Recent economic and political developments in Venezuela have captured the international media’s attention and prompted countless conversations about Venezuela’s economy, humanitarian aid, and the role of foreign state influence in the oil-rich, South American country. In the shadows of these debates lurks a critical yet underreported trilateral partnership between Venezuela, Iran, and Lebanese group Hezbollah, which will significantly impact both the future of the government in Caracas and Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere.  

Although a seemingly unlikely pair, Iran and Venezuela have been steadily solidifying military and economic relations for more than a decade. Bilateral relations between the two states date back to the early days of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In fact, it was the confluence of Hugo Chavez’s government and the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency in the mid-2000s which led to the signing of nearly a dozen memoranda of understanding and establishment of several partnerships focused on the oil and gas industries. At a time when Western-championed UN sanctions were intended to cripple Iran’s economy, the fortification of Caracas and Tehran’s fraternal bonds significantly extended the Islamic Republic’s reach, both militarily and economically. Even after Chavez’s death in March 2013, Iranian-Venezuelan relations continued to strengthen. Proliferating pressures from the West on both countries—especially since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017—have provided an incentive for both Caracas and Tehran to align more closely.

Perhaps surprisingly, Iran has used Hezbollah as a key mechanism to expand Tehran’s influence in Venezuela and the broader South American continent. Hezbollah-linked cells have existed in Venezuela since the 1990s. As legacies of colonialism, slavery, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Palestinian refugee crisis, and the Lebanese civil war, there are notably large Arab/Muslim populations in South America. These diasporas have been critical to the growth of Iran and Hezbollah’s influence in Latin America.

Historical Context: Islam in Latin America

Throughout history, three waves of Muslim migrants have landed on Latin America’s shores. The first wave of Muslim migrants arrived in the Americas in the sixteenth century with Spanish and Portuguese armies. The Muslims at the time claimed Catholicism as their religion. But the many who remained secretly faithful to Islam were referred to as Moriscos. Researchers believe that this initial wave of Muslim migrants was eradicated during the Catholic Inquisition when they were burned at the stake for apostasy.

The second wave of Muslim migration originated from Africa as slaves. As the New World “imported” workers, it also naturally brought Islam which manifested itself primarily in local communities within the slave labor economy of that period. In 1830, African Muslims in Brazil formed a short-lived Muslim state.

The same year, the third wave began and by 1990, the Syrian and Lebanese migrants, who were Muslim, began arriving from the Ottoman Empire. This wave settled along the Caribbean and Venezuelan coasts including the island of Curacão (Netherland Antilles).

Sunni Muslims with roots in India, Pakistan, and Indonesia also settled in Suriname, which borders Brazil on the Atlantic coast of South America. Representing somewhere between 13 to 20 percent of the population, Muslims have become part of Suriname’s social and political fabric.

Caribbean migration and the influx of Muslims have also had an impact on developments today in Venezuela. Immigrants to Venezuela are fairly evenly distributed among all major cities in the northern provinces along the coastline. Arab  arrivals in the island port city of Curacão, off the coast of Venezuela, also built up the community in neighboring Willemstad, the capital of Netherland Antilles. Thus, a further wave of immigrants populated the Northern Cone’s increasingly diverse Islamic communities.

Colombia also has a significant Arab population with the development of the free trade zones on the island of San Andrés, and more importantly of Maicao on the Guajira peninsula near the border of Venezuela. The community there has been able to replicate the Arab dominance found in retail trade in cities. In fact, the strongest Muslim community can be found in the Northern Cone. The building of business networks ultimately led to the creation of the free trade zone, Isla Margarita, which allowed Hezbollah to gain a major foothold and corrupt the local community.

A final factor that helped Hezbollah gain traction in the Northern Cone, besides these diasporic support networks, came from a mix of two phenomena, a spread in mosque construction and the wave of conversion of Latinos from Catholicism to Islam starting in the late 1980s. The ability to build mosques in Colombia under the new 1991 constitution that focused on ethnic and cultural diversity brought about the development of mosque construction that fed into other Caribbean Islamic communities in the Northern Cone and in Venezuela in particular.    

Conversion from Catholicism to Islam in the Northern Cone is a phenomenon resulting from family disputes involving patriarchy. Gender plays a role in that converts are usually trying to flee the restrictions of Latin culture in order to embrace a belief system that is less restrictive; thus, they become susceptible to potential recruitment by Hezbollah. Embracing a new life after conversion is a gateway to recruitment. This phenomenon is seen throughout the entire region, including in Suriname and Guyana where Afghan refugees are now joining local mosques and where authorities are concerned about Hezbollah recruiters.  

Thus, the impact of migration on the Northern Cone’s religious demography is clear. Hezbollah has achieved a strong foothold across several major coastal cities. When Venezuela’s troubles produce the right environment, the group may spring into action and take advantage of the void.

From Caracas to Southern Lebanon: Maduro’s Hezbollah Partnership

Hezbollah has been closely tied to drug trafficking in Venezuela, particularly on Margarita Island. Reports of Venezuelan military officers training Islamist militants on the island surfaced in 2010, establishing a narco-terror nexus between the Venezuelan government, Iran, and Hezbollah.

To convey the depth of this relationship, former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck al-Aissami was widely suspected of collaborating with Hezbollah to provide Venezuelan passports and social security IDs to Islamist immigrants. These forged documents permitted several members of Hezbollah to obtain U.S. visas and establish terror cells in the United States.

The present economic and political instability in Venezuela and escalating geopolitical pressure on both Iran and Venezuela from the United States could precipitate worrisome developments in relations between Venezuela, Iran, and Hezbollah. For example, one concern is the possible influx of Islamist militants in Venezuela and in the region as a whole, which could prompt terrorist activity, an upswing in drug trafficking, and the spread of Islamism throughout the Western hemisphere.

For Iran, the ability to use Hezbollah fighters as proxies could be an important geopolitical move against the United States and American interests throughout the region. As President Trump continues his campaign against the Islamic Republic, and with the U.S. having intervened in Venezuelan affairs already, regional instability could prove a rare opportunity for Iran and its proxies to operate in the Western hemisphere. By establishing a physical and military footprint on the doorstep of the United States, Iran could significantly increase its leverage in other diplomatic and military affairs.

Importantly, a change in Venezuela’s leadership will be detrimental to Iran and Hezbollah’s interests in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to oil and gas partnerships, Venezuela previously committed to providing Iran with a sophisticated intelligence network that allows the Islamic Republic more unfettered movement of militants and equipment into South America. In the face of widespread dissatisfaction with the Maduro government, and its corruption, it is possible that the next government may abandon Venezuela’s close relations with Iran and its proxies, significantly stunting Tehran’s influence in the Americas.

 

Feature image by Hossein Zohrevand via Tasnim News Agency