Phil Gunson and Steven Dudley
The Miami Herald
June 6, 2007
CARACAS - When one of four men accused of plotting to bomb John F. Kennedy airport boarded a Venezuelan airline flight from Trinidad to Caracas on Saturday, U.S. authorities rushed to ensure he wouldn't reach his destination.
Trinidad authorities stopped the airplane and arrested Abdul Kadir, 55, who was to pick up an Iranian visa in Caracas, because U.S. officials feared he would disappear in Venezuela -- where President Hugo Chávez has halted most cooperation with Washington -- or in Iran, which the United States calls a ``state sponsor of terrorism.''
The rush to capture Kadir relatively early into the alleged bombing plot highlighted the fractured U.S.-Venezuela relationship, and it underlined Washington's worries about Chávez's increasing ties with Iran.
Venezuela and Iran -- two of the top oil producing countries in the world -- belong to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States' more radical wing, which seeks higher prices over higher production and explicitly encourages the use of oil as a political weapon.
But particularly since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency in mid-2005, ties between the two have been strengthened by their shared ''anti-imperialist'' antipathy toward Washington and in particular to the Bush administration. The two leaders often refer to each other as ``brother.''
''We will stand with Iran under all circumstances,'' Chávez said last year while on a visit to Tehran. Venezuela, along with Syria and Cuba, has consistently supported Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear energy, a program that has raised concerns in Washington and elsewhere.
Chávez has said he does not support nuclear proliferation or Ahmadinejad's statements calling for the destruction of Israel. ''I don't believe in wiping any people off the map,'' Chávez said.
Still, bilateral relations are tight. Chávez has traveled to Tehran at least a half-dozen times since taking power in 1999, the last time in July. Ahmadinejad has been in Caracas twice.
''Chávez has always had the intention -- it's the old thesis of oil as a strategic weapon -- of establishing ties with Mideast oil producers hostile to the United States,'' said Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan political analyst who has written several books about Chávez.
In the beginning of his administration, Chávez met with Iraq's Saddam Hussein as well as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. The relationship with Iran, however, has had more direct results.
In September 2006, Ahmadinejad and Chávez signed 29 agreements, many of them in the energy field. During Ahmadinejad's two-day visit, they also toured the VenIran tractor factory in eastern Venezuela, which was inaugurated in 2005. In January, they announced that a $2 billion investment fund set up last year would be extended to allow investments in third countries.
''It will permit us to underpin investments . . . above all in those countries whose governments are making efforts to liberate themselves from the imperialist yoke,'' Chávez said, adding, ``Death to U.S. imperialism!''
In all, the Iran-Venezuela agreements signed so far total about $17 billion, according to recent statements by the government in Tehran. Only a portion of this has been invested so far, however.
The agreements cover a wide range of activities, including Iran's construction of oil tankers for the Venezuelan state fleet and 10,000 houses. Other initiatives include everything from gold mining to assistance in the fields of broadcasting and education.
In March this year, IranAir and the Venezuelan state airline Conviasa inaugurated weekly flights between the two capitals, with stopovers in the Syrian capital Damascus, the same flight that authorities say Kadir was hoping to board. Kadir has no other known links to Venezuela.
Since Chávez took power in 1999, tension between Caracas and Washington has grown substantially. Chávez accuses Washington of taking part in a coup attempt against him in 2002, and fostering unrest throughout his eight years in power.
The U.S. government accuses Chávez, who has handily won three presidential elections and is very popular in Venezuela, of stacking the courts and once-independent government institutions with his allies, thwarting freedom of expression and providing a virtual safe-haven for drug traffickers and leftist Colombian guerrillas. There are also whispers about Middle East terrorists moving through Venezuela.
''Venezuelan citizenship, identity and travel documents remained easy to obtain, making Venezuela a potentially attractive way-station for terrorists,'' the State Department said in its report on international terrorism earlier this year.
Formal bilateral cooperation against traffickers and terrorism has ended. Last year, Chávez prohibited the Drug Enforcement Administration from operating in Venezuela, accusing it of spying on his country. He also has ended all military exchanges between the two nations.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has banned arms sales to Venezuela and declared that Caracas is ''not fully cooperating'' on matters of terrorism.
A foreign consultant who works with the Venezuelan presidency, but did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said Chávez simply doesn't trust the U.S. government.
''This distrust stems from the belief that the Bush administration was directly involved in the April 2002 coup, and that it continues to try to undermine and destabilize the Venezuelan government through disinformation campaigns and covert operations,'' he told The Miami Herald in an e-mail exchange.