Latin America's leftist regimes get cozy with Iran

Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia want stronger ties with Iran, but all face internal hurdles.

When the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna voted to refer Iran's energy case to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month, there were three notable "no" votes. One was from Syria, a predictable supporter of Iran. The other two were from Cuba and Venezuela, two leftist and anti-American regimes that Iran has shown special interest in cultivating. A third nation in Latin America that has attracted the attention of Iran is Bolivia, which recently installed a leftist president, Evo Morales.

These efforts are presumably part of an Iranian campaign to strengthen its relationships with developing nations that might rally to Iran's side as it fends off American and European efforts to halt its nuclear development program.

Cuba's President Fidel Castro and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad say they want a halt to the proliferation of nuclear weapons but have affirmed each country's right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The US and European nations believe that a peaceful nuclear program is a cover for the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran.

Mr. Castro has spoken admiringly of Iran "increasing its ability to fight big powers by the day." Mr. Ahmadinejad has said he is "hopeful of a new wave of revolution and increased cooperation" between Iran and Cuba.

The growth of relations between Cuba and Iran has been under way for some years prior to Ahmadinejad's ascendancy to the presidency. Observers of Cuba say that Iran has made use of an electronic jamming station outside Havana from which Cuba blocks broadcasts beamed at it by the US-backed Radio Marti. Iran has apparently piggybacked on Cuba's expertise to jam American government broadcasting into Iran. Cuba has also helped the Tehran regime to build a genetic laboratory in Iran.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has defended Iran's right to develop nuclear energy and declared that Iran and Venezuela are like "brothers who fight for a just world." Last year Venezuela negotiated with Iran a variety of trade and economic agreements. Iran has spoken out in support of left-wing leaders in Latin America and singled out Mr. Chávez's socialist movement as one that Iran favors because it is spreading rapidly through the region. A major producer of oil, Venezuela has been increasing ties of energy cooperation with Iran, Russia, and China, all while Chavez rails against the US. In recent days he has declared that "Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W. Bush," ordered the expulsion of a US military attaché on charges of spying, and told Venezuelans to prepare for a US invasion.

Bolivia has not previously had the close relationship with Iran that Cuba and Venezuela have been developing. But Bolivia's new president, Mr. Morales, has talked recently with Ahmadinejad about forming a trilateral energy alliance between Iran, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Among other things, it would provide Bolivia with expertise to nationalize its oil and gas industry. Bolivia has substantial reserves of natural gas, of which Brazil is presently a major consumer.

While Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia seem eager to establish stronger ties with Iran, and find common cause in encouraging leftist political upheaval in Latin America, each are dealing with different internal problems.

In Cuba there are continuing problems with the economy and specifically the power supply. Cuba does have oil, but it is heavy with sulphur and damaging to electric generating machinery. With much of that machinery out of commission, Cubans have been beset by major electricity blackouts. Unable to build big new power plants, Castro has promised to solve the problem by spending $300 million on 2,000 to 3,000 small electric generators from Germany and South Korea.

In Venezuela, the currently high prices of oil mean that Chávez is riding high with the nation's poor who are the beneficiaries of improved social services. But the middle class are anxious as they watch an assault on one after another of the institutions that symbolize democracy.

In Bolivia, President Morales has installed indigenous Indians in key cabinet posts, and eschewed learning in such languages as French and English in favor of Indian tongues. Himself an Aymara Indian of humble beginnings, Morales was a grower of coca, a plant widely cultivated in Bolivia. It can be used for a variety of purposes, including cocaine production. Morales opposes trafficking in cocaine, but apparently not coca growing. How he manages this issue, plus advocating socialism for Latin America while proclaiming his desire for good relations with countries such as the US, will determine his standing in the international community.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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