The Cuba-Iran-Venezuela Relationship: Implications for the United States*
Director del Instituto de Estudios Cubanos y Cubano-Americanos de la
Universidad de Miami
(www.miscelaneasdecuba.net).- President Barack Obama’s announcement on
December 17, 2014, about an improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations will
have little, if any, impact on General Raúl Castro’s alliance with Iran,
Russia and Venezuela. The close relations that these countries have
developed with Cuba will not be affected. Their aid is not conditioned
on changes in Cuba. They share with Castro a virulent anti-Americanism.
They all share a belief that the world convergence of forces is moving
against the United States. Despite economic difficulties, Cuba is
unwilling to renounce these alliances and accept a role as a small
Caribbean country, friendly to the United States.
Since assuming formal power in Cuba in 2006 following Fidel Castro’s
illness, General Raúl Castro has continued his close alliance with
Venezuela, Iran and China, and has expanded Cuba’s military cooperation
with, and purchases from, Russia. Venezuela’s vast purchases of Russian
and Chinese military equipment, the close Venezuela-Iran relationship
and the Cuba-Venezuela alliance are troublesome. Although it is not
known if Venezuela is transferring some of these weapons to Cuba,
Caracas remains an open back door for Cuba’s acquisition of
sophisticated Russian weapons, as well as Cuba’s principal financial
backer. The objectives of this alliance are to weaken “U.S. imperialism”
and to foster a world with several centers of power.
Given Cuba’s military and intelligence presence in Venezuela, it is
likely that the Chavista revolution will continue its Cuban support.
Even at the current low prices for petroleum, Venezuela can continue,
with its vast resources, to help Cuba. Deliveries may be reduced from
the current 100,000-120,000 barrels daily to some 50,000-60,000, enough
to keep the Cuban economy afloat. A collapse of the Chavista revolution,
while unlikely at the present time, could lead to a curtailment of
Venezuelan oil. In that case, Cuba would have to look to other
allies–Russia, Iran, Angola–for help.
Cuba has renewed its military cooperation with Russia. Russia’s economic
and diplomatic support are important to Cuba, especially if Russia’s
support forces the United States to offer unilateral concessions to Cuba
beyond President Obama’s executive order establishing diplomatic
relations with the island and particularly if the United States lifts
its embargo and allows American tourists to visit the island.
In 2014, Cuba and Russia signed agreements providing the Kremlin with
naval and aerial facilities in Cuba for the Russian military. Russia’s
growing presence in the Caribbean, while not necessarily challenging the
U.S. militarily, allows for Russian power projection, forces the United
States to increase its defenses and monitoring capabilities on its
southern flank and reinforces the perception in Latin America and
elsewhere that the United States is being challenged in its own sphere
of influence by outside powers. This, in turn, further weakens American
influence in the region and encourages anti-American leaders to take
positions inimical to U.S. interests.
After decades of expending military, financial and human resources in
support of a variety of Arab dictators, Islamic fundamentalist movements
and anti-Israeli terrorist organizations, (1) Havana recently has begun
to reap substantial returns on its long-term investment in the Middle
East. From Dubai to Tehran and via the Organization of Oil Exporting
Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, the political and ideological ties
cultivated by Fidel Castro’s pro-Islamic foreign policy are now
generating tangible benefits for the successor regime of brother Raúl.
In the process of receiving nearly US$1.5 billion in foreign direct
investment, financing and aid from autocratic Muslim states, Cuba is
emerging as a strategic ally and outpost in the Western Hemisphere for a
wide range of Islamic regimes.
For Cuba, the infusion of Islamic capital strengthens the regime’s
stability and diversifies the risk of economic collapse by adding a
fourth financial pillar alongside oil from Venezuela, bilateral trade
credits from China and Russia, and corporate capital from Canada, Latin
America and the European Union. As Cuba and its Islamic partners forge a
trans-Atlantic alliance of their own, what are the implications of the
increasingly free flow of trade and capital from the Persian Gulf to the
Communist Cuba’s alliance with the Iran of the Ayatollahs dates to 1979,
when Fidel Castro became one of the first heads of state to recognize
the Islamic Republic’s radical clerics. Addressing then-Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Khomeini, Castro insisted that there was “no contradiction
between revolution and religion,” an ecumenical principle that has
guided Cuba’s relations with Iran and other Islamic regimes. (2) Over
the next two decades, Castro fostered a unique relationship between a
secular Communist Cuba and theocratic Iran, united by a common hatred of
the United States and the liberal, democratic West.
