President Barack Obama’s announcement on December 17, 2014, about an improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations will have little, if any, impact on General Raúl Castro’s alliance with Iran, Russia and Venezuela. The close relations that these countries have developed with Cuba will not be affected. Their aid is not conditioned on changes in Cuba. They share with Castro a virulent anti-Americanism. They all share a belief that the world convergence of forces is moving against the United States. Despite economic difficulties, Cuba is unwilling to renounce these alliances and accept a role as a small Caribbean country, friendly to the United States.
Since assuming formal power in Cuba in 2006 following Fidel Castro’s illness, General Raúl Castro has continued his close alliance with Venezuela, Iran and China, and has expanded Cuba’s military cooperation with, and purchases from, Russia. Venezuela’s vast purchases of Russian and Chinese military equipment, the close Venezuela-Iran relationship and the Cuba-Venezuela alliance are troublesome. Although it is not known if Venezuela is transferring some of these weapons to Cuba, Caracas remains an open back door for Cuba’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian weapons, as well as Cuba’s principal financial backer. The objectives of this alliance are to weaken “U.S. imperialism” and to foster a world with several centers of power.
Given Cuba’s military and intelligence presence in Venezuela, it is likely that the Chavista revolution will continue its Cuban support. Even at the current low prices for petroleum, Venezuela can continue, with its vast resources, to help Cuba. Deliveries may be reduced from the current 100,000-120,000 barrels daily to some 50,000-60,000, enough to keep the Cuban economy afloat. A collapse of the Chavista revolution, while unlikely at the present time, could lead to a curtailment of Venezuelan oil. In that case, Cuba would have to look to other allies–Russia, Iran, Angola–for help.
Cuba has renewed its military cooperation with Russia. Russia’s economic and diplomatic support are important to Cuba, especially if Russia’s support forces the United States to offer unilateral concessions to Cuba beyond President Obama’s executive order establishing diplomatic relations with the island and particularly if the United States lifts its embargo and allows American tourists to visit the island.
In 2014, Cuba and Russia signed agreements providing the Kremlin with naval and aerial facilities in Cuba for the Russian military. Russia’s growing presence in the Caribbean, while not necessarily challenging the U.S. militarily, allows for Russian power projection, forces the United States to increase its defenses and monitoring capabilities on its southern flank and reinforces the perception in Latin America and elsewhere that the United States is being challenged in its own sphere of influence by outside powers. This, in turn, further weakens American influence in the region and encourages anti-American leaders to take positions inimical to U.S. interests.
After decades of expending military, financial and human resources in support of a variety of Arab dictators, Islamic fundamentalist movements and anti-Israeli terrorist organizations, (1) Havana recently has begun to reap substantial returns on its long-term investment in the Middle East. From Dubai to Tehran and via the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, the political and ideological ties cultivated by Fidel Castro’s pro-Islamic foreign policy are now generating tangible benefits for the successor regime of brother Raúl. In the process of receiving nearly US$1.5 billion in foreign direct investment, financing and aid from autocratic Muslim states, Cuba is emerging as a strategic ally and outpost in the Western Hemisphere for a wide range of Islamic regimes.
For Cuba, the infusion of Islamic capital strengthens the regime’s stability and diversifies the risk of economic collapse by adding a fourth financial pillar alongside oil from Venezuela, bilateral trade credits from China and Russia, and corporate capital from Canada, Latin America and the European Union. As Cuba and its Islamic partners forge a trans-Atlantic alliance of their own, what are the implications of the increasingly free flow of trade and capital from the Persian Gulf to the Caribbean?
Communist Cuba’s alliance with the Iran of the Ayatollahs dates to 1979, when Fidel Castro became one of the first heads of state to recognize the Islamic Republic’s radical clerics. Addressing then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Castro insisted that there was “no contradiction between revolution and religion,” an ecumenical principle that has guided Cuba’s relations with Iran and other Islamic regimes. (2) Over the next two decades, Castro fostered a unique relationship between a secular Communist Cuba and theocratic Iran, united by a common hatred of the United States and the liberal, democratic West.
