Tensions are mounting between the U.S. and Venezuela as the State Department decided to expel Livia Acosta Noguera, the Venezuelan consul in Miami, declaring her "persona non grata." The Venezuelan consul was implicated in an alleged plot to launch cyber attacks on U.S. nuclear power facilities. The decision was taken as a direct result of the revelations made by the documentary The Iranian Threat, aired by the U.S Spanish language channel Univision.
In the film, the Venezuelan consul was caught on camera backing Iranian-sponsored cyber-attack against U.S. targets in 2007, when she was vice-secretary in the Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico. According to the documentary, these cyber-attacks would be "worse than 9-11." The State Department did not want to comment on this decision. However, a U.S. high official stated that this expulsion is a serious issue, as "we do not take it lightly when we declare somebody persona non grata."
Before the expulsion, four members of the Congress -- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican), Mario Diaz-Balart (Republican), David Rivera (Republican) and Albio Sires (Democrat) -- wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expressing their "grave concern" over the "diplomatic credentials" of the Venezuelan Consul. "According to a documentary by Univision Network titled 'The Iranian Threat' […] [the Venezuelan consul] interacted with members from the Iranian and Cuban embassies and with students posing as extremists […] in order to coordinate a cyber attack against the United States Government and our critical infrastructure systems at the White House, FBI, and CIA. If true, these actions demonstrate [Venezuelan consul's] willingness to undermine U.S. interests and potential threat to our national security posed by [Venezuelan consul's] activities. With this is mind, we respectfully request the Department of State to investigate these allegations, and if found true, declare her a persona non grata and require her immediate departure from the United States," they wrote.
Congressman David Rivera also revealed that Washington has information that members of the Venezuelan diplomatic corps are also active officers of the Venezuelan intelligence services. This would mean that Venezuelan spies are allegedly acting freely in the U.S soil. Congressman Rivera warned that there should be an immediate investigation into further Venezuelan threats to the U.S. national security, especially given the cooperation between the Venezuela's intelligence and Iran's.
It seems clear that the State Department found these allegations to be true. According to Venezuelan media, the Venezuelan consul has been in Venezuela since December, having left the U.S. soon after the airing of the documentary. "We already knew that this was going to happen, and so she has been in Caracas in order to avoid situations, possibly even dangerous ones," said the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, during a press conference.
Chavez added that the expulsion is a demonstration of "the ridiculous empire's arrogance…..[The Venezuelan consul] is a very dignified professional, who was attacked, slandered and demonized by extremist groups and now by Barack Obama's government," he said, adding that - "She will continue working for our foreign service as she has done for many years." Venezuela's Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro further stated that Venezuela is going to give a clear, firm and timely response about the issue.
The U.S. action against the Venezuelan Consul comes exactly at the time Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela. It therefore seems a clear signal of disapproval that Washington wanted to send to Venezuela, given that the Venezuelan consul is accused of having backed an alleged Iranian plot to attack the U.S.
Ahmadinejad's visit indicates the further strengthening of relations between Venezuela and Iran. During the visit, Ahmadinejad and Chavez took the opportunity to laugh at the U.S.'s concern over Iran's nuclear program. "They accuse us of being warmongers," said Chavez. "They, the Americans, are the threat." Chavez also commented o being honored by Ahmadinejad's visit. "Now Washington's spokespersons are saying that it is not convenient for any country to get close to Iran. Well, the truth is that this makes us laugh,"Chavez said.
In a Univision interview, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that the Venezuelan government's relations with Iran did not serve the interests of the Venezuelan people. "Ultimately, it is up to the Venezuelan people to determine what they gain from a relationship with a country that violates universal human rights and is isolated from much of the world. The Iranian government has consistently supported international terrorism that has killed innocent men, women and children around the world – including in the Americas. It has brutally suppressed the Iranian people simply for demanding their universal rights. And Tehran continues to pursue a nuclear program that threatens the security of the Middle East. Here in the Americas, we take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously and we will continue to monitor them closely," Obama said.
Chavez, however, seems not at all worried, and is evidently willing to keep on cooperating with Iran, even if this will lead to more U.S. sanctions. During the meeting with Ahmadinejad, the two heads of state agreed to expand cooperation in the fields of industry, science and nano-technology, as well as economy. They also called on the "imperialist and extremist powers to stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries."
It is clear, that despite the expulsion of the Venezuelan Consul, the U.S. should keep high alert, as other threats against the U.S. can come from Venezuela, in cooperation with Iran.