by Joseph Klein
Five foreign ministers from member states comprising the Latin American Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) trade bloc, led by Venezuela’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Elías Jaua, met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on August 5th to condemn the United States for spying on them. They expressed their serious concerns about alleged U.S. electronic surveillance of their countries as disclosed by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.
Aside from the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs, the other attendees at the meeting included H.E. Mr. Héctor Timerman, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina; H.E. Mr. David Choquehuanca, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bolivia; H.E. Mr. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil; and H.E. Mr. Luis Almagro, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay.
Following the closed-door meeting with the Secretary General, the foreign ministers met with reporters. Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaua delivered a long monologue in Spanish describing what was discussed at the meeting. U.S. spying, he said, constituted a violation of fundamental human rights of citizens of his country and of all countries of the world.
Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Patriota then summarized in English the message he and his colleagues delivered to the Secretary General, which he characterized as an “alert.” He said that the Snowden allegations had “grave implications,” raising questions regarding “respect to individual rights, the right to privacy, and the right to information.”
The members of MERCOSUR, Patriota said, advocate the adoption by multilateral institutions of standards for the regulation of the Internet, particularly with respect to cyber security, and called for international sanctions in response to the alleged actions of U.S. intelligence agencies. He did not elaborate on what form such sanctions might take.
Patriota also said that the group questioned the grounding of the aircraft carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales last month.
According to a read-out of his meeting with the MERCOSUR ministers, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had stated recently, that there were important rights and privacy issues at stake in connection with the surveillance. He also reiterated that a head of state and his or her aircraft enjoy immunity and inviolability.
In remarks to the UN Security Council the following day, Patriota said that the “interception of telecommunications and acts of espionage in our region” constituted “a violation of our citizens’ human rights” as well as acts “in defiance of the sovereignty” of nations.
Argentina is currently a member of the Security Council and is assuming its rotating presidency this month. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner decided to come to New York to preside over the August 6th meeting of the Security Council and formally present MERCOSUR’s concerns about the U.S. surveillance program to the Council. She said she had discussed with the UN Secretary General “the needs to establish regulations of a global nature to ensure and protect sovereignty of states and privacy of citizens in the world.”
Unsaid is the dangerous threat to all countries in the region, including the United States homeland, posed by Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah which MERCOSUR countries, particularly Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil, have allowed to grow with relative impunity in their countries. Instead of confronting head-on this escalating terrorist threat which can result in mass fatalities among their civilian populations, these governments have chosen to condemn the United States for taking legitimate defensive measures against the terrorists’ physical presence in close proximity to the United States.
Roger Noriega, a former United States ambassador to the Organization of American States and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told House of Representatives lawmakers at a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March 2012 that Hezbollah has infiltrated Venezuela’s governmental bodies. Mr. Noriega said that Venezuela has helped Iran to use Venezuelan financial institutions to launder money and evade financial sectors. It has also enabled Iran to set up terrorist training facilities on the country’s Margarita Island.
“Hezbollah is not a lone wolf,” Noriega said. “In this Hemisphere it counts on the political, diplomatic, material and logistical support of governments – principally Venezuela and Iran – that have little in common but their hostility to the United States.”
The Venezuelan regime under Chavez’s rule sent weapons to Hezbollah. Iran in turn has provided the Venezuelan military with weapon systems and is reported to be building missile bases in Venezuela. Indeed, said Noriega, “Venezuela plays a singular role as a platform for the Hezbollah threat in the Americas.”
If anything the situation is getting even worse under Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Venezuela may be the worst security threat in the Latin American region by virtue of its well-established ties to Iran and Hezbollah. But it is not alone. There are also Iranian-Hezbollah terrorist networks in other Latin American countries, including MERCOSUR members Argentina and Brazil, according to former U.S. Ambassador Noriega’s congressional testimony. For example, he detailed the continuing role in terrorist recruitment played by Hojjat al-Eslam Mohsen Rabbani, who served as the cultural attache at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rabbani was reported to be the mastermind behind the two terrorist attacks against Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 that killed 144 people.