In the early 1990s, Havana started to export biopharmaceutical products for the Iranian healthcare system. By the late 1990s, Cuba had moved beyond pharmaceutical exports to transferring (licensing) both its medical biotechnologies and, along with the technical know-how, implicit capabilities to develop and manufacture industrial quantities of biological weapons.(3) In addition to training Iranian scientists in Cuba and sending Cuban scientists and technicians to Iran’s research centers, the Cuban state-run Center for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering established a joint-venture biotechnology production plant near Tehran at a cost of US$60 million (Cuba provided the intellectual capital and technology, and Iran the financing). With this facility, Iran is believed to possess “the most modern biotechnology and genetic engineering facility of its type in the Middle East.”(4)
Geographically, Cuba’s strategic location enabled Iran, on at least one occasion, to clandestinely engage in electronic attacks against U.S. telecommunications that posed a threat to the Islamic regime’s control and censorship. In the summer of 2003, Tehran blocked signals from a U.S. satellite that was broadcasting uncensored Farsi-language news into Iran at a time of rising unrest. Based on the location of the satellite over the Atlantic, it would have been impossible for Iranian-based transmissions to affect the satellite’s signals. Ultimately, the jamming was traced to a compound in the outskirts of Havana that had been equipped with the advanced telecommunications technology capable of disrupting the Los Angeles-based broadcaster’s programming across the Atlantic. It is well known that Cuba has continuously upgraded its ability to block U.S. broadcasts to the island, and hence conceivably, to jam international communications in general. Although the Cuban government would later claim that Iranian diplomatic staff had operated out of the compound without its consent, given that Cuba “[is] a fully police state,” as an Iran expert has noted, “it is difficult to believe the Iranians had introduced the sophisticated jamming equipment into Cuba without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities,” much less utilized it against U.S. targets without the knowledge of the Castro regime. (5)
For its solidarity and services to the Islamic Republic, Iran began compensating the Cuban government directly. During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Tehran offered Havana an initial 20-million euros annual credit line. (6) Then, following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the island emerged as a major beneficiary of Tehran’s foreign policy. Consequently, Iranian financing for Cuba expanded exponentially from a modest 20 million euros in 2005 to 200 million euros for bilateral trade and investment projects in 2007. (7) At the same time, Havana was spearheading a campaign within the Non-Aligned Movement to legitimize Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program as an “inalienable right” of all developing nations. (8) In June 2008 Ahmadinejad approved a record 500-million euros credit for the Castro regime. From Iran’s perspective, Cuba deserves to be rewarded for its “similarity in outlooks on international issues.” (9)
In total, since 2005 Cuba has received the equivalent of over one billion euros in credits from Tehran. With Islamic Republic financing, Cuba has begun to make critical investments in the rehabilitation of dilapidated Soviet-era infrastructure. Iran is funding some 60 projects ranging from the acquisition of 750 Iranian-made rail cars to the construction of power plants, dams and highways.(10)
The election of Hassan Rouhani, the reduction in the price of oil and Iran’s involvement in the Middle East have precluded new credits to Cuba. Yet the relationship, as evidenced by visits, cooperation in international organizations and joint support for Venezuela, has continued.
Should Venezuela Worry the United States?
The emergence of an anti-American regime in Venezuela, first led by Hugo Chávez and now, by Nicolás Maduro, represents the most important threat to U.S. national interest and security in Latin America today. Emboldened by Venezuela’s vast oil resources and a close relationship with Iran and Russia, Venezuela has laid claim to the leadership of the anti-American movement in the region.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro’s illness and Cuba’s weak economic situation thrust the leadership of the Latin American left onto the Venezuelans. If Fidel was the godfather of revolutionary/terrorist/anti-American groups, Chávez, and now Maduro, are the trusted “capos,” the heirs to “the struggle against Yankee imperialism.” Maduro’s petroleum largesse toward several countries in the region and his support for candidates in the Bolivian, Nicaraguan and Ecuadorean elections are appreciated by leaders in these countries.
