez told supporters at a rally in March: “The countries of the Bolivarian alliance are demanding the United States and the world powers respect the people of Libya. No to imperialist intervention in Libya! No to a new imperialist war that looks for oil over the blood of innocents!” He gave Gaddafi his vote of confidence, declaring: “Gaddafi is not going anywhere, I’m sure. Gaddafi is among those men who die fighting.” In April, Chavez welcomed delegates from the Gaddafi regime, and again condemned NATO’s actions: “”Who gave them the right to do this? It’s crazy. Because they don’t like the leader Gaddafi, because they want to take Libya’s oil and water … they are throwing bombs everywhere.” [iii] On Twitter, he exhorted Gaddafi to: “Teach another lesson to the extreme right-wing little Yanquis! Long live Libya and its independence!” [iv]

Fittingly, the Libyan Transitional National Council decided to the change the name of the Hugo Chavez Stadium in Benina, near Benghazi, to ‘Martyrs of February’, following a request from local residents. [v]

For good measure, Chavez also praised Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as a “socialist Arab leader, a humanist and a brother” “with a great human sensibility,” who is “in no way an extremist.” He described Western criticism of Assad’s brutal crackdown on the Syrian population as “imperial madness.” [vi]

US Sanctions on Venezuela

Nor has Chavez wavered in his ongoing support Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Last month, the Venezuelan government has condemned US sanctions against state oil company PDVSA for its ongoing trade with Iran. The State Department press release states that between December 2010 and March 2011 the PDVSA delivered to Iran at least two cargoes of reformate (a blending component which improves the quality of gasoline), worth approximately $50 million. The sanctions prohibit PDVSA from competing for U.S. government procurement contracts, from securing financing from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and from obtaining U.S. export licenses. U.S. sanctions were also placed against the Venezuelan Military Industries Company (CAVIM) for illicit dealings with Iran. [vii]

Unsurprisingly, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro condemned the sanctions as “imperialist aggression” and “illegal and abusive.” [viii] This drew praise from Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, who declared: “These stances show that the U.S. illegitimate and arrogant actions will not negatively affect the resolve of the independent and freedom-seeking nations.” He described the US sanctions as “the repetition of the US failed experience.” [ix]Iranian defence minister General Ahmad Vahidi, who is wanted by Interpol for the terrorist attacks against Jewish targets in Argentina in 1994, followed up with the threat that “powerful Iran is ready to deliver a firm response to any hostile and unwise behaviour by the United States.”

Venezuela's Chavez and Libya's Gaddafi
Venezuela's Chavez and Libya's Gaddafi

PDVSA had announced that it was forming a joint shipping venture with Iran last October. This was one of a number of agreements signed as part of the deepened ‘strategic alliance’ against ‘US imperialism’ announced by Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. [x]

Reports of an Iranian base in Venezuela

The German newspaper Die Welt reported that, during Chavez’s visit to Iran, he and Ahmadinejad also signed a secret agreement on placing missiles in Venezuela. The deal would allow the Chavez government to fire rockets at Iran’s enemies, should the Islamic Republic face military strikes. There would be a jointly operated military base, manned by Iranian missile officers, soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Venezuelan missile officers. Die Welt reports that the base will be armed with Iranian Shahab 3 missiles, which have a range of 1300-1500km), and Scud-B and Scud-C missiles (which have ranges of 285-700km). [xi] The location of the base, which will reportedly include 20-metre deep rocket silos, is approximately 100km from a U.S. military site in Curacao, approximately 120km from Colombia, Venezuela’s main regional rival and the leading ally of the US in South America, and 2000km from the US itself. [xii]

More recent reports from Die Welt claim that Iran has now begun the construction of these rocket launch bases in Venezuela. Die Welt, citing information from “Western security insiders,” reports that Iran is building intermediate-range missile launch pads on the Paraguaná Peninsula, on the coast of Venezuela. According to the report, engineers from a construction firm, Khatam al-Anbia (owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards) visited Paraguaná in February. Amir al-Hadschisadeh, the head of the Guard’s Air Force, approved the visit, according to the report. The rocket bases are to include measures to prevent air attacks on Venezuela as well as command and control stations. The cost of the Venezuelan military project is being paid for with Iranian oil revenue, with the Iranians reportedly having paid millions of dollars in cash for the preliminary phase of the project. [xiii]

