Is Hezbollah in Venezuela? Probably. A more interesting question is: Does it matter, and if so, how much? American foreign policy hawks have been sounding the alarm on this for years, claiming Hezbollah’s activities in South America, which they often refer to as "America’s backyard," are a threat to national security.
The U.S. State Department labels Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and Iranian proxy. The origins of Hezbollah are murky, but it first emerged as a force in the early 1980s, in reaction to Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon. During this period, the group quickly gained infamy in the United States when it blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing over 200 Marines, only months after it had blown up the U.S. Embassy there.
That being said, attacks on American targets have been the exception, rather than the rule. Throughout its history, the majority of Hezbollah’s energies have been directed towards Israel. In the decades since its creation, Hezbollah has evolved and expanded its activities, operating as a political party in Lebanon while simultaneously maintaining its separate criminal and military activities. Sometime in the 1980s they are believed to have established a foothold in South America, probably to raise funds from the large Lebanese community there. It has been established that the group is engaged in narcotrafficking and money laundering, no doubt spurred in part by Iran’s declining support due to the crushing international sanctions against it. Though their activities in Latin America appear to be primarily aimed at raising money, fears of Hezbollah’s capacity for violence in the region are not without basis; Hezbollah is widely blamed for bombing the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and then again that city’s Jewish Community Center in the early 90s, killing over 100 people.
The fears of a Venezuelan-Hezbollah axis seem to be spurred in large part by the highly visible personal friendship between the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This unlikely alliance between two men of such different cultural backgrounds appears to be a product of their respective governments’ isolation and shared antagonism towards the United States. In the UN, Venezuela has voted against international sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. Iran has billions of dollars invested in Venezuela. There is, however, nothing particularly treacherous about that. The claims of a more sinister relationship have been most prominently voiced by Roger Noriega.
Mr. Noriega is currently a visiting fellow at conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Noriega is no stranger to murky Iran-Latin American intrigue; while at the U.S. Agency for International Development, he was implicated in the Iran-Contra Scandal during the Reagan administration. He subsequently served in high-level diplomatic posts under President George W. Bush, including as Ambassador to the Organization of American States, where he supported the abortive coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002.
More recently, he has publicly accused Venezuela of having a secret nuclear program. In his July 2011 testimony before Congress, Mr. Noriega further stoked the fires by claiming that Venezuela actually supports Hezbollah and allows it and drug cartel members to operate in its territory, though he offered no proof. He also hinted darkly that the federal government knows more than it is willing to say publicly on the subject.
Noriega clearly knows how to get attention in Washington, but that is not the same as offering well-informed advice. In this post-9/11 foreign policy environment, his efforts seem to be aimed at reinforcing conservatives’ penchant for conflating a group’s stated anti-American sentiments with an unstated intention to actually do us harm. In many ways, Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America are similar to those of other drug cartels, which are rightly viewed as a problem. But their activies are a law enforcement problem, and needs to be confronted without the hysteria that seems to accompany any statement containing "Hezbollah" and "America’s backyard" in the same breath.