The Venezuelan Chavista leaders have no desire to relinquish power. They have manipulated past elections, and will manipulate future ones, to be re-elected for at least the next decade. They are increasingly deepening their Bolivarian revolution by weakening and subverting Venezuela’s democratic institutions. In the process of consolidating their authoritarian rule, they are now aiming their control at the culture-conserving democratic institutions. The press, the church, the education system and the family are all under attack in a relentless move toward establishing a dictatorship loyal to the Chavista leadership.
Unhappiness with Maduro has grown in the past few years. Corruption, drug trafficking, mismanagement and food shortages are all contributing to social unrest. The possible increase of protests and tension may lead to the replacement of Maduro. Yet the possibility of a total collapse of the political system is less likely given the continuous support of Cuba, the enrichment of the military in the drug business and the weakness of the organized opposition.
Venezuela also threatens the democratic development of Latin America. The Chávez regime purchased over $6 billion in Russian weapons. The militarization of Venezuela and the ambitions of its current leader represent a major threat to neighboring Colombia, which is currently engaged in a peace process with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela also offers Venezuela an opportunity to flex its muscle with a much weaker neighbor.
At best, Venezuela’s weapon purchases are leading to an arms race in the region, with Colombia acquiring U.S. weapons and Brazil turning to France. Other countries, such as Ecuador and Peru, are also spending their much-needed resources in the acquisition of weapons. A coalition of Venezuela with its allies Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and naturally Cuba has developed into a club of well-armed, anti-American regimes capable of intimidating its neighbors and exercising significant influence in the region.
As recent evidence has shown, Venezuela and Cuba have been strong supporters of the FARC. The principal challenger to the Colombian regime, the FARC is a guerrilla/narcotrafficking group operating throughout the country. Venezuela has provided it safe haven and political support. High-profile FARC operatives have used Venezuelan territory with impunity. In the past, small arms from Venezuelan military inventories have turned up in the hands of the FARC. FARC guerillas and drug smugglers use Venezuelan territory for the transshipment of drugs from the cocaine-producing regions of Bolivia and Colombia to the markets in the United States and Europe. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, cocaine flowing through Venezuela grew fourfold (from 60 to 260 metric tons) between 2004 and 2007. (11)
Venezuela’s alliance with the FARC has evolved into a major enterprise, smuggling narcotics and laundering money through Venezuela’s financial institutions and state-run enterprises. Simultaneously, Venezuela ended all U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operations, expelled U.S. DEA officials and denied visas to U.S. anti-drug personnel. As Colombia has taken the upper hand in its conflict with the guerrillas in the last five to six years, FARC narcotics operations have been flushed out in the open – as has Venezuela’s complicity in these criminal activities.
Given the recent drop in the price of petroleum, Venezuela may be turning to other ways of obtaining much needed resources. During the past decade, the Grupo de los Soles, an elite Venezuelan military unit, has been engaged in close relationships with the Colombian drug cartels to transport Colombian drugs to the United States and Europe. That effort may be redoubled in the near future.
In December 2014, Leamsy Salazar, security chief of Diosdado Cabello, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, defected to the United States. Salazar accused Cabello of being the head of the Cártel de los Soles. An indictment against Venezuela issued by the attorney general of New York, claims that five tons of drugs are being transshipped weekly from Colombia through Venezuela. The indictment also accuses Cuba of protecting and helping the Venezuelans in bringing the drug to the United States.(12)
Venezuela and Iran
The most remarkable and dangerous foreign policy initiative of the Venezuelan regime has been its alliance with Iran. During the past several years, the Venezuelans have allowed Iran the use of their territory to penetrate the Western Hemisphere and to mine for uranium in Venezuela. Venezuela’s policy is aiding Iran in developing nuclear technology and in evading U.N. sanctions and U.S. vigilance of Iran’s drug trade and other illicit activities. Venezuela’s Mining and Basic Industries minister, Rodolfo Sanz, acknowledged that Iran is “helping Venezuela to explore for uranium.” “Venezuela will soon start the process of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” he added, “not to build a bomb.” (13) Chávez officially stated that Iran has a legitimate right to its nuclear program and that Venezuela supports Iran’s nuclear technology.” (14)
The concern is not necessarily that Venezuela will build its own nuclear bomb. What, for example, would stop the Iranians, once they develop their own weapons, from providing some to their close ally in Caracas? Or worse, will the Iranians use Venezuela as a transshipment point to provide nuclear weapons to terrorist groups in the hemisphere or elsewhere? Or with the help of Venezuelans, would the Iranians smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States?
