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Rory Carroll, Sibylla Brodzinsky30 Jul 2007 00:00
A billboard of Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looms over a motorway in Venezuela, marking the entrance to a factory designed to produce three things: tractors, influence and angst.
The tractors, lined up on the grounds of Veniran, a joint venture between Venezuela and Iran, are for peasants and socialist cooperatives across Latin America. The influence, less visible but real enough, is for Chávez and Ahmadinejad, two presidents who hope this and other ventures will project their prestige and power.
The angst, if all goes to plan, is for Washington.
The socialist radical is using Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to strike commercial and political deals with countries that challenge the US such as Iran, Belarus, Russia and China, as well as much of Latin America and the Caribbean, to rebuff what he refers to as the ‘empire”.
‘Chávez is a global player because right now he has a lot of money that he is prepared to spend to advance his huge ambitions,” said Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank. ‘He has worked tirelessly to upset US priorities in Latin America.”
Supporters say he has also worked tirelessly to support the poor and marginalised, for example through a $250 000 loan to help farmers in Bolivia’s lowlands build a coca industrialisation plant, part of an effort to turn the leaf into cakes, biscuits and other legal products, instead of cocaine.
‘For years we have wanted to do this but no one would support us,” said Leonardo Choque, leader of the Chimore federation of coca growers. ‘Then the Venezuelans come and offer us a loan with very low interest rates. And no conditions.” Venezuela is also funding a new university nearby.
In contrast the US is accused of bullying Andean nations into destroying coca crops without promoting equally lucrative alternative livelihoods—a big stick and a small carrot.
Of all Chávez’s alliances the one with Iran is the most striking. Some of the estimated 180 economic and political accords signed with the mullahs over recent years are now bearing fruit—and prompting some disquiet among the small Jewish community.
The first ‘anti-imperialist cars” from a joint venture reached Venezuela’s roads this month. There is now a weekly flight between Caracas and Tehran, with a stopover in Damascus, operated by the Venezuelan state-controlled airline, Conviasa, and Iran’s national carrier, Iran Air. New mosques are popping up across Venezuela and universities are teaching Farsi. Iran is to help build platforms in a $4-billion development of Orinoco delta oil deposits in exchange for reciprocal Venezuelan investments.
The 4 000 tractors produced annually in Ciudad Bolivar are small beer in comparison but they have a symbolic value as agents of revolutionary change. Most are given or leased at discount in Venezuela to socialist cooperatives that have seized land, with government blessing, from big ranches and sugar plantations.
Dozens have also been sent to Bolivia to support President Evo Morales, a leftwing radical and close Chávez ally, and last week dozens more began to be shipped north to Nicaragua, whose president, Daniel Ortega, is another Chávez ally and longtime bugbear for Washington. The first batch was timed to coincide with the 28th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution.
‘The idea is to help our brothers develop the land,” said Reza Mahboubi, an Iranian manager at the plant. The technology was Iranian, as were the supervisors, but most of the 130 staff were Venezuelan. Asked if the objective was also to stick a finger in George W Bush’s eye, Mahboubi merely smiled.
Chávez inaugurated the factory in 2005 with the then Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami. He has struck up a friendship with his successor, Ahmadinejad, and hailed their ‘axis of unity”. ‘The relationship is fundamentally geopolitical rather than economic,” said Shifter. ‘It tells the world that Iran, an international pariah, is welcome in Latin America, which is traditionally regarded as the strategic preserve or ‘back yard’ of the US.”—
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