In the media, President Hugo Chavez seems to be portrayed more commonly these days as a threat to golf, which he considers “bourgeois” and is trying to eradicate in Venezuela, than to regional stability.
If only that were the case.
Overshadowed by America’s strategic distractions with the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and with terrorism, and nettlesome nuclear troubles with Iran and North Korea, to name a few, Chavez is all but flying under the threat radar.
But threats there are: From his ties to terrorist groups and rogue regimes to his military modernization and nuclear ambitions, the Venezuelan caudillo is becoming a real reason for concern on the security front.
To ignore what is happening in Venezuela under Chavez’s hand, potentially affecting broad swaths of Latin America, the Caribbean and the homeland, would be a big mistake – and done only at our peril.
Russia has developed a budding friendship with Venezuela that keeps getting tighter -- and worse for America. Now, Moscow could be putting Chavez on the road to developing a nuclear capability. While Moscow has already sold billions worth of arms to Caracas, the latest deviltry came at a Moscow summit last February, when Russia offered Venezuela assistance in building a nuclear reactor. During the visit, Chavez said: “Russia is ready to support Venezuela in the development of nuclear energy with peaceful purposes, and we already have a commission working on it.”
Peaceful purposes -- right.
Venezuela, one of the world’s top energy producers, especially oil, has about as much need for an expensive, high-tech nuclear power industry as, well, Iran does -- and we all know where that seems to be heading. Indeed, some proliferation experts are calling the growth in announced nuclear programs globally, and especially, the construction of reactors: “bomb-starter kits.”
Adding to concerns about the likelihood of Venezuela developing a nuclear industry, press reports assert the Russians have begun training Venezuelan scientists and students in nuclear science. And since the initial announcement, the number of reactors planned on by Venezuela has seemingly increased from one or two to several. Fortunately, not a spade of dirt has been turned over yet for any of them -- as best we know.
If accurate, this could possibly mean the start of the first new nuclear-weapons program in this hemisphere in decades. Rivals Argentina and Brazil gave up their dream of joining the once-exclusive nuclear club in the early 1990s. Though both Buenos Aires and Brasilia have civilian nuclear power programs, neither capital has been willing to cooperate with Caracas on atomic affairs, likely due to proliferation concerns and Chavez’s inflammatory, megalomaniacal rhetoric.
But proliferation does not seem to be a major concern for Russia, which is anxious to promote -- and cash in on -- its civilian nuclear industry.
While some are reasonably skeptical of Russian-Venezuelan nuclear cooperation moving forward, it is important to note that Russia is a key to Iran’s blossoming nuclear program, building Tehran’s one and only nuclear reactor at Bushehr. If Moscow is willing to risk building a nuclear program that may go bad in its own backyard such as it did for Tehran, it would certainly be willing to do the same far from its neighborhood, in this case, for Caracas.
The good news is that falling energy prices and construction timelines of 10 years or so for a reactor mean a Venezuelan nuclear program of any sort is not just around the corner. Of course, that is what people used to say about Iran's nuclear program, too.
It should come as no surprise that Chavez might be interested in the dark side of nuclear know-how beyond power generation. He is clearly bent on building one of the region’s most powerful militaries -- and is. Venezuela is not quite ready to take on the U.S. militarily, but its defense buildup can look a bit intimidating to its neighbors, who would rather spend their money on economic development than a regional arms race.
But Chavez, a former Venezuelan army lieutenant colonel, likes his shiny military toys, and high energy prices and demand have allowed Venezuela to get into the high-end weapon systems market, mostly courtesy of Russia. Over the last couple of years, Caracas may have contracted for more than $4 billion in Russian weapons, aided and abetted by a recent line of credit from Moscow to the tune of more than $2 billion. Constantly hawking the supposed threat from the “Yankee empire,” the Venezuelan armed forces have concluded deals for two Su-30 Flanker fighter squadrons and more than 50 multirole, heavy-lift and combat helicopters (Mi-17, -26, and -35).
Chavez also ordered the Tor-M1 air defense system, according to defense News. On top of that, Caracas bought 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and built a factory in Venezuela to fill future orders for more.
The Venezuelan military is reportedly looking for more Russian surface-air missiles, surface-surface missiles, main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers as well as quiet, diesel submarines to bolster Caracas’ regional clout.
Although notoriously inaccurate, Russian press reports that weapons sales to Venezuela over the next 10 years could top another $5 billion. Considering Chavez’s shopping list, this may not be unreasonable.
While Chavez has offered Moscow access to his nation’s airfields and bases, which it has taken advantage of from time to time for temporary deployments, Venezuela’s growing, secretive ties with Iran are no less worrisome.
Making the Russian-Venezuelan nuclear proposal more bothersome are Chavez's continuing -- indeed, increasingly -- tight ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic regime in Iran. Chavez stated publicly that the two countries had declared an “axis of unity” against the U.S., according to press reports.