In the early 1990s, Havana started to export biopharmaceutical products
for the Iranian healthcare system. By the late 1990s, Cuba had moved
beyond pharmaceutical exports to transferring (licensing) both its
medical biotechnologies and, along with the technical know-how, implicit
capabilities to develop and manufacture industrial quantities of
biological weapons.(3) In addition to training Iranian scientists in
Cuba and sending Cuban scientists and technicians to Iran’s research
centers, the Cuban state-run Center for Biotechnology and Genetic
Engineering established a joint-venture biotechnology production plant
near Tehran at a cost of US$60 million (Cuba provided the intellectual
capital and technology, and Iran the financing). With this facility,
Iran is believed to possess “the most modern biotechnology and genetic
engineering facility of its type in the Middle East.”(4)
Geographically, Cuba’s strategic location enabled Iran, on at least one
occasion, to clandestinely engage in electronic attacks against U.S.
telecommunications that posed a threat to the Islamic regime’s control
and censorship. In the summer of 2003, Tehran blocked signals from a
U.S. satellite that was broadcasting uncensored Farsi-language news into
Iran at a time of rising unrest. Based on the location of the satellite
over the Atlantic, it would have been impossible for Iranian-based
transmissions to affect the satellite’s signals. Ultimately, the jamming
was traced to a compound in the outskirts of Havana that had been
equipped with the advanced telecommunications technology capable of
disrupting the Los Angeles-based broadcaster’s programming across the
Atlantic. It is well known that Cuba has continuously upgraded its
ability to block U.S. broadcasts to the island, and hence conceivably,
to jam international communications in general. Although the Cuban
government would later claim that Iranian diplomatic staff had operated
out of the compound without its consent, given that Cuba “[is] a fully
police state,” as an Iran expert has noted, “it is difficult to believe
the Iranians had introduced the sophisticated jamming equipment into
Cuba without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities,” much less utilized
it against U.S. targets without the knowledge of the Castro regime. (5)
For its solidarity and services to the Islamic Republic, Iran began
compensating the Cuban government directly. During the presidency of
Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Tehran offered Havana an initial
20-million euros annual credit line. (6) Then, following the election of
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the island emerged as a major beneficiary
of Tehran’s foreign policy. Consequently, Iranian financing for Cuba
expanded exponentially from a modest 20 million euros in 2005 to 200
million euros for bilateral trade and investment projects in
2007. (7) At the same time, Havana was spearheading a campaign within
the Non-Aligned Movement to legitimize Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program
as an “inalienable right” of all developing nations. (8) In June 2008
Ahmadinejad approved a record 500-million euros credit for the Castro
regime. From Iran’s perspective, Cuba deserves to be rewarded for its
“similarity in outlooks on international issues.” (9)
In total, since 2005 Cuba has received the equivalent of over one
billion euros in credits from Tehran. With Islamic Republic financing,
Cuba has begun to make critical investments in the rehabilitation of
dilapidated Soviet-era infrastructure. Iran is funding some 60 projects
ranging from the acquisition of 750 Iranian-made rail cars to the
construction of power plants, dams and highways.(10)
The election of Hassan Rouhani, the reduction in the price of oil and
Iran’s involvement in the Middle East have precluded new credits to
Cuba. Yet the relationship, as evidenced by visits, cooperation in
international organizations and joint support for Venezuela, has continued.
Should Venezuela Worry the United States?
The emergence of an anti-American regime in Venezuela, first led by Hugo
Chávez and now, by Nicolás Maduro, represents the most important threat
to U.S. national interest and security in Latin America today.
Emboldened by Venezuela’s vast oil resources and a close relationship
with Iran and Russia, Venezuela has laid claim to the leadership of the
anti-American movement in the region.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro’s illness and Cuba’s weak
economic situation thrust the leadership of the Latin American left onto
the Venezuelans. If Fidel was the godfather of
revolutionary/terrorist/anti-American groups, Chávez, and now Maduro,
are the trusted “capos,” the heirs to “the struggle against Yankee
imperialism.” Maduro’s petroleum largesse toward several countries in
the region and his support for candidates in the Bolivian, Nicaraguan
and Ecuadorean elections are appreciated by leaders in these countries.