Operating more recently from the city of Qom in Iran and relying on his disciples in Argentina to identify and recruit more operatives for terrorist training in the Latin American region, Rabbani has overseen the spread of a parallel Hezbollah network beyond Argentina and Venezuela. One of their key targets is Brazil, to which Rabbani – referred to by the Brazilian magazine Veja as “the Terrorist Professor” – has traveled regularly to meet his brother, founder of the Iranian Association in Brazil.
According to Brazilian and U.S. intelligence sources, cited by the Veja magazine in 2011, at least 20 operatives from Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Hamas and two other unnamed groups have been using Brazil as a hub for terrorist activity. They have been planning attacks, raising money and recruiting followers. “Without anybody noticing, a generation of Islamic extremists is appearing in Brazil,” said Alexandre Camanho de Assis, who was coordinating Brazil’s network of public prosecutors across 13 states at the time.
Brazil will be potentially ground zero for terrorist attacks when it hosts the World Cup tournament in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.
I asked Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Aguiar Patriota about the reported activities of terrorists in and around Brazil. While declaring that the reports were “unconfirmed,” he did not deny there was a potential problem. Apparently, he is not particularly worried about Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism, including within Latin America. Just a few days before coming to New York to join his colleagues in condemning the United States at the United Nations, Patriota visited Tehran to attend the oath taking ceremony of the new Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Evidently oblivious to multinational economic sanctions imposed on Iran for its nuclear arms development program, Patriota assured the Iranians that his “presence in Tehran indicates to what extent Iran is important for Brazil as both sides are keen on widescale economic and commercial cooperation.”
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, who has complained about the diversion of his plane suspected of carrying the fugitive Snowden, has also opened his country’s doors to Iran. For example, Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi was in Bolivia in 2011 to inaugurate a training facility built by Iran for the purpose of teaching asymmetric warfare. Vahidi did not make any secret of the purpose of this facility. While in Bolivia he told the media, “Powerful Iran is ready to deliver a firm response to any hostile and unwise behavior by the United States.” Vahdi, by the way, had a hand in in the 1994 Iran-Hezbollah bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina.
As for Edward Snowden, who has gained asylum in Russia for at least one year, Venezuela may become this weasel’s ultimate destination. He said that Venezuela had his “gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless…”
Snowden is obviously snowed by his own delusions fed by the anti-American propaganda he has absorbed, as he turns to police states like Russia and Venezuela for supposed protection. The Venezuelan government, directly or through proxies serving as a parallel security force, regularly spies on its own people. For example, a well-known Venezuelan journalist, who published a couple of articles in 2011 about a developing corruption scandal in the energy sector that implicated members of Hugo Chavez’s government, found a satellite tracker in his car, his e-mails hacked into, his confidential notes missing, and his elderly mother subjected to threatening phone calls from Venezuela’s intelligence service.
Jews have been given special attention by the Venezuelan government’s clandestine spying operations.
“As part of the security apparatus of the regime, many Venezuelans are under surveillance,” said Sammy Eppel, a Jewish columnist at the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, a leading opposition newspaper. “The Jewish community is obviously perceived as some sort of threat that warrants those actions.”
Morales’ Bolivia is also a rat’s nest of surveillance and routine invasions of its citizens’ privacy. Spying targets have included members of the opposition party, such as it is, and journalists. In fact, the surveillance is so widespread in Bolivia that a senator from Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party said it was no big deal. “We all know there exists state security system, and that system has to keep up on the movements of political parties, unions,” the senator said. “Everybody’s done it.”
What the United States has done is to institute an electronic surveillance program that is designed to be sophisticated and widespread enough to pick up intelligence on terrorist plots before they are brought to lethal fruition. The revelations in the last several days of a well-advanced terrorist plot, learned from interceptions of high level al Qaeda communications, underscore the importance of having such intercept capacity in place. The Latin American countries harboring terrorists, or simply pretending the problem does not exist within their borders, have allowed a threat to security in the entire region to get out of hand. They have no legitimate grounds to complain about measures the United States decides to take to protect the lives of its own citizens from any resulting terrorist spill-over.
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