CARACAS, Venezuela – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reviewed and updated multiple cooperation agreements between his country and Venezuela during his visit to the Andean nation on June 23.
The agreements, which have been active since 2005, are geared toward improving public works to expand utilities, housing and roadways throughout Venezuela and establishing a bi-national corporation to manufacture and sell vehicles. The exact number of agreements has not been released.
Iran and Venezuela have mutual investment of about US$5 billion in factories to make cement, satellites, food, tractors, bicycles and military equipment.
With much fanfare, the Venezuelan government announced in June that with Iran’s help, it made its first drone and planned to export the unmanned aircraft soon.
The drone, which does not carry arms, has a 100-kilometer (62-mile) sweep, can fly solo for about 90 minutes and reach an altitude of 3,000 meters (9,843 feet), officials said.
The government also highlighted Iran’s help in building 14,000 houses, a much-needed investment in the South American nation, where 100,000 still live in shelters after losing their homes in the 2010 rains.
But the scarcity of details of the scope and reach of these accords and the many more signed in the past 13 years concern local security and government analysts, said Rocío San Miguel, director of citizen watchdog NGO Control Ciudadano (Citizen Oversight).
“Venezuelan law prohibits the classification of documents as secret, but the military and defense agreements signed with Iran are secret,” she said.
“All these agreements were not debated in the National Assembly. Businesses, academia and everyday citizens in Venezuela have been left out of this discussion.”
San Miguel said the agreements have not worked.
“These agreements have not led to improvements for Venezuelans and moreover, they have undermined our national sovereignty,” she added.
Cultural and socio-economic barriers have impacted cooperation between Iran and Venezuela, said former Venezuelan diplomat Milos Alcalay, who was the Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations from 2001 to 2004.
“We have had a lot of problems because the Iranians do not know our customs, our language or our laws,” he added. “Workers hired by Iranian companies have protested those companies’ labor violations, such as abuse or unjustified firings.”
The agreements have fueled the country’s brain drain, Alcalay said.
“While [the agreements] benefit Iranians, Venezuelan professionals have been forced to leave the country, leading to an exodus we have never seen before,” he said. “They would rather hire professionals who do not know the reality in this country but who are given special privileges for political reasons and because they do not trust Venezuelans to support the process unconditionally.”
Cooperation between the nations has also extended to projects in the food and agribusiness sectors, including a factory in Iran that processes corn, which is very tough to grow in the country’s arid and mountainous terrain.
“We have businesses in Iran that have become a manufacturing center for a Latin American staple, even though they know nothing of the basis of Venezuelan cuisine, pre-cooked corn flour (arepa),” Alcalay said. “Then, instead of favoring a known Venezuelan company that exports its products to Colombia and Central America, they would rather give the advantage to Iran.”
Meantime, “Venirauto,” an automotive company formed by the two countries in 2006, has been the subject of many formal complaints and labor protests.
A change in Venirauto’s shareholders in 2009 left the majority of shares in the hands of the Venezuelan government, which was intended to accelerate the company’s production process.
But the technology transfer needed to continue assembling the cars in Venezuela still has not occurred, and a plethora of major parts continues to be imported from Iran. Consequently, production of the two models advertised by the company (Turpial and Centauro) continues to depend on what happens in a foreign country.
“I had the opportunity to purchase one, but I wouldn’t dare to because I was worried replacement parts would be scarce,” said Ramón Alberto Escalante, an international affairs expert and professor at the Universidad del Zulia.
Of the 80,000 cars that Venirauto was supposed to produce since 2006, only 12,000 have been assembled, said Venezuelan lawmaker Abelardo Díaz, a member of the National Assembly’s Treasury Inspection Commission.
“This agreement [between Venezuela and Iran] was made only for political and ideological support, with no previous feasibility study,” he said.
San Miguel said the most dangerous of these agreements is the one giving rights to Iranian companies to conduct geological research to find uranium deposits in Venezuela.
This program, known as “Proyecto Simón Bolívar,” has been operational since 2009, according to local media reports. The Venezuelan government has not released any information regarding the results of research.
“It is difficult to know what is hidden within the cooperation agreements that established the Simón Bolívar project,” she said. “All the agreements are surrounded by secrecy.”