Support for Iran rising in Latin America, ex-Colombian president warns on Israel trip

Ivan Duque says leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua increasingly friendly to Tehran, and cautions about Hezbollah activities in region

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Former Colombian President Ivan Duque, May 23, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Former Colombian President Ivan Duque, May 23, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Iran enjoys an increasingly friendly environment in parts of Latin America, Colombia’s former president Ivan Duque said while in Jerusalem this week.

“That’s the case of Nicolas Maduro, who has become a strong friend of Iran,” Duque said Tuesday, referring to Venezuela’s socialist president.

“It’s also the case of [Daniel] Ortega in Nicaragua,” Duque continued, referring to the Nicaraguan president.

Maduro hosted Iran’s foreign minister in Caracas in February, and signed a 20-year agreement on oil, military, and economic cooperation during a trip to Tehran last June.

Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have widely been regarded as antisemitic, in part for their close relations with Iran, vocal criticism of Israel, and rough treatment of Venezuela’s Jewish population.

Ortega hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in February, when the long-serving Nicaraguan president defended Tehran’s right to nuclear weapons.

Duque, who was succeeded by leftist former rebel Gustavo Petro in 2022, spoke Tuesday with The Times of Israel at his hotel in Jerusalem. He was in the country meeting with Israeli leaders and entrepreneurs as part of a delegation with the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, where he is now a distinguished fellow.

He also toured a tunnel dug by the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border.

Duque advanced ties with Israel throughout his four-year term, visiting Israel in 2021 to open a trade and innovation office in Jerusalem, a move that was seen as deepening already close ties between Israel and a key ally in South America.

He accused his successor’s administration, the first left-wing presidency in the country’s history, of “trying to strengthen their connections with Iran.”

“That, in my opinion, is something that is worrying,” he said.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, third left, reviews an honor guard as he is accompanied by his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi, left, during his official welcoming ceremony at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, June 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

An Iranian delegation led by the deputy foreign minister was in Bogota in February.

Petro has been an outspoken critic of Israel who has compared its treatment of the Palestinians to the “discrimination” suffered by Jews at the hands of the Nazis. He has also been a vocal opponent of the 2017 US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and accused the Israel Defense Forces of carrying out a “massacre” against Gazans during violent border protests against the US embassy transfer in May 2018.

An Israeli diplomatic official said that Jerusalem is familiar with Petro from his time as Bogota’s mayor from 2014-15.

Newly elected Colombian President Gustavo Petro (C) celebrates next to his wife Veronica Alcocer and his running mate Francia Marquez at the Movistar Arena in Bogota, on June 19, 2022 after winning the presidential runoff election on June 19, 2022 (Daniel MUNOZ / AFP)

The official said Israel does not “expect any change” in relations between the two countries.

“The joint interests and view of Israel as a valuable partner are what maintains the ties even when there is a change of government,” the diplomat said.

At the same time, the official added, “There is no question that the policies of the current president are more critical and pro-Palestinian.”

Duque also warned about the presence of Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based ally, in the region. In 2020, his administration designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque raises a toast with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, November 9, 2021 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“I’m worried about the reopening of full mobility in the Venezuelan and Colombian border, because that can clearly allow members of Hezbollah to enter Colombia,” he said, while adding that his country’s police and intelligence bodies are combating Hezbollah’s presence regardless of who is in power. “There is a clear understanding that Colombia does not tolerate the presence of international terrorists in their soul.”

Duque also pointed at a trend of “growing anti-Semitism speech from autocratic leaders in the region,” and argued that support for Israel and the Jewish community wasn’t an issue of right or left politics, but one of democracy versus authoritarianism.

“I believe Israel is a strong democracy, and I believe Israel is a country that is based on liberties, and it’s based also in allowing people to nurture their innovation, human capital,” he continued. “So I think regimes that are clearly against those principles are the ones who are antisemitic today.”

A woman and children walk by a mural depicting Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega in Managua on January 10, 2022, day in which he starts his fourth term. (Oswaldo RIVAS / AFP)

“I think it is an issue more related to autocracies and regimes that are against democracy, that are against religious liberties.”

The Israeli diplomat stressed that victories from leftist leaders in Latin America in recent years have nothing to do with Israel, but are expressions of dissatisfaction with incumbents.

“Relations are with nations and not only governments,” said the official, pointing out that countries like Ecuador and Uruguay have moved to the right in the same period.

Judicial independence

Turning to the domestic fight in Israel over the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial overhaul, Duque said it was part of “a tendency in the world of achieving judicial reforms.”

Duque’s government instituted controversial judicial reforms that included changes to the way judges are selected and their power over the presidency.

Demonstrators light flares during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on May 20, 2023. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

He stressed the importance of the independence of judges, something critics of Israel’s reform proposal say is being compromised.

“I can tell you by my own experiences that judicial reforms are needed,” he said. “They have to be progressive, they have to occur on a constant basis, and they have to ensure one thing, which is the independence of the judicial system.”

Duque argued that his reform “allowed us not only to improve the quality, but to have a non-political selection of judges, having an evaluation of judges.”

They have to ensure one thing, which is the independence of the judicial system.

“And we also created in Colombia a system where we can monitor the behavior of those who exercise judicial authority. And that discipline mechanism is also guaranteed by an independent group of judges,” he said.

Two principles should guide any reform he said — that judicial independence is guaranteed, and that there is a “bridge” between the opposing camps.

Supporters of the government’s judicial reform efforts gather in Jerusalem, April 27, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Duque dismissed the notion that the proposed overhaul harms Israel’s position among Western allies.

“I think Israel has a reputation that goes beyond any policy discussion because Israel is very well known as a strong democracy,” he said, “as a country where there’s a separation of powers, as a country where there is respect for the decisions that are made by the independent powers.”

He also said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Duque signed a bilateral free trade agreement in 2020, is compromising his standing in the West because of the reform and his right-wing coalition partners.

“I think Netanyahu is not only a leader with credibility, but a leader who has built a lasting relationship with members of the Republican Party and also members of the Democratic Party,” he said. “And I think it will be a mistake that internally in the United States, maybe within political parties, there starts to be a polarizing vision about Israel.”

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