Not only could Tehran, which is already successfully enriching uranium to low levels, help Caracas with a nuclear program that Moscow starts, it could also help begin that program in Venezuela itself -- which, not surprisingly, Chavez has already suggested publicly. While still prospective, of course, there is the possibility that Tehran could help Caracas develop ballistic-missiles that could reach the U.S. -- or more expeditiously, Tehran could sell such weapons to Venezuela. (The distance from Caracas to Miami is about 1,400 miles, which nearly corresponds with the current range of Tehran’s medium-range Shahab-class ballistic missile; longer-range missiles are expected.)
But the concerns go beyond the speculative. The two nations have inked a memorandum of understanding, pledging full military support and cooperation. Some Iranian advisers are reportedly embedded with the Venezuelan military.
And, while details are murky, earlier this year, Iran Air began running a regular flight linking Tehran, Damascus and Caracas, leading to concerns about terror links and other mischief-making.
There are reports that Iran may be prospecting for uranium ore in Venezuela, which could both aid Tehran’s existing nuclear program as well as any future Venezuelan nuclear program.
And beyond moral and political support for Iran’s nuclear program in international organizations, Caracas has pledged to provide some 20,000 gallons of gasoline per day, likely aimed to aid Tehran if there is a gasoline embargo imposed over the nuclear impasse. (Odd as it seems, Iran, while oil-rich, is refinery-poor, causing it to import the bulk of its gasoline. Depriving Iran of gasoline has been mentioned as a possible economic sanction.)
And some have concluded Venezuela is assisting Iran in evading punitive, international banking sanctions. Iran opened a number of banks in Caracas in recent years, some of which seem to have ties to Iran’s defense establishment, according to press accounts.
These Venezuelan banks may also be involved in moving and laundering money not only for the Iranian regime, but for terrorist organizations, too. But it is not only banks that worry experts regarding Venezuela and terrorism.
Some members of Congress introduced a resolution calling on the State Department to add Venezuela to the government’s state sponsor of terrorism list due its involvement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The FARC has for more than four decades conducted a guerrilla war against the Colombian government that at times came close to toppling it. U.S. interests have also been targeted.
But, while Venezuelan ties with the FARC had been alleged, hard evidence was elusive -- until the last few years. Now, there seems to be proof of Caracas’ support for FARC narco-terrorists. For example, in 2009, the Colombian military discovered Swedish-made anti-tank rocket launchers, which were sold to Venezuela in the 1980s, during a raid on a FARC training camp. In 2008, seized documents suggested the payment of $300 million to the FARC by Caracas. The Chavez government has also been accused of allowing the FARC to find safe haven in Venezuela, but now it has been fingered for looking the other way when Colombian drug traffickers, including the FARC, transit Venezuela en route destinations abroad, including the U.S.
But it is not just the FARC that is worrying regional specialists. There is increasing concern about Hezbollah’s activities in this hemisphere, especially ties with, and support the Iran-backed terrorist group might be receiving from, the Chavez government. There is a large Lebanese diaspora along the coasts of both Colombia and Venezuela, where experts believe Hezbollah has penetrated these largely-merchant, immigrant communities. According to some, Hezbollah operatives may be moving into Venezuela in larger numbers via regular Caracas-Damascus-Tehran flights -- and possibly working with the Chavez government. (Hezbollah has close ties to Syria and Iran, and is often resupplied with weapons via Syria. In early November, Israel seized a shipment of some 60 tons of Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah through Syria.)
Some reporting asserts that passengers from these flights are processed upon arrival separately, and do not go through normal immigrations and customs procedures upon entering the country in Caracas. A few analysts believe the Chavez government may be facilitating the travel of Hezbollah to Venezuela to assist the FARC target cross-border nemesis Colombia, or are working together to target U.S. interests.
The Chavistas would certainly welcome the help and thoughts of Hezbollah in dealing with the U.S. while Hezbollah, for its part, would appreciate an operating base close to American interests if necessary.
No doubt: The path Venezuela is taking under Chavez is troubling for a raft of reasons, from its atomic aspirations to its defense buildup to its ties to extremists and pariah states. Nor should we forget that Venezuela is the U.S.’ third largest supplier of oil, after Canada and Mexico.
These ingredients make for just about anything but regional stability, especially when a mercurial, ambitious, ex-military leader is added to the mix in the guise of one Chavez.
Chavez’s Venezuela is a country bent on protecting his socialist Bolivarian revolution, intimidating its neighbors, projecting regional power and threatening, if not at least holding hostage, American hemispheric interests.
Although Venezuela is not yet a direct threat to the security of the U.S. proper, it is a country of consequence for American interests that cannot be ignored, despite the challenges we face elsewhere in the world today. AFJ
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
First appeared in AFJ