The US State Department expressed scepticism about the reports, stating that: “We have no evidence to support this claim.” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro described the allegations as an “extravagant lie,” and claimed: “There is an international war machine against the prestige of Venezuelan democracy, against the prestige of the Bolivarian Revolution. [xiv]

Venezuela’s support for FARC Terrorism in Colombia

Another report which was more difficult to deny was one regarding illicit activity closer to home. In May, the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report on the documents of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commander Raúl Reyes. The study based on a two-year study of the e-mails and documents recovered by the Colombian security forces during a raid on a FARC camp, located just inside Ecuador, occupied by Luis Edgar Devía Silva, known as Raúl Reyes, a member of FARC’s seven-man Secretariat and head of its International Committee (COMINTER). [xv] The report argues that cross-border sanctuaries have been key to FARC’s survival. The IISS argues that only do they provide FARC with military and logistic advantages, they are also important bases from which FARC can promote its political agenda, aimed at achieving recognition as a belligerent and degrading the Colombian government’s international standing and relations with neighbouring states. The report concludes that “The relationship with Venezuela ultimately acquired a strategic dimension characterised by various forms of state support”. It also describes a clandestine meeting between in Chavez and Reyes in Venezuela in 2000 in which Chavez allegedly agreed to lend Reyes cash to buy arms. In a bizarre reversal of roles, Venezuela’s intelligence agency, then known as Disip, allegedly asked FARC to train Venezuelan state security forces and militias in urban warfare and guerrilla tactics. According to one of Reyes’ documents, in 2006 Venezuelan officials even asked FARC to assassinate a former intelligence chief from a previous government, Henry Lopez Sisco. He left Venezuela that year. [xvi]

The IISS suggests that it is probable that Venezuelan support for FARC continues.[xvii] The Venezuelan embassy in London swiftly branded the report “a Latin America dodgy dossier” and “part of an aggressive propaganda tool”, adding: “The embassy has said that international community should not accept as valid the use of unverified files by the British institute.” While the Venezuelan government had frequently questioned the veracity of the Reyes documents, Interpol concluded that “no user files have been created, modified or deleted on any of the eight FARC computer exhibits following their seizure”. The IISS report concludes: “Colombia’s security forces continue to clash with FARC, and to suffer casualties, on an almost daily basis. As long as FARC continues to benefit from a degree of cross-border sanctuary and support, Colombia’s development efforts will remain under threat.” [xviii]

Chavez on tour

As he embarked on his visits to Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba, Chavez remains as controversial as ever. While Chavez expected and received a warm welcome from his allies in Ecuador and Cuba, he also signed ten cooperation agreements in Brazil. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff praised Venezuela’s lead in promoting regional integration and Chavez for conducting the process under which the Community of Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) will be consolidated as a new body in Caracas in July. ECLAC will replace the Rio Group and has been seen as a rival to the Organisation of American States (OAS), particularly as the United States and Canada will not be included. Rousseff promised: “Venezuela can be sure that Brazil will support this struggle of all Latin American and Caribbean countries for the integration and alignment of our nations to create a harmonious cooperation in this part of the world.” [xix] Chavez’s visit to Brazil was preceded by a visit to Venezuela from Lula da Silva. According to Chavez they spoke about “they spoke about “imperial aggression against oil countries”. [xx]

Yet despite his diplomatic efforts, and the recent election of leftist candidate Ollanta Humala as president of Peru, there are indications that the influence of Chavez is waning. No new countries have joined his Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) bloc in the last two years. In a recent Latinobarometro poll of Latin Americans, Chavez was ranked second to last among regional leaders, and Venezuela was ranked as less democratic than the rest of the region. His public embrace of some of the worst tyrants of the world has not gone down well in neighbouring countries. As Venezuela’s economy has contracted, some of his biggest projects have been abandoned or mothballed, or not begun. Luiz Felipe Lampreia, a former Brazilian foreign minister, commented: “He’s not flying high like he used to even two years ago. I think he’s losing his capacity to influence people and to lead, even with his own friends.” Even Ollanta Humala stated that it had been “an error” to ally himself with Chavez in his previous, unsuccessful, election bid in 2006. [xxi] Whether or not Humala maintains his distance from Chavez now that he is in power will be a significant indicator.

Implicated in terrorism within Latin America and supportive of bloody repression outside of it, Chavez is a figure who may be past his peak, but whose appetite for an anti-Western reordering of the world is unabated, and who still needs to be watched.

