The White House announced this week that President Donald Trump will be the first president to skip the Summit of the Americas in the history of that event, blaming tensions erupting in Syria for his decision.
The Trump administration apparently fears that growing Russian and Iranian influence in Syria will damage American interests in the Middle East. Yet Iran has expanded its influence more boldly and with less pushback in Latin America than anywhere else, where Hezbollah has developed ties with the governments of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil, and others; and narco-terrorist organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Without treating his own hemisphere seriously and challenging Iran, Russia, and China on Latin American soil, Trump risks emboldening America’s enemies in his own backyard.
Trump essentially admitted that he snubbed the conference for no reason Thursday morning, tweeting that America’s response to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use may arrive “not so soon at all!” Adding insult to injury, First Daughter Ivanka Trump will represent the United States by hosting a women’s empowerment event in Peru—a country whose most powerful senator, largely responsible for taking down the president three weeks ago, is a woman.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed that Vice President Mike Pence—who, unlike Trump, has not looked away from overseas threats finding a home in the Americas—will also attend the summit in his stead, and claimed that Trump would stay home to monitor what observers can now assume will be a “not so soon” reaction to battlefield developments in the Syrian Civil War, no closer to ending now than at any other time in its seven-year run.
Observers speculated that Trump canceling the trip to Peru “reflects a view in the White House that deeper Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria have complicated calculations about a response to any U.S. military attack.” Indeed, Iranian support through Hezbollah and Russian support through the UN have put Assad in a stronger position now than ever during the Syrian civil war. Yet nowhere is insidious Iranian, Russian, and Chinese influence a greater threat to the United States than its own hemisphere, where rogue socialist states have enriched Iran’s proxy Hezbollah through illicit drug and oil trades estimated to be worth millions of dollars.
China has already begun urging Latin America to allow its “One Belt, One Road” project to invade the Western Hemisphere, while Russia seeks allies in Venezuela. Their efforts pale in comparison to Iran’s and Hezbollah’s influence in the region, however, who to this day are believed responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack in South America’s history.
Drug trafficking makes up a significant chunk of the methods Hezbollah uses to exploit South America. A 2015 report in an Argentine publication estimated that the Iranian proxy terrorist organization raked in between $60 million to $100 million in drug profits a year in Latin America alone. Hezbollah agents operated most freely in the “tri-border” area between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. The House Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing revealed a year later that Hezbollah had established close ties to the Mexican Los Zetas cartel through a Lebanese-Colombian agent named Ayman Joumaa and to the FARC, which has since been legalized as a Marxist political party in Colombia.
Hezbollah is controlling a “virtually unopposed drug trafficking operation … in South America,” the task force said at the time. Much of that money returns to the Middle East, where it can be reasonably expected to fund operations in Syria on Assad’s behalf.
That same year, the U.S. Department of State accused Venezuela, one of Bashar al-Assad’s closest allied regimes, of creating a “permissive environment” to Hezbollah, which “continued to maintain a presence in the region, with members, facilitators, and supporters engaging in activity in support of the organization.”
Independent experts have collected evidence of major Hezbollah infiltration of the socialist Venezuelan regime. According to Joseph Humire of the Secure Free Society, “Over 350,000 Syrian and Lebanese expatriates” hold high offices in Venezuela, many of the highest-ranking with ties to the group.
Outside of those Syrians and Lebanese in the country with ties to the socialist regime and, potentially, Iranian networks, the Venezuelan embassies in the Middle East have reportedly issued thousands of passports to non-Venezuelan citizens in the Middle East that allow them to travel more easily throughout the Western Hemisphere. At least one individual working at the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq said Shiite terrorists paid an average of $15,000 per Venezuelan passport. The former head of Venezuela’s Office of Identification and Migration (Saime) explained in a revelation that they received “legitimate” Venezuelan passports in exchange for a bribe, and that officials had no way of knowing who these individuals were or what they went on to do with their false Venezuelan citizenship.
Documents tied to the dump known as the Panama Papers revealed that the government of Cuba linked Iran to Venezuela and funded the operation through the purchase of technology necessary for the mass printing of passports.
Evidence suggests that few have done more to benefit Hezbollah in Venezuela than its vice president, Tarek El Aissami, described as “one of Hezbollah’s great bagmen,” a “huge funder” of the group, a “recruiter,” and the head of a “sophisticated and multilevel financial network that functions as a criminal terrorist pipeline for bringing Islamic radicals to Venezuela.”
The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned El Aissami under the Drug Kingpin Act for his involvement in the transcontinental drug trade. He remains active, however, with all indications suggesting that Hezbollah profits off of his operations.
Iranian agents have also been active in Argentina, where a prosecutor found evidence that Iran perpetrated the 1994 bombing of the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) before being found dead of a gunshot wound himself, and in countries such as Bolivia, run by the leftist Venezuelan and Cuban ally Evo Morales, and in Brazil.
Hezbollah agents are so active in running drug operations in the region that local agents sometimes stumble upon the group by accident. In 2016, when Brazilian authorities arrested Fadi Hassan Nahba for drug trafficking, they only later discovered that his drug smuggling operations were funding Hezbollah operations for at least three years.
This Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif landed in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he is expected to sell the government on greater economic interdependency with Tehran. Iran is not ignoring Latin America. They see Washington’s blind spot – and Trump could do far more to contain the Iranian threat by looking into that blind spot than he ever could do by sticking to the old Middle East playbook.