Venezuela started 2019 with a fresh political crisis with opposition leader Juan Guaido declaring himself the interim president of the Latin American country and rejecting to accept Nicolas Maduro’s election last December as legitimate.
One of the most hotly debated practices the Maduro regime faces criticism for is the controversial role it plays in supporting Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy militia, Hezbollah.
It was not long before the Iran-backed Hezbollah released a statement denouncing Guaido’s campaign for change as a conspiracy hatched by the US and reaffirmed support for the Maduro regime.
Overlooking pro-Guaido rallies sweeping Venezuela nationwide, Hezbollah said the dispute at hand was concocted by Washington’s interference, and that it was not driven by pro-democracy objectives, but by an agenda designed to “seize Venezuela’s resources and to punish patriotic states for holding anti-US strategic stances”.
Reviewing close ties Hezbollah shares with Venezuela, the first scene that comes to mind dates back to 2006 when the Iran-backed group raised posters depicting both former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and its own militias chief, Hassan Nasrallah, side by side throughout the streets of Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Flooding neighbourhoods with pictures of Chavez came after the ex-president backed Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel.
Lebanese author and American University of Beirut history professor, Dr. Makram Rabah, explains that Venezuela’s stances on Palestinian are only an overlay justification for Hezbollah’s fondness for the Maduro regime there.
“Hezbollah’s survival is heavily dependent on the current Venezuelan regime which helps the group launder its money,” Rabah said, noting that the Iran-sponsored group “benefits from drug trafficking networks not only to launder money, but to also procure intelligence data collected by international crime organizations”.
The Maduro regime fosters Hezbollah-affiliated Shiite businessmen and grants them legal leeway and administrative perks in Venezuela. Some of the group’s members and supporters also enjoy power in the Maduro administration.
Minister of Industries and National Production, Tareck El Aissami, who also served as the 28th Venezuelan vice president, is perhaps the most controversial figure that rose to power under Maduro. The politician of Syrian origins was blacklisted for drug trading by the US Department of Treasury in 2017; according to Rabah, Aissami is also believed to be behind thousands of Hezbollah militants obtaining a Venezuelan passport.
The question of the hour is: How will a Guaido-led government, as opposed to Maduro’s administration, affect Hezbollah and Iran interests? In this context, experts believe that the 35-year-old National Assembly leader is likely to be more effective in snipping Hezbollah's presence on Venezuelan soil and seek to diminish the clout of networks and parties aiding the group.
“There is a huge difference between a government that supports Hezbollah’s presence on its soil and offers it with amenities and protection and a one that tightens the noose around it,” Rabah said.
“Of course, these networks will not disappear overnight, but they will certainly be affected,” he added explaining that they will no longer be able to operate as easily as they currently do under Maduro.
Iran, which has maintained close relations with Venezuela and Maduro for years, is standing strongly behind his stay in power.
“Iran supports the government and the people of Venezuela against illegitimate and illegal actions such as coup attempts and foreign interference in the country’s domestic affairs,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghassemi, has said.
On that note, Rabah pointed out that any party or country in what is known as the ‘axis of opposition’ will stand against the US camp.
“This is obvious,” he said.
Iran needs Venezuela to circumvent re-introduced economic sanctions, and sees the US backing of Guaido as a direct threat at a time when Tehran is turning every stone to find a country it can cooperate with, Rabah explained.
It is noteworthy that media reports shed light on growing suspicions that Venezuelan gold exported to Turkey was ending up in Iran, which would violate US sanctions.
Iran is looking for a political-economic arrangement, and Maduro’s regime plays into allowing that to happen, Rabah highlighted.
“It is good to have a cooperating regime in this Latin country, which helps it in the process of evading US sanctions.”
“Venezuela serves as an advanced base for Iran, right in the backyard of the United States, which undoubtedly cares about Venezuelan oil as well,” Rabah added.