El nuevo eje Caracas-Teherán

The Wall Street Journal
January 13, 2006; Page A13
With Iranian nuclear aspirations gaining notice this week, it’s worth
directing attention to the growing relationship between Iran’s President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez. The Reagan
administration repulsed Soviet efforts to set up camp in Central America.
Iranian designs on Venezuela perhaps deserve similar U.S. attention.
The warmth and moral support between Ahmadinejad and Chávez is very
public. The two tyrants are a lot more than just pen pals. Venezuela has
made it clear that it backs Iran’s nuclear ambitions and embraces the
mullahs’ hateful anti-Semitism. What remains more speculative is just how
far along Iran is in putting down roots in Venezuela.
In September, when the International Atomic Energy Agency offered a
resolution condemning Iran for its «many failures and breaches of its
obligations to comply» with its treaty commitments, Venezuela was the only
country that voted «no.» Ahmadinejad congratulated the Venezuelan
government, calling the vote «brave and judicious.»
Three months later, in a Christmas Eve TV broadcast, Chávez declared that
«minorities, the descendants of those who crucified Christ, have taken
over the riches of the world.» That ugly anti-Semitic swipe was of a piece
with an insidious assault over the past several years on the country’s
Jewish community. In 2004, heavily armed Chávez commandos raided a Caracas
Jewish school, terrifying children and parents. The government’s claim
that it had reason to believe that the school was storing arms was never
supported. A more reasonable explanation is that the raid was part of the
Chávez political strategy of fomenting class hatred — an agenda that
finds a vulnerable target in the country’s Jewish minority — and as a way
to show Tehran that Venezuela is on board. Ahmadinejad rivals Adolf Hitler
in his hatred for the Jewish people.
It’s tough to tell whether Chávez is a committed bigot or whether his
anti-Semitism and embrace of the mullahs are simply a part of his
calculated efforts to annoy the Yanquis. But it doesn’t make much
difference. The end result is that the Iranian connection introduces a new
element of instability into Latin America.
In his efforts to provoke the U.S., the Venezuelan no doubt hopes that
saber rattling against imperialismo can stir up nationalist sentiment and
save his floundering regime. That view argues that the U.S. would do best
to ignore him, but it’s not easy to ignore a Latin leader who seems intent
on forging stronger ties with two of the worst enemies of the U.S.,
Ahmadinejad and Fidel Castro.
That Chávez is making a hash of the Venezuelan economy while he courts
international notoriety is no secret. There are shortages of foodstuffs
that are abundant even in other poor countries. Milk, flour for the
national delight known as «arepas» and sugar are in short supply. Coffee
is scarce because roasters say government controls have set the price
below costs, forcing them to eat losses. The Chávez response this week is
a threat to nationalize the industry.
Property rights are being abolished. This week, authorities invaded
numerous «unoccupied» apartments in Caracas to hand them over to party
faithful, part of a wider scheme to «equalize» life for Venezuelans.
A bridge collapse last week on the main artery linking Caracas to the
country’s largest airport, seaport and an enormous bedroom community is
seen as a microcosm of the country’s failing infrastructure. Aside from
the damage to commerce, it has caused great difficulties for the estimated
100,000 commuters who live on the coast, Robert Bottome, editor of the
newsletter Veneconomy, told me from Caracas on Wednesday. The collapse
diverted all this traffic to an old two-lane road with hairpin turns and
more than 300 curves. It is now handling car traffic during the day and
commercial traffic at night, with predictable backups.
With Venezuelan oil fields experiencing an annual depletion rate on the
order of 25% and little government reinvestment in the sector, similar
infrastructure problems are looming in oil. In November, Goldman Sachs
emerging markets research commented on a fire at a «major refinery
complex» in which 20 workers were injured: «In recent months there has
been a string of accidents and other disruptions [of] oil infrastructure,
which oil experts attribute to inadequate investment in maintenance and
lack of technical expertise to run complex oil refining and exploration
Chávez is notably nonchalant about all this, as if the health of the
economy is the last thing on his mind. His foreign affiliations are more
important to him. The Iranian news agency MEHR said last year that the two
countries have signed contracts valued at more than $1 billion. In sum,
Iranians, presiding over an economy that is itself crumbling into
disrepair, are going to build Venezuela 10,000 residential units and a
batch of manufacturing plants, if MEHR can be believed. Chávez reportedly
says these deals — presumably financed with revenues that might be better
employed repairing the vital bridge — include the transfer of
«technology» from Iran and the importation of Iranian «professionals» to
support the efforts.
Details on the Iranian «factories» — beyond a high-profile tractor
producer and a widely publicized cement factory — remain sketchy. But
what is clear is that the importation of state agents from Hugo-friendly
dictatorships hasn’t been a positive experience for Venezuelans. Imported
Cubans are now applying their «skills» in intelligence and state security
networks to the detriment of Venezuelan liberty. It is doubtful that the
growing presence of Iranians in «factories» across Venezuela is about
boosting plastic widget output. The U.S. intelligence agencies would do
well to make a greater effort to find out exactly what projects the
Chávez-Ahmadinejad duo really have in mind. Almost certainly, they are up
to no good.

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