By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 27, 2010; A15
Debate in Washington about Hugo Chávez -- to the extent that it exists -- generally centers on whether the Venezuelan strongman is a genuine threat to the United States or a buffoonish nuisance who is best ignored. A related discussion concerns whether and how Venezuelans can free themselves from Chávez, should they wish to do so. Could the country's tattered democratic institutions bring about his peaceful removal, or is some kind of breakdown or revolution unavoidable?
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has bet heavily on the benign scenarios. It hinted early on that it would "engage" Chávez, then quickly realized that was a fool's errand. So now it quietly shuns him -- while also ignoring the evidence of his support for Colombian terrorists and tolerance of drug trafficking.
The administration's perspective may be bolstered by Sunday's national assembly elections, which are almost certain to strengthen the democratic opposition. The opposition foolishly boycotted the last election, thereby allowing Venezuela's Congress to become a Soviet-style rubber stamp for Chávez. This year it put together a unity slate and conducted a vigorous campaign. Despite the regime's domination of the media and election board, and heavy-handed gerrymandering of districts, the anti-Chávez forces may capture enough seats to slow his most radical initiatives.
Democracy, however, isn't really working. Polls show that Chávez is now supported by less than half of Venezuelans, and much larger numbers oppose his steps to implant Cuba's economic and political model (along with its intelligence service). But his pace hasn't slowed. When opposition candidates won key state governerships in 2008, he manufactured laws stripping them of power and creating parallel authorities controlled by his regime. If Congress gets in his way, he is likely to take similar measures.
Meanwhile, the argument that Chávez is a significant threat to U.S. security is getting another airing. One of its biggest proponents, former State Department assistant secretary Roger Noriega, last week went public with his case that Chávez has become an active collaborator in Iran's nuclear program. Noriega, a soft-spoken man who is known as a hard-line conservative, now works at the American Enterprise Institute; he put on a briefing there for journalists, at which he offered what he described as copies of confidential Venezuelan government documents and testimony from undisclosed government sources.
Noriega hasn't got a smoking gun, but his circumstantial evidence is intriguing. Much of it concerns three Iranian facilities that have been located in Venezuela's remote Roraima basin, south of the Orinoco River. One is purportedly a concrete plant; one a tractor factory; and one a gold mine. Noriega says that all three are protected by no-fly zones and that the tractor factory contains a high-security compound guarded by Iranians. The factory has produced only a handful of tractors, and there is little evidence of concrete production or gold mining at the other sites. In December 2008, Turkey intercepted 22 containers from Iran bound for the tractor plant; they contained nitric acid and sulfate, which are used in making explosives.
According to surveys by Western companies, all of the Iranian installations lie in a region that contains extensive but unexploited reserves of uranium. Citing what he says is a source at the highest level of Chávez's government, Noriega alleges that Iran is using the three facilities as a cover for the clandestine mining and export of uranium ore -- which it needs to continue fueling its growing number of nuclear centrifuges. Noriega says the ore can be shipped up the Orinoco to platforms off the Venezuelan coast, where it can be picked up by ships without the need for port registration.
The Obama administration, Noriega says, has shown little interest in his portfolio. Maybe there's good reason for that. Certainly, international inspectors have reported no evidence that Iran -- which has domestic sources of uranium -- has received supplies from Venezuela, though that would be a violation of U.N. sanctions. But Noriega points out that the United States and European Union have already blacklisted an Iranian-owned Venezuelan bank for supporting the Iranian nuclear program and that the two countries have signed an agreement to collaborate in the nuclear industry.
Chávez has a long record of backing industrial white elephants; the Iranian plants could very well be one more. Yet a couple of conclusions about his regime are becoming hard to avoid. If it does not pose a threat to the United States, it's not for lack of trying; and if democracy is to be its undoing, the democrats are going to need some help.