Why Should the US Care About Argentine-Venezuelan Relations?
Published online, Foreign Policy Association (fpa.org), fall 2007
Carolyn M. Dudek, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Political Science, Hofstra University
Fulbright Scholar to Argentina 2006–07
Historically, the US has maintained strong influence, for better and worse, in Latin America; however, US focus on the war on terror has resulted in disengagement from its southern neighbors. Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, has benefited from America’s detachment and has used the opportunity to promote anti-American policies while trying to assert his own dominance in the region. Recently, Argentina has forged closer ties to Chávez in order to solve their economic and energy crisis. Many Argentine’s would prefer a US or European solution and are concerned how relations with Chávez will impact foreign investment. The US seems to prefer to ignore what Chávez does, however, his links to Iran and Iran’s involvement in terrorist attacks on Argentine soil should make the US take notice.
In 1992 the Israeli embassy in Argentina was bombed, killing 29 and injuring more than 250. Although this attack was devastating, the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association AMIA, a Jewish community center, was even more devastating, killing 85 and injuring an estimated 300 people, making it the largest terrorist attack on Argentine soil. It is believed that both bombings are linked. Carlos Menem, then president of Argentina, did not ensure a thorough investigation and the case was mishandled at all levels. Under current Argentine President Nestor Kirchner’s administration the case was re-opened recently and with help from Israeli and US intelligence found former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and other members of his cabinet, as well as members of Hezbollah, responsible for the bombings.
Why, you may ask, would Iran want to bomb a Jewish community center in Argentina? Argentina had signed a nuclear-technology-transfer contract with Iran in the 1980s. In the early 1990’s Argentina suspended the contract. In retaliation Iran bombed the AMIA. At a community forum Alberto Nisman, one of the newly appointed prosecutors for the case, was asked why Iran would bomb a Jewish center and not an Argentine government building. He bluntly responded, “They took advantage of the high level of anti-Semitism in this country [Argentina] .” Moreover, it seems that in order to get Hezbollah to participate too it needed to be a target that was also of interest to them.
How was this terrorist act carried out? Argentina has a significant Middle Eastern and, in particular, Lebanese immigrant population. Members of this community were able to take advantage of the “Triple Frontier,” a highly permeable border area shared among Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil that has served as a conduit for drugs, terrorist funds, and supplies. It is through these permeable borders that Iran was able to move funding and organize the operation with the aid of Hezbollah using members in Latin America. Today the “Triple Frontier” remains an area of concern for US security.
Yet, why should the US care about a bombing that took place thirteen years ago, well south of the border, or whether Chávez is forging closer ties with Argentina—and Iran? History surrounding the AMIA bombing is eerily all too relevant to the current problem of Iran’s aiding terrorism and their desire to create a nuclear program. In the face of this looming threat, the US Congress took action on July 30, 2007, passing a resolution through the House of Representatives to request Interpol capture the six Iranian functionaries and members of Hezbollah being investigated for their participation in the AMIA bombing. Congress’s action demonstrates the recognition of the links among terror, Iran, Hezbollah, and South America.
Our focus on the war on terror has resulted in US’s disengagement from our South American neighbors. This war is a global battle, and it is imperative the US re-focus its efforts to maintain our old allies and sphere of influence. America needs to demonstrate to countries like Argentina that we take them seriously and that the US can be a useful and trusted partner. President Kirchner is not a “leftist” like Chávez but is really quite moderate; yet he is willing to negotiate with someone more radical like the Venezuelan president to keep the Argentine economy from tumbling into another economic crisis. The US should engage in dialogue with leaders like Kirchner, and also address issues of poverty and instability in South America. Not only would this help stave off Argentine dependence on Venezuela, and with it the possible influence of Iran, it may also address the core problem of the immigration conundrum: why people leave their homelands.
If we want to win hearts and minds and fight a war on terror, we need to step up more-positive relations with Latin America: Not the kinds of relations we saw in the 1970s and 1980s, toppling democratically elected officials and supporting repressive authoritarian regimes, but those whereby US capital can make profits and Latin American countries can reap some of their developmental benefits.
If the US would make greater strides in supporting development in Argentina, perhaps President Kirchner wouldn’t need to look to Chávez, and Iran would have a more difficult time sneaking in the back door to influence the Western hemisphere. Argentina has three choices to solve their economic and energy crisis: European capital, US capital, or Chávez. Thus far European capital hasn’t solved the problem, and in the eyes of Argentina the apathetic and often haughty attitude of the US makes our country a less likely option—unless we can come up with a more enticing offer. In order to keep Iranian influence out of Latin America and to curtail Chávez’s influence in the continent, it is essential that the US seize the opportunity to re-engage itself with our southern neighbors. The stakes are too high not to.