Given Maduro’s erratic and irresponsible behavior such as his mismanagement of the economy, his squandering of Venezuela’s resources, and his support of Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, these possibilities should not be dismissed lightly. Not too long ago, Fidel Castro helped the Soviet Union surreptitiously introduce nuclear weapons into Cuba aimed at the United States. The October 1962 missile crisis is a grim reminder that poor U.S. vigilance, a daring leader in the Caribbean and a reckless dictator in Russia almost brought the world to a nuclear holocaust.
Since 2004, Iran has created an extensive network of installations throughout Venezuela. Most of these installations are designed to provide cover for illegal and subversive activities and to aid terrorist organizations in Latin America and the Middle East.(15) The Venezuelan government established a binational Iranian-Venezuelan bank, an alliance between the Banco Industrial de Venezuela and Iran’s Development and Export Bank, and facilitated the formation of an entirely Iranian-owned bank, the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo. It also created a binational investment and development fund and opened Iranian commercial bank offices in Caracas. (16) These banks are being used for money laundering and to help Iran violate U.S. sanctions.
In September 2014, Venezuela and Iran launched their eighth Joint Commission intended to deepen cooperation between their two nations. Venezuelan officials say this high-level commission will focus on improving ties in different sectors including culture, sports, education, industry, science and technology, health, energy, agriculture and trade. Tehran and Caracas currently have more than 260 agreements. The two countries also are involved in around 40 joint projects under development in the oil sector and in 2012 they signed a slew of new deals aimed at improving joint scientific research and agricultural cooperation. (17) Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani emphasized that the relations between the two countries “need to increase to the highest possible level.” (18)
The Iranians have acquired “industrial” installations throughout Venezuelan territory, including a “tractor” factory in the State of Bolivar, a “cement” plant in Monagas, a car assembly plant in Aragua and a bicycle factory in Cojedes. Some of these installations are used primarily as warehouses for the storage of illegal drugs, weapons and other items useful to Iran and its terrorist clients. In addition, the Islamic Republic bought a gold mine in Bolivar that indeed produces gold, but also produces uranium. (19) As part of a mineral survey in Guyana, U308 Corp, a Canadian uranium exploration company, in 2007 recorded a substantial source of uranium in the Roraima Basin, which straddles the border between Guyana and Bolívar. Iranian companies operate mines in this region; at least two of these facilities have their own ports on the navigable Orinoco River through which uranium and other contraband can be smuggled to the Atlantic.
Iran is also providing Venezuela technical assistance in the areas of defense, intelligence, energy and security. Iranians, as well as Cuban personnel, are advising, protecting and training Venezuela’s security apparatus. Cuba is also handling the issuance of Venezuelan passports and other identity documents. This gives Cuba the ability to provide false documents to Iranian and Cuban agents to travel throughout the world as Venezuelan citizens. A close relationship among the three countries, with a clear anti-American tone, has developed. This triple alliance represents a clear threat to U.S. security interests and to the security of several countries in Latin America.
Of more strategic significance is the possibility that Iranian scientists are enriching uranium in Venezuela for shipment to Iran. Venezuelan sources have confirmed this possibility. Foreign intelligence services consulted by the author acknowledged these rumors but are unable to confirm them. If confirmed, these actions would violate UN sanctions as well as U.S. security measures.
U.S. Policy Towards Venezuela
Since the initial years of the Cuban Revolution, no regime in Latin America has challenged the national security interests of the United States like Venezuela. Venezuela’s close relationship with Iran, its support for Iranian nuclear ambitions and its involvement in the affairs of neighboring countries all pose a major challenge to the United States.
