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The Changing Dynamic in Latin America
Several recent stories highlight the growing dangers faced in Latin America, where many of the once-idealistic leaders of the old Left are now making alliances of convenience to counter U.S. influence in the region.

The danger is the mixture of once-national issues with transnational threats that are beyond the control of the old Left-Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and others to a lesser degree.

These leaders may see themselves as populists addressing years of historic inequities in their homelands, but their strategic alliances are ranging dangerously far afield, into sponsors of state terrorism and the growing nexus with transnational criminal syndicates.

There is, of course, the Iranian spending spree in Latin America, highlighted, as Andy Cochran has noted. The alliance of Tehran and Caracas to build a canal through Nicaragua, at a cost of $350 million, is not not necessarily a bad thing for the region, and has been talked about for decades.

But why now, when Tehran has no trade or strategic interest in Nicaragua? Already strained financially, it is unlikely to give a costly gift to a country that is far from its sphere of influence.

However, that sphere of influence is greatly expanded if one looks at Hezbollah and its activities around the region.

As the San Antonio Express noted,
"The bottom line is if there is a confrontation with Iran, and Iran gets bombed, I have absolutely no doubt that Iran is going to lash out globally," said John R. Schindler, a veteran former counterintelligence officer and analyst for the National Security Agency.

"The Iranians have that ability, particularly from South America. Hezbollah has fronts all over Latin America. That is not new. But it's certainly something we're starting to care about now."

Particularly worrisome, to me after covering the region for almost two decades, is Ortega's long history of operating clandestine structures, collaborating with terrorists (the Red Brigade, Abu Nidal and folks he granted citizenship to just before leaving office in 1990, and dozens of internationally-wanted felons), and willingness to ally with anyone to achieve power.

The relationship with Iran is not new. Ortega has long expressed admiration for Iran, and one of the first things he did when he took office was send a cadre of some 15 officials to Tehran for "diplomatic training." Not much of a euphemism for intelligence work. Tehran is not know for its diplomacy on the world stage.

Non-state actors like Hezbollah need state actors in order to obtain travel documents, safe passage, cover stories and safe houses. Ortega has decades of experience in supplying all of those to clandestine groups.

Add to that Tehran's close ties to Chavez, Chavez's purchase of an AK-47 factory from Russia designed to make 100,000 weapons a year, and Chavez's proximity, ideologically and financially to the FARC, and his meddling in financing the Argentine electoral campaign (where Hezbollah and Iran have already been active and carried out attacks), the picture gets dark quickly.

The El Universal newspaper brings new reports of Chavez's ties to the FARC, and his government's complicity in allowing the drug trafficking and kidnapping organization safe haven, even to keep hostages.

So, the canal itself is not a bad thing. It is the circumstances that give rise to it are indeed worrisome.
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