by Martin Arostegui
A year ago this month, Bolivian President Evo Morales inaugurated the College for Defense of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) with a speech in which he called for the expulsion of U.S. intelligence agencies, a new military doctrine based on “asymmetrical war” against “imperialism” and the “abolition” of the U.N. Security Council. He also attacked the press, calling CNN a “tool of capitalism.”
Morales spoke in the presence of Iran’s defense minister, Gen Ahmed Vahidi, who had to be rushed from the ceremony when it was learned that Argentine prosecutors were issuing an international arrest warrant over his alleged role in the 1994 Hezbollah bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
ALBA is a Venezuelan-led association of anti-U.S. governments which also includes Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and some Caribbean island states dependent on Venezuelan oil subsidies. The fledgling alliance has been given little importance by U.S. intelligence analysts, who tend to dismiss it as a purely ideological entity.
Its 5,000-square-meter military facility outside the city of Santa Cruz, built at the cost of $2 million, remains empty, according to Bolivian defense spokesmen who say that they are awaiting “input” from other member states. One Bolivian army officer ventures to say that it is on “standby,” pending the elections in Venezuela.
Despite ALBA’s vacant real estate, it is becoming increasingly clear that member governments are in the process of forming a military and intelligence network aided and influenced by Iran that could leverage events in the hemisphere, in the absence of effective U.S. leadership.
Thousands of Cuban security advisors have played a critical role in consolidating the regime of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and have similarly assisted leftist governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and now, possibly, Argentina .
A Pentagon report released in 2010 also warned about the growing presence of Iranian elite Revolutionary Guard Al Qods officers in Latin America. Small Iranian advisory teams are operating with the security services of Venezuela and other ALBA nations, according to U.S. State Department officials speaking off the record.
Bolivia’s ex-defense minister, Maria Chacón, has said that the ALBA school seeks to form leadership cadres for civilian militias. The strategy of “people in arms” has long been promoted by Fidel Castro and Chávez for the ostensible purpose of resisting a U.S. invasion.
But a more immediate role for politically directed paramilitary organizations like Venezuela’s growing Bolivarian Militia may be keeping hard-line factions in power should internal struggles result from an opposition election victory or Chávez’s much anticipated death from cancer.
A Venezuelan official blacklisted by the U.S. government as a member of Hezbollah, Ghazi Nasr Al Din, directed Circulos Bolivarianos teams that disrupted opposition rallies, in many cases shooting government opponents, prior to assuming diplomatic postings in Lebanon and Syria.
The interface between ALBA and its Middle Eastern allies is such that Cuba has used its Russian-built electronic listening station to jam satellite broadcasts by U.S.-based Iranian opposition radio stations.
There are also arms deals with Iran, whose Al Qods aeronautic industries recently opened an assembly plant in Venezuela producing Mojaher-2 drones, which have been offered to Bolivia at discounted prices, according U.S. diplomatic cables published in Wikilieaks.
Most of Latin American isn’t part of ALBA and the prospect of a few failed states conspiring with a Muslim pariah to take over the world may seem comical.
But some of the ideas outlined by Morales in last year’s speech appear to have taken root.
Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador have expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Latin American countries have voted unanimously to readmit Cuba to the Inter-American system, scuttling the OAS democratic charter.
Chile’s Defense Minister Andres Allamand reflected regional perceptions of declining U.S. clout, when he said in front of visiting American defense secretary Leon Panetta recently: “If any isolated country was able to guarantee international security in the past, that’s no longer the case.”
Martin Arostegui has been covering Latin America for American and British newspapers over several years. He has also worked as a correspondent in Afghanistan and has written a book on Special Forces called Twilight Warriors.