Peter John Cannon is the Latin America Section Director of the Henry Jackson Society.

[i] ‘In Venezuela, Chavez tries to boost Gaddafi’, Juan Forero, Washtingon Post, 7th March 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/06/AR2011030603790.html

[ii] ‘Does April Fools’ Fall Early in Latin America?’, Dane Vallejo, Henry Jackson Society, 31st March 2011, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?id=2060

[iii] ‘Gaddafi envoys in Caracas for Libya crisis talks, says Chávez’, Rory Carroll, The Guardian, 27th April 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/27/gaddafi-envoys-venezuela-talks-chavez

[iv] ‘What Is Hugo Chávez Up To?’, Joshua, Kucera, Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2011, http://wilsonquarterly.com/article.cfm?AID=1807

[v] ‘Hugo Chávez is left without any stadium in Libya’, El Universal, 8th March 2011, http://english.eluniversal.com/2011/03/08/hugo-chavez-is-left-without-any-stadium-in-libya.shtml

[vi] ‘Chavez of Venezuela expresses support for Syria’s Assad’, International Business Times, 26th Aprtil 2011, http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/138095/20110426/assad-syria-chavez-venezuela-libya.htm

[vii] ‘U.S. Sanctions Against Venezuela’, Anna Mahjar-Barducci, Hudson New York, 3rd June 2011, http://www.hudson-ny.org/2170/us-sanctions-against-venezuela

[viii] ‘Venezuela condemns US sanctions against state oil firm’, BBC News, 25th May 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-13542239

[ix] ‘U.S. repeating failed experience: official’, Tehran Times, 2nd June 2011, http://www.tehrantimes.com/Index_view.asp?code=241654

[x] ‘Iran and Venezuela deepen “strategic alliance”‘, BBC News, 21st October 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11593197

[xi] ‘Iran Placing Medium-Range Missiles in Venezuela; Can Reach the U.S.’, Anna Mahjar-Barducci, Hudson New York, 8th December 2010, http://www.hudson-ny.org/1714/iran-missiles-in-venezuela

[xii] ‘Is this a second missile crisis? Iran to build mid-range rocket bases in Venezuela’, Oliver Pickup, Daily Mail, 17th May 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1388033/Is-second-missile-crisis-Iran-build-mid-range-rocket-bases-Venezuela.html

[xiii] ‘Die Welt: Iran building rocket bases in Venezuela’, Benjamin Weinthal, Jerusalem Post, 17th May 2011, http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?id=220879

[xiv] ‘U.S. knocks down report of Iran, Venezuela missile base’, CNN, 21st May 2011,

http://articles.cnn.com/2011-05-21/world/venezuela.iran.missiles_1_missile-base-report-bolivarian-revolution”

[xv] ‘The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of Raúl Reyes’, International Institute of Strategic Studies, 10th May 2011, http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-dossiers/the-farc-files-venezuela-ecuador-and-the-secret-archive-of-ral-reyes/summary/

[xvi] ‘Venezuela attacks report suggesting ties between Chavez and Farc rebels’, Rory Carroll, The Guardian, 11th May 2001, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/11/venezuela-attacks-chavez-links-farc-files

[xvii] ‘Colombian Farc rebels’ links to Venezuela detailed’, BBC News, 10th May 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-13343810

[xviii] ‘Study: Colombian rebels were willing to kill for Venezuela’s Chavez’, Michael Martinez, CNN, 10th May 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/americas/05/10/venezuela.farc.documents/index.html

[xix] Brazil, Venezuela Stress Common Role in Regional Integration, Radio Cadena Agramonte, 6th June 2011, http://www.cadenagramonte.cu/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5906

[xx] ‘Venezuela: the Brazil connection’, Benedict Mander, Financial Times blog, 3rd June 2011,

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2011/06/03/venezuela-the-brazil-connection/

[xxi] Chavez’s influence wanes in Latin America, Juan Forero, Washington Post, 18th May 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/americas/chavezs-influence-wanes-in-latin-america/2011/05/13/AF2x785G_story.html

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The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics is a cross-partisan, British-based think-tank. Its founders and supporters are united by a common interest in fostering a strong British and European commitment towards freedom, liberty, constitutional democracy, human rights, governmental and institutional reform and a robust foreign, security and defence policy and transatlantic alliance.

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