The Venezuelan Chavista leaders have no desire to relinquish power. They
have manipulated past elections, and will manipulate future ones, to be
re-elected for at least the next decade. They are increasingly deepening
their Bolivarian revolution by weakening and subverting Venezuela’s
democratic institutions. In the process of consolidating their
authoritarian rule, they are now aiming their control at the
culture-conserving democratic institutions. The press, the church, the
education system and the family are all under attack in a relentless
move toward establishing a dictatorship loyal to the Chavista leadership.
Unhappiness with Maduro has grown in the past few years. Corruption,
drug trafficking, mismanagement and food shortages are all contributing
to social unrest. The possible increase of protests and tension may lead
to the replacement of Maduro. Yet the possibility of a total collapse of
the political system is less likely given the continuous support of
Cuba, the enrichment of the military in the drug business and the
weakness of the organized opposition.
Venezuela also threatens the democratic development of Latin America.
The Chávez regime purchased over $6 billion in Russian weapons. The
militarization of Venezuela and the ambitions of its current leader
represent a major threat to neighboring Colombia, which is currently
engaged in a peace process with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas
Revolucionarias de Colombia). The border dispute between Guyana and
Venezuela also offers Venezuela an opportunity to flex its muscle with a
much weaker neighbor.
At best, Venezuela’s weapon purchases are leading to an arms race in the
region, with Colombia acquiring U.S. weapons and Brazil turning to
France. Other countries, such as Ecuador and Peru, are also spending
their much-needed resources in the acquisition of weapons. A coalition
of Venezuela with its allies Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and naturally
Cuba has developed into a club of well-armed, anti-American regimes
capable of intimidating its neighbors and exercising significant
influence in the region.
As recent evidence has shown, Venezuela and Cuba have been strong
supporters of the FARC. The principal challenger to the Colombian
regime, the FARC is a guerrilla/narcotrafficking group operating
throughout the country. Venezuela has provided it safe haven and
political support. High-profile FARC operatives have used Venezuelan
territory with impunity. In the past, small arms from Venezuelan
military inventories have turned up in the hands of the FARC. FARC
guerillas and drug smugglers use Venezuelan territory for the
transshipment of drugs from the cocaine-producing regions of Bolivia and
Colombia to the markets in the United States and Europe. According to a
Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, cocaine flowing through
Venezuela grew fourfold (from 60 to 260 metric tons) between 2004 and
Venezuela’s alliance with the FARC has evolved into a major enterprise,
smuggling narcotics and laundering money through Venezuela’s financial
institutions and state-run enterprises. Simultaneously, Venezuela ended
all U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operations, expelled U.S.
DEA officials and denied visas to U.S. anti-drug personnel. As Colombia
has taken the upper hand in its conflict with the guerrillas in the last
five to six years, FARC narcotics operations have been flushed out in
the open – as has Venezuela’s complicity in these criminal activities.
Given the recent drop in the price of petroleum, Venezuela may be
turning to other ways of obtaining much needed resources. During the
past decade, the Grupo de los Soles, an elite Venezuelan military unit,
has been engaged in close relationships with the Colombian drug cartels
to transport Colombian drugs to the United States and Europe. That
effort may be redoubled in the near future.
In December 2014, Leamsy Salazar, security chief of Diosdado Cabello,
president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, defected to the United
States. Salazar accused Cabello of being the head of the Cártel de los
Soles. An indictment against Venezuela issued by the attorney general of
New York, claims that five tons of drugs are being transshipped weekly
from Colombia through Venezuela. The indictment also accuses Cuba of
protecting and helping the Venezuelans in bringing the drug to the
Venezuela and Iran
The most remarkable and dangerous foreign policy initiative of the
Venezuelan regime has been its alliance with Iran. During the past
several years, the Venezuelans have allowed Iran the use of their
territory to penetrate the Western Hemisphere and to mine for uranium in
Venezuela. Venezuela’s policy is aiding Iran in developing nuclear
technology and in evading U.N. sanctions and U.S. vigilance of Iran’s
drug trade and other illicit activities. Venezuela’s Mining and Basic
Industries minister, Rodolfo Sanz, acknowledged that Iran is “helping
Venezuela to explore for uranium.” “Venezuela will soon start the
process of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” he added,
“not to build a bomb.” (13) Chávez officially stated that Iran has a
legitimate right to its nuclear program and that Venezuela supports
Iran’s nuclear technology.” (14)
The concern is not necessarily that Venezuela will build its own nuclear
bomb. What, for example, would stop the Iranians, once they develop
their own weapons, from providing some to their close ally in Caracas?
