The secret diplomacy of Benjamin Netanyahu and the pressures of the Trump administration are producing significant results in Latin America, one of the most important points of conflict with Iran. Last month, Mauricio Macri’s Argentina designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, Paraguay followed suit, and Jair Bolsonaro announced that Brazil is preparing to do the same.
The background to the U-turn
The fall of Lula in Brazil, Cristina Fernandez’s exit from Argentinian politics and renewed US pressure on what the National Security Adviser John Bolton has dubbed the new axis of evil, namely Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, have made Latin America once again hostage to Washington’s imperialist ambitions.
But what has been happening in recent months is also the result of a geo-religious strategy started by the United States during the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Vatican II Council and the Episcopal Conference of Medellin in 1968, to shape the subcontinent’s religious landscape to US advantage, through large-scale financing of the expansion of sectarian and fundamentalist evangelical churches.
Evangelicals have ceased to represent an irrelevant minority both numerically and politically, and their preponderant rise has had inevitable repercussions in the political world. Americanism and Christian Zionism are the main outcomes of this transformation, and these have replaced the theology of liberation, anti-imperialism and the traditional Latin American solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
In light of this, it has become simpler and easier to put pressure on the Argentina-Brazil-Paraguay triangle. The decision of Buenos Aires to brand Hezbollah as a terrorist organization was preceded by intense diplomatic exchanges between the staff of Mr Macri and Mr Netanyahu, particularly concerning cooperation in the defence sector and in the fight against terrorism. This has begun since the change of power in Argentina, and since last year’s freezing of some assets belonging to the Barakat family, believed to be close to Hezbollah.
On August 19, Paraguay brought its position into line with Argentina’s, also including Hamas, Al Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State in its list of terrorist organizations. It is illustrative to point out that the praise coming from the United States and Israel was principally in reference to the Hezbollah, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described as “a terrorist organization dedicated to advancing Iran’s malicious agenda.”
The decision of Argentina and Paraguay, which Brazil could soon follow, leads in a specific and historically important direction: opening up to Israel and to the Zionist cause. In every country of the Latin American subcontinent, Atlanticist political forces and the percentage of evangelicals in relation to the population are on the increase. This has already proved to be fundamental in the controversy over the transfer of embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and, against the background of the vast lobbying campaign of Mr Netanyahu and strong pressure from the Trump administration, an overwhelming domino effect against Hezbollah and Iran is to be predicted.
The strategy of the Trump-Netanyahu axis
Iran’s expansion of influence in Latin America was one of the priorities of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and has been continued by his successor Hassan Rouhani. The country has been able to build small areas of influence scattered in every corner of the subcontinent mainly because the attention of the United States and Israel was directed at the war on terrorism.
But the gradual reduction of the jihadist threat has led the Washington-Tel Aviv axis to bring its focus back to the containment of Iran, through a strategy that has so far proved effective – based on the idea of “build & destroy”.
The model is always the same: the creation of new social and political forces favourable to US foreign policy is supported, while the fall of those that represent an obstacle is accelerated, and finally the new order is consolidated through bilateral collaboration agreements and improvement in diplomatic relations.
The events that made Mr Bolsonaro’s rise possible are the result of this strategy. The fall of the established political order (based on the domination of the Workers’ Party and the central figure of Lula) was accelerated, in favour of the emergence of social forces, such as the evangelicals, and political forces, from the conservative and Atlanticist right wing, who have helped quickly to build a new political order dedicated to the protection of US and Israeli interests.
The same process has occurred in Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, and Peru, and is taking over the whole of Latin America, with the dual result of simultaneously affecting the enemies of the United States and Israel – in other words the anti-imperialist left and Iran – which had entered the subcontinent, bringing Hezbollah in tow.
Hezbollah: a real or inflated threat?
In 1992 and 1994 the Buenos Aires Jewish community was hit by two violent attacks, leaving 105 people dead and over 500 wounded. Responsibility has never been claimed and official investigations have never fully shed any light. The United States and Israel agree that a team comprising Hezbollah operatives and Iranian secret services, including the Buenos Aires-based cleric Mohsen Rabbani, were responsible for the attacks.
Despite diplomatic pressure and protest, Argentina has always protected the alleged perpetrators, who are still free to travel to Latin America and who seem to benefit from the protection of the Argentine secret services for reasons which are unclear.
Hezbollah’s activities were also reported in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru, and the accusations – at first unfounded – by the Israeli and US authorities have been corroborated over the years by the dozens of people arrested. These range from simple dummy figureheads to real agents, with charges varying from money laundering to involvement in illegal trafficking, especially of drugs and people, with local criminal groups.
According to the strategist and geopolitical scientist Edward Luttwak, in the area of the three-way border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Hezbollah’s most important overseas operational base is to be found. This would have been made possible by the long-standing presence in the region of a large community of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, of over 25 thousand people, which would have served as an ideal environment for the organization to take root, and a perfect hiding place,even when facing international espionage, for foreign fugitives of the calibre of Mr Rabbani and Imad Mugniyah. The latter was also accused of involvement in the massacres in the Argentine capital and has been reported as being seen several times in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.
Of the same opinion as Mr Luttwak was Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor in charge of investigating the 1992 and 1994 attacks, who died in 2015, officially by suicide. However, the dubious circumstances of his death have fuelled popular protests and campaigns to investigate the true cause.