CARACAS, Venezuela – It’s nearly impossible to find flour, eggs or fresh milk in the neighbourhood supermarket, but in Venezuela you can fill your car’s tank for just 6 cents a gallon even as world oil prices hit $100 a barrel.
That’s not the only paradox in President Hugo Chavez’s country, the largest oil exporter in Latin America.
Under its leftist president the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela – famous for miniskirts, beauty queens and plastic surgery – has aligned itself politically with the Islamic Republic of Iran, among the world’s most conservative Muslim nations.
The growing friendship between Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite the vast cultural differences of Venezuela and Iran, is of great concern to many because both leaders are attempting to use the oil wealth of their countries to spread abroad an anti-America, anti-West and often anti-Israel message.
“Chavez is making introductions for Iran throughout the region,” warned Daniel Erikson, a senior analyst at Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S.-based center for policy issues relating to the Americas. “Iran is thereby able to use the entree provided by Chavez to multiply its contacts throughout Latin America.”
Robert Bottome, the publisher of the Caracas newsletter VenEconomy Weekly, says the Iran-Venezuela alliance has more to do with common adversaries than common values.
“It’s all part of Chavez trying to promote himself as a leader of the Third World,” Bottome said. “Venezuela and Iran are both against the imperialists.”
The Chavez government recently signed four agreements with Ahmadinejad, including joint ventures in a plastics mold factory, a binational bank and a $1 billion binational fund, as well as a deal to train 200 Iranians as petroleum technicians.
This brings the number of accords signed with Iran to 190 and follows the establishment of regular flights between Caracas and Tehran on Conviasa Airlines.
“Some people call that route Al-Qaida Airlines,” joked a Cuban-born industrialist who has lived in Venezuela since 1977 and a Chavez critic. “Culturally, we don’t share one drop of religion or revolution with Iran.”
Venezuela says it produces 2.3 million barrels of crude oil daily, of which 700,000 barrels goes for domestic consumption. The rest is exported, mostly to the United States; trade ties persist between the two countries despite all the harsh rhetoric.
Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, also owns the Citgo retail chain and several major U.S. and Caribbean refineries.
Over the years, Venezuela’s membership in OPEC also has solidified its political ties with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and other leading Arab oil exporters.One of the more dramatic buildings in downtown Caracas is the 370-foot-high Ibrahim bin Abdul-Aziz mosque, a gift from Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Chavez has downgraded his country’s ties with Israel.
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Chavez recalled the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in Tel Aviv. Venezuela was the only country to take such a drastic step; not even Egypt or Jordan withdrew their ambassadors.
“Israel after a while had no choice but to take back its ambassador, too,” said Rabbi Pynchas Brener of the Unión Israelita synagogue in Caracas. “They now have relations again, but there is no Venezuelan ambassador in Tel Aviv. Relations are in the freezer.”
Indeed, the issue of Israel’s ties with Venezuela is so sensitive that the Israeli Embassy in Caracas refuses to discuss the subject.
“For the time being, I can’t give you any comment,” the embassy’s second secretary, Eldad Golan, told JTA.
Golan was willing to confirm only that the two countries still have diplomatic ties and that Shlomo Cohen is still Israel’s ambassador in Caracas.
The Chavez government’s cultivation of close ties with Ahmadinejad and simultaneous marginalization of Israel has frightened Venezuela’s estimated 12,000 Jews.
“Should anything happen to Iran, such as an attack by the U.S. or Israel, I think there would be repercussions against the Jewish community here in Venezuela,” said one local Jewish leader who asked not to be identified. “You’d have hordes of people throwing stones and God knows what.”
Venezuela long has been suspected of harboring Hezbollah terrorists, especially in the remote region of La Guaira, near the Colombian border, and on the duty-free tourist resort of Isla Margarita, home to a large Lebanese Shi’ite minority.
Ely Karmon, the director of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, said recently that a relatively new organization, Hezbollah Latin America, has opened a clandestine office in Caracas to raise money to finance terrorist activities against Jewish targets throughout Latin America.
Iran’s alleged involvement in terrorist attacks hasn’t dampened Chavez’s enthusiasm for friendship with Tehran – even to the point of trying to impede Argentina’s probe into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 85. Hezbollah agents acting on Iran’s behalf are widely believed to have been behind the attack.
With the U.S. government viewing Chavez as public enemy number 1 in Latin America, and Chavez seeing the United States similarly – he called President Bush the devil at the United Nations in New York – the question is what influence the United States can have to rein in Latin America’s most vexing leader.
Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says the United States should look to Venezuela’s neighbours.
“The question is how will the United States handle the ring of small planets around Venezuela, like Bolivia, Ecuador and so forth,” he said. “The U.S. does not have an alliance potential in South America to buttress its offensive against Venezuela.”
Perhaps realizing that concern, the Bush administration recently created a “mission manager” to share intelligence on Venezuela and Cuba. The administration has five other mission managers: on North Korea, Iran, counterterrorism, counter-proliferation and counterintelligence.