Or worse, will the Iranians use Venezuela as a transshipment point to
provide nuclear weapons to terrorist groups in the hemisphere or
elsewhere? Or with the help of Venezuelans, would the Iranians smuggle a
nuclear weapon into the United States?
Given Maduro’s erratic and irresponsible behavior such as his
mismanagement of the economy, his squandering of Venezuela’s resources,
and his support of Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, these
possibilities should not be dismissed lightly. Not too long ago, Fidel
Castro helped the Soviet Union surreptitiously introduce nuclear weapons
into Cuba aimed at the United States. The October 1962 missile crisis is
a grim reminder that poor U.S. vigilance, a daring leader in the
Caribbean and a reckless dictator in Russia almost brought the world to
a nuclear holocaust.
Since 2004, Iran has created an extensive network of installations
throughout Venezuela. Most of these installations are designed to
provide cover for illegal and subversive activities and to aid terrorist
organizations in Latin America and the Middle East.(15) The Venezuelan
government established a binational Iranian-Venezuelan bank, an alliance
between the Banco Industrial de Venezuela and Iran’s Development and
Export Bank, and facilitated the formation of an entirely Iranian-owned
bank, the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo. It also created a
binational investment and development fund and opened Iranian commercial
bank offices in Caracas. (16) These banks are being used for money
laundering and to help Iran violate U.S. sanctions.
In September 2014, Venezuela and Iran launched their eighth Joint
Commission intended to deepen cooperation between their two nations.
Venezuelan officials say this high-level commission will focus on
improving ties in different sectors including culture, sports,
education, industry, science and technology, health, energy, agriculture
and trade. Tehran and Caracas currently have more than 260 agreements.
The two countries also are involved in around 40 joint projects under
development in the oil sector and in 2012 they signed a slew of new
deals aimed at improving joint scientific research and agricultural
cooperation. (17) Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani emphasized that the
relations between the two countries “need to increase to the highest
possible level.” (18)
The Iranians have acquired “industrial” installations throughout
Venezuelan territory, including a “tractor” factory in the State of
Bolivar, a “cement” plant in Monagas, a car assembly plant in Aragua and
a bicycle factory in Cojedes. Some of these installations are used
primarily as warehouses for the storage of illegal drugs, weapons and
other items useful to Iran and its terrorist clients. In addition, the
Islamic Republic bought a gold mine in Bolivar that indeed produces
gold, but also produces uranium. (19) As part of a mineral survey in
Guyana, U308 Corp, a Canadian uranium exploration company, in 2007
recorded a substantial source of uranium in the Roraima Basin, which
straddles the border between Guyana and Bolívar. Iranian companies
operate mines in this region; at least two of these facilities have
their own ports on the navigable Orinoco River through which uranium and
other contraband can be smuggled to the Atlantic.
Iran is also providing Venezuela technical assistance in the areas of
defense, intelligence, energy and security. Iranians, as well as Cuban
personnel, are advising, protecting and training Venezuela’s security
apparatus. Cuba is also handling the issuance of Venezuelan passports
and other identity documents. This gives Cuba the ability to provide
false documents to Iranian and Cuban agents to travel throughout the
world as Venezuelan citizens. A close relationship among the three
countries, with a clear anti-American tone, has developed. This triple
alliance represents a clear threat to U.S. security interests and to the
security of several countries in Latin America.
Of more strategic significance is the possibility that Iranian
scientists are enriching uranium in Venezuela for shipment to Iran.
Venezuelan sources have confirmed this possibility. Foreign intelligence
services consulted by the author acknowledged these rumors but are
unable to confirm them. If confirmed, these actions would violate UN
sanctions as well as U.S. security measures.
