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Iranian Presence in Crisis-Ridden Venezuela Is Growing, Warns Top Organization of American States Official

avatar by Ben Cohen


Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (R) embraces Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting in Caracas. Photo: Reuters / Carlos Garcia Rawlins.

Venezuela remains the center of Iranian ambitions in Latin America, a top official from the Organization of American States (OAS) told The Algemeiner this week.

In an extensive interview, David Smolansky — the OAS General Secretariat’s Commissioner tasked with responding to the growing humanitarian crisis facing migrants fleeing economic breakdown and political repression in Venezuela — warned that Iran was at the center of a “criminal hub” in the region.

“In Venezuela, Iran has found a synergy with Cuban intelligence, along with the presence of Russia and China and Turkey, in helping the regime of [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro to evade sanctions,” Smolansky said. “It’s dangerous.”

In addition to the national security threat posed by Iran’s penetration of Venezuela, Smolansky also pointed to a public health dimension, as the region continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.

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“Since the pandemic began, there have been at least 20 non-commercial flights between Iran and Venezuela,” Smolansky said.

The flights have been ferrying Iranian officials to Venezuela, Smolansky noted, at a time when the Iranian regime has been deliberately underplaying the extent of the pandemic within its own borders. Smolansky said that the air traffic between the two countries functioned as a “super-spreader.”

“[Regime] Officials like Diosdado Cabello, Tareck El-Aissami, Héctor Rodríguez, who had contact with Iranians in Venezuela, tested positive for COVID19,” Smolansky pointed out. “Darío Vivas (a regime loyalist parliamentarian) died because of COVID19.”

A native Venezuelan, Smolansky is well aware of how Iran has consolidated its presence in his country since 1999, when Hugo Chavez seized power and recast the previously stable Latin American nation as a revolutionary state.

Under Chavez, military and commercial ties with Iran flourished. The relationship has become even closer over the last two years, as the United States, along with dozens of Latin American and European nations, withdrew recognition of Maduro’s government in favor of the democratically-elected speaker of the Venezuelan parliament, Juan Guaido.

Now 35-years-old, Smolansky was just a teenager at the dawn of what Venezuelans have come to call “chavismo.” The son of a Venezuelan Catholic mother and a Jewish father whose family escaped from antisemitic oppression in Poland and Ukraine, Smolansky’s involvement in Venezuelan opposition activism goes back more than a decade.

In 2013, he was elected as mayor of El Hatillo, a municipality in the southeast of Caracas, on the ticket of the liberal Voluntad Popular opposition party. As the youngest local government official in Venezuela, Smolansky emphasized both personal security — which was undermined by widespread kidnapping and murder, as well as grave food shortages — and human rights during his tenure.

In August 2017, Smolansky was forced out of office during a new wave of repression orchestrated by Maduro, embarking on the journey that brought him to the US.

An arrest warrant was issued for him. “I went into hiding for 35 days,” Smolansky recalled. “The security forces were out looking for me, so I decided to flee from Venezuela.”

Smolansky took the road south, crossing the border into Brazil while disguised as a trainee Catholic priest.

“I wore priests’ clothing and I shaved off my beard for the first time in 10 years,” Smolansky said. “I went through 30 checkpoints that were manned by Venezuelan security forces. At eight of them, I was asked to stop, at four of them I was taken out of the car.”

The tragedy of the more than 5 million Venezuelans who have fled their country for uncertain futures abroad was driven home to Smolansky when he caught a flight out of Brazil in 2018.

“I saw Venezuelans outside the airport selling cigarettes and candy,” he remembered. “There was a large family of Venezuelans sleeping on the floor of the airport. The person who was before me in the line, she had a Venezuelan passport, and I saw that she bought a ticket to Argentina. Venezuela is a human meltdown.”

Smolansky’s current role involves working with OAS member states to address the plight of Venezuelan migrants, whose proportion of the overall population is now at 17 percent and rising every month. His own family’s roots as Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe are a constant reminder of the perils of refugee life, he said.

Smolansky grew up in a cosmopolitan environment, remarking that his Catholic and Jewish origins meant that “I always understood tolerance.” Antisemitism was virtually unknown in Venezuela before Chavez came to power, when anti-Jewish tropes were deployed as part of the regime’s revolutionary, anti-imperialist rhetoric.

“In 2009, the regime first attacked me because of my Jewish roots,” said Smolansky. These days, Smolansky’s name is frequently invoked with an antisemitic sneer on the weekly TV show of Diosdado Cabello — a long-serving regime figure.

“Cabello calls me an agent of Zionism, he says that I have been trained by the Mossad,” Smolansky said. More than two-thirds of Venezuela’s 20,000 Jews have left the country during the last 20 years, with antisemitism providing an additional push.

“If you are Jewish, if you have Jewish roots, the regime will treat you differently,” Smolansky commented. “You have to see what the regime calls us — ‘rats,’ ‘full of s**t,’ ‘assassins.'”

Smolansky reflected that the relatively stable and democratic Venezuela that preceded Chavez was something his generation had never experienced.

“I started high school in ’99, my generation grew up with dictatorship,” Smolansky said. “We never enjoyed a country with opportunities, with plenty of freedom, with an independent media, with the rule of law.” Two decades later, the growing exodus of ordinary Venezuelans is the most telling symbol of the price that has been paid for the regime’s experiment in “Bolivarian socialism.”

Smolansky nonetheless sounded a note of cautious optimism. “Despite what we have faced during 22 years, we have not given up until we restore democracy and freedom in Venezuela,” he said. “We are fighting not only for our generation, but for the next ones too.”

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