U.S. policy has either ignored or mildly chastised Venezuela for its policies and activities. Removing visas for Venezuelan officials to enter the United States or highlighting Venezuela’s involvement in the drug trade may not be enough. The United States needs to develop policies that undermine the Venezuela regime, organize the opposition and accelerate the end of Chavista rule. Covert operations to strengthen opposition groups and civil society are urgently needed. Vigilance and denunciation of Venezuelan-Iranian activities and Maduro’s meddling in Latin America are critical to gain international support for U.S. policies.
While regime change in Venezuela may be a difficult policy objective, U.S. policy makers need to understand that the long-term consolidation of Chavista power in Venezuela may present a greater threat than the one posed in the 1960s by the Castro regime. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela is a large country that borders on several South American neighbors. Its alliances with Iran, Syria and other anti-American countries and its support for terrorist groups, while representing a smaller threat, are as formidable a challenge as the Cuba-Soviet alliance.
A comprehensive, alert policy is required to deal with the threat posed by Iranian inroads in the hemisphere. Maduro is, after all, Fidel Castro’s disciple and heir in the region. The lessons of the Missile Crisis of 1962 should increase our uneasiness about Venezuela’s policies and Iranian motivations in Latin America.
By Jaime Suchlicki
Director del Instituto de Estudios Cubanos y Cubano-Americanos de la Universidad de Miami
(1) Cf. Domingo Amuchastegui, “Cuba in the Middle East: A Brief Chronology,” and “Castro and Terrorism: A Chronology.” Cuba Focus (Issue 57), July 29, 2004.
(2) Fidel Castro cited in Damián J. Fernández, “Cuba’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East” (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), p. 86.
(3) Cf. José de la Fuente, “Wine into vinegar — the fall of Cuba’s biotechnology,” Nature Biotechnology, October 2001 (Vol. 19, Num. 11).
(4) See Cuba Transition Project, “Cuban Foreign Policy in the Middle East: A Cuba-Iran Axis?” Cuba Focus (Issue 55), June 7, 2014, http://ctp.iccas.miami.edu/FOCUS_Web/Issue55.html.
(5) Safa Haeri, “Cuba blows the whistle on Iranian jamming, “Asia Times (Hong Kong), August 22, 2003, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/EH22Ak03.html
(6) Raisa Pages, “Iran grants Cuba 20-million euro credit,” Granma Internacional (Cuba), January 17, 2005, http://blythe-systems.com/pipermail/nytr/Week-of-Mon-20050117/012103.html.
(7) IRNA, “Iran, Cuba sign investment, trade MoU,” Tehran, April 24, 2006.
(8) Cf. “NAM backs Iran’s right to nuclear technology,” Tehran Times, August 2, 2008, http://www.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=174294.
(9) Fars News Agency, “Iran, Cuba Sign Trade MoU,” Tehran, June 20, 2008, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8703310656.
(10) IRNA, “Envoy: Arak Pars Wagon has big share in Iran-Cuba exchanges,” Arak, Iran, August 15, 2007.
(11) U.S. Government Accountability Office, Report to Ranking Members, Committee of Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, Drug Control: U.S. Counternarcotics Cooperation Has Declined, 111th Congress, 1st Sess. Washington D.C., July, 2009.
(12) “Jefe de seguridad del número dos Chavista deserta en los EE.UU. y lo acusa de narcotráfico.” ABC.es Internacional, January 27, 2015.
(13) Gustavo Coronel, “The Iran Nuclear Axis,” Human Events, October 29, 2009.
(14) “Venezuela-Iran Foreign Relations,” IranTracker. May 12, 2010.
(15) See Norman A. Bailey, “Iran’s Venezuelan Gateway,” The American Foreign Policy Council, February 2012.
(17) Press TV (Caracas), September 27, 2014.
(18) IRNA, September 24, 2014.
(19) Roger F. Noriega “Hugo Chávez’s Criminal, Nuclear Network: A Grave and Growing Threat,” American Enterprise Institute On Line, October 14, 2009.
*Prepared for the Center for Hemispheric Policy’s paper series, “Perspectives on the Americas.” University of Miami. February 2015.