U.S. Policy Towards Venezuela
Since the initial years of the Cuban Revolution, no regime in Latin
America has challenged the national security interests of the United
States like Venezuela. Venezuela’s close relationship with Iran, its
support for Iranian nuclear ambitions and its involvement in the affairs
of neighboring countries all pose a major challenge to the United States.
U.S. policy has either ignored or mildly chastised Venezuela for its
policies and activities. Removing visas for Venezuelan officials to
enter the United States or highlighting Venezuela’s involvement in the
drug trade may not be enough. The United States needs to develop
policies that undermine the Venezuela regime, organize the opposition
and accelerate the end of Chavista rule. Covert operations to strengthen
opposition groups and civil society are urgently needed. Vigilance and
denunciation of Venezuelan-Iranian activities and Maduro’s meddling in
Latin America are critical to gain international support for U.S. policies.
While regime change in Venezuela may be a difficult policy objective,
U.S. policy makers need to understand that the long-term consolidation
of Chavista power in Venezuela may present a greater threat than the one
posed in the 1960s by the Castro regime. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela is a
large country that borders on several South American neighbors. Its
alliances with Iran, Syria and other anti-American countries and its
support for terrorist groups, while representing a smaller threat, are
as formidable a challenge as the Cuba-Soviet alliance.
A comprehensive, alert policy is required to deal with the threat posed
by Iranian inroads in the hemisphere. Maduro is, after all, Fidel
Castro’s disciple and heir in the region. The lessons of the Missile
Crisis of 1962 should increase our uneasiness about Venezuela’s policies
and Iranian motivations in Latin America.
(1) Cf. Domingo Amuchastegui, “Cuba in the Middle East: A Brief
Chronology,” and “Castro and Terrorism: A Chronology.” Cuba Focus (Issue
57), July 29, 2004.
(2) Fidel Castro cited in Damián J. Fernández, “Cuba’s Foreign Policy in
the Middle East” (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), p. 86.
(3) Cf. José de la Fuente, “Wine into vinegar — the fall of Cuba’s
biotechnology,” Nature Biotechnology, October 2001 (Vol. 19, Num. 11).
(4) See Cuba Transition Project, “Cuban Foreign Policy in the Middle
East: A Cuba-Iran Axis?” Cuba Focus (Issue 55), June 7, 2014,
(5) Safa Haeri, “Cuba blows the whistle on Iranian jamming, “Asia Times
(Hong Kong), August 22, 2003,
(6) Raisa Pages, “Iran grants Cuba 20-million euro credit,” Granma
Internacional (Cuba), January 17, 2005,
(7) IRNA, “Iran, Cuba sign investment, trade MoU,” Tehran, April 24, 2006.
(8) Cf. “NAM backs Iran’s right to nuclear technology,” Tehran Times,
August 2, 2008, http://www.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=174294.
(9) Fars News Agency, “Iran, Cuba Sign Trade MoU,” Tehran, June 20,
(10) IRNA, “Envoy: Arak Pars Wagon has big share in Iran-Cuba
exchanges,” Arak, Iran, August 15, 2007.
(11) U.S. Government Accountability Office, Report to Ranking Members,
Committee of Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, Drug Control: U.S.
Counternarcotics Cooperation Has Declined, 111th Congress, 1st
Sess. Washington D.C., July, 2009.
(12) “Jefe de seguridad del número dos Chavista deserta en los EE.UU. y
lo acusa de narcotráfico.” ABC.es Internacional, January 27, 2015.
(13) Gustavo Coronel, “The Iran Nuclear Axis,” Human Events, October 29,
(14) “Venezuela-Iran Foreign Relations,” IranTracker. May 12, 2010.
(15) See Norman A. Bailey, “Iran’s Venezuelan Gateway,” The American
Foreign Policy Council, February 2012.
(17) Press TV (Caracas), September 27, 2014.
(18) IRNA, September 24, 2014.
(19) Roger F. Noriega “Hugo Chávez’s Criminal, Nuclear Network: A Grave
and Growing Threat,” American Enterprise Institute On Line, October 14,
*Prepared for the Center for Hemispheric Policy’s paper series,
“Perspectives on the Americas.” University of Miami. February 2015.
Source: The Cuba-Iran-Venezuela Relationship: Implications for the
United States* – Misceláneas de Cuba –
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