A few weeks ago, one of the leaders of the Venezuelan regime, Diosdado Cabello said that the “United States is lying; there is no Hezbollah in Venezuela.”
At the same time, Nicolas Maduro, while being interviewed in a Lebanese pro-Hezbollah TV channel went further and said: “Which is the problem to have relations with Hezbollah. It is a very respectable political party with representation in Congress.”
Those were the Venezuelan answers to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had said days before that “Hezbollah has a dangerous presence in Venezuela.”
Cabello and Maduro lied. As usual. Not only have they opened doors to Hezbollah, but also to Iranian penetration in the region, and the closest allies of Maduro and his partners are also Turkey, Russia and Hamas.
In recent years, Hezbollah has developed a significant presence in Latin America. Its continued terrorist activity and expanding financial empire, built on drug trafficking and money laundering, is a growing security concern.
The United States has understood the danger that terrorism and terrorists have found a heaven in Latin America, mostly in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
One year ago, the United States created the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT) at the Department of Justice.
A few months ago, the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) hosted a panel of U.S. national security experts to discuss how the United States can successfully address the growing convergence of international terrorism and transnational organized crime from which Hezbollah benefits.
The panel was moderated by SFS Senior Fellow J.D. Gordon and consisted of SFS Executive Director Joseph Humire; Vanessa Neumann, author of “Blood Profits” and president of Asymmetrica; Charles Faddis, retired CIA Operations Officer and former chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center’s WMD Unit; and Derek Maltz, former director of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Operations Division.
Humire emphasized that U.S. sanctions have been ineffective in curbing Hezbollah’s activity, and collaboration with regional partners is necessary to enforce this kind of unilateral action and ultimately dismantle Hezbollah’s networks in South America. Neumann, explained that Brazil faces a variety of complicated issues, primarily that the Lebanese population in Brazil makes up the primary merchant class and facilitate the majority of smuggling and money-laundering into the country. Further, she added, these groups often take advantage of their mutual interests and the gray areas between their operations. She ended by saying that Venezuela is the heartland of Hezbollah in Latin America, and it is difficult for Brazil to differentiate between genuine Venezuelans entering Brazil and Hezbollah members with legitimate Venezuelan passports.
Drawing on his experience as an expert witness in a variety of Latin American trials, Humire provided insight on the perspective of Latin Americans, highlighting that Latin Americans do not necessarily understand jihadist groups, but they are fully aware of transnational organized crime. The convergence between the two is often not recognized and this connection is intentionally veiled by the skillful compartmentalization that Iran achieves in its operations there.
He highlighted the groundwork of Ghazi Nassereddine, a Venezuelan diplomat in Syria who builds and isolates networks that ultimately prevent significant leaders such as Venezuelan former Vice President Tareck El-Aissami from being linked to Hezbollah. Neumann added that the infiltration of people deeply positioned in the Venezuelan financial and political system has led the state to become a part of the crime-terror pipeline.
Maduro and Cabello lied for many reasons: To attack and undermine U.S. accusations; to protect their proxies; to send the discussion far away from the humanitarian tragedy that is destroying Venezuela day after day.
But Maduro showed something more. When he said on Lebanese TV that Hezbollah is just a “respectable political party,” he also showed that Hezbollah is an important ally and supporter for the regime and for himself.
If Maduro´s regime is finally displaced, which does not seem very clear in this very moment, and no matter who may make up the next government, Hezbollah will not disappear from Venezuela overnight. Its power and its influence have been embedded there for more than a decade.
Without real international support, any new government in Venezuela will not be able to face the danger and the power of Iran and Hezbollah alone.
Latin American countries should be more concerned about this sort of danger and think not only in the present time but also for the future. The United States and Canada are fully aware of this tragic environment. But to face it as it must be faced, all the Americas should work together because Hezbollah means terror, and terror is everybody´s enemy.
Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D., has been the B’nai B’rith executive vice president in Uruguay since 1981 and the B’nai B’rith International Director of Latin American Affairs since 1984. Before joining B'nai B'rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, click here.
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