Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent trip to Latin America has been addressed by many as the "Hate America Tour." During the five-day tour, Ahmadinejad met Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with whom he joked about having a nuclear bomb. He then attended controversial Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega's inauguration for a third 5-year term as president of Nicaragua; moved to Cuba to meet with the Castro brothers, and ended his tour in Ecuador, where he called on people to unite against "imperialism and capitalism".

Ahmadinejad in Venezuela:

On January 8, Ahmadinejad arrived in Venezuela with his ministers for foreign affairs, energy and the economy. The Latin American media outlet Merco News reports that Venezuela and Iran are expanding cooperation in several economic fields, and have signed more than 270 accords, including trade deals, construction projects, car and tractor factories, energy initiatives and banking programs.

El Universal , however, reported that Ahmadinejad did not come to Venezuela just to strengthen relations, but to demand the payment of a USD 298 million debt that the Venezuelan government had contracted with state-run Iranian companies.

The pro-Chavez Venezuelan paper, Correo del Orinoco, reports that during the meeting, the two presidents "reiterated their agenda against US aggression." Chavez accused the U.S. demonizing Iran and using made-up claims about the nuclear issue. "Like they [the U.S] used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction to do what they did in Iraq. They [the U.S.] accuse us of being warmongers. They are the threat," Chavez said, joking that the Iranian president was traveling through "the axis of evil of Latin America [sic)]."

Ahmadinejad said that the U.S. has been fabricating lies and that Iran is not developing a nuclear bomb: "They say we are making a bomb. Fortunately, [as] the majority of Latin American countries are aware, everyone knows that those words... are a joke. It is something to laugh at. It is clear they're afraid of our development."

For his part, Chavez continued to joke about Iran and Venezuela having nuclear ambitions: "They accuse us over and over again of plans to attack the United States. They say we are building a bomb to launch against Washington. See that hill right there?" Chavez said to journalists. "The grass will open up to reveal a big atomic bomb that President Ahmadinejad and I will launch against the White House."

Correo del Orinoco also wrote that both Chavez and Ahmadinejad defended their right to maintain "their mutually beneficial relationship." "We have a willingness to continue working together in order to put the brakes on the imperialist insanity that has been unleashed around the world with terrible, threatening power," Chavez said as he received Ahmadinejad, adding, "No chemotherapy, no cancer, no disease anymore, but life, the will to live and keep on working together we, our governments, revolutions and peoples, to curb the imperialist madness."

Chavez also commented that Washington's stances on Iran and Venezuela were "ridiculous." "We are not war-like people. Iran has not invaded anyone and neither has the [Venezuelan] Bolivarian Revolution. We have not dropped bombs on anyone. Who has launched missiles and thousands of bombs, including atomic ones, on unarmed people? ... It's not us. We are part of the people who have been attacked and continue to be attacked while they attempt to portray us as aggressors," Chavez said.

Ahmadinjad joined in on condemning Washington: "We are two counties who are against the greed of the arrogant and the preponderant. We are resisting, and we defend our rights."

The opposition in Venezuela, however, criticized Amhadinejad's trip to Latin America. Diego Arria, an opposition politician, described the trip as a "provocation" to the United States, and an "embarrassment" for Venezuela. "It comes at the worst moment -- at a time when Ahmadinejad is being looked at by the international community with great fear. ... It is bringing the threat to the United States closer to home," he said.

The opposition paper El Universal commented that "an alliance between Chavez and Ahmadinejad would be seen as a threat to both the petroleum that passes through the Strait of Hormuz and the vast oil reserves of Venezuela. What benefits might accrue to Venezuela? None! […] We [Venezuelans] have no part in this conflict. Only a deranged mind would hope to force our country to engage in such an atrocity."

Ahmadinejad in Nicaragua:

On January 10, Ahamdinejad went to Nicaragua to attend Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega's inauguration for a third 5-year term as president. During the ceremony, Ortega took the opportunity to criticize Israel and condemn the killing of the former Libyan dictato,r Muammar Qaddafi. "Simply by starting to push for talks in the region in which the steps are laid down for Israel to give up and destroy these nuclear arms, I am certain this would bring about great peace in the region […] Christ never said: Israel arm yourself, arm yourself to the teeth," Ortega said, addressing his presidential inauguration ceremony, while adding that Iran has instead the right "to use peaceful nuclear energy."

The media outlet Inside Costa Rica reported that Iran, which opened an embassy in Nicaragua, will invest $1 billion in agriculture projects in Nicaragua in addition to building a deep water port in the small Central American nation, and granting a loan for a hydroelectric plant.

Ahmadinejad in Cuba:

The Havana Times reported that Ahmadinejad arrived in Cuba making the "V" for victory gesture and smiling. The Times also wrote that many Cubans wondered about the reason for this visit; however the "Cuban press only said that Ahmadinejad was an anti-imperialist who thinks that the capitalist system is in decline."

The Communist Cuban paper, Granma, wrote that during the meeting between Ahmadinejad the Cuban President Raul Castro, the two leaders discussed the excellent state of bilateral relations and international issues: "Raul and Ahmadinejad confirmed the commitment of the two countries to the defense of peace, international law and the principles of the United Nations Charter, and the right of all states to the use of nuclear energy for peaceful ends. They also reaffirmed their opposition to the implementation of unilateral economic sanctions."

The Cuban leader Fidel Castro wrote in his periodical column on the Cuban website Cubadebate about his private meeting with Ahmadinejad, saying that for him it was a pleasure conversing "leisurely" with the Iranian president. Fidel added that he found the Iranian President calm and composed, "completely indifferent to the Yankee threats, confident in the capacity of his people to confront any aggression and in the ability of [Iranian] weapons, a large portion of which they themselves have produced, to make the aggressors pay a heavy price."

The Cuban government also granted Ahmadinejad an honorary doctorate degree in political science. The Havana University declared that the honorary degree was given to Ahmadinejad because of his incomparable efforts in te defense of the establishment of a just international system as well as nations' rights against capitalist powers. During the ceremony, Ahmadinejad gave a speech denouncing capitalism. "Thankfully we are already witnessing that the capitalist system is in decay," he said. "On various stages it has come to a dead end -- politically, economically and culturally. You see that when it lacks logic, they turn to weapons to kill and destroy."

Contemporary U.S.-Latin American relations, a book edited by Jorge I. Dominguez and Rafael Fernandez De Castro, states that since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Cuban-Iranian relations have been on a "strong footing:" "Cuba has had strong political affinities with Iran, from supporting the Palestinian cause to espousing Tehran's right to develop nuclear power. In May 2001, Fidel Castro visited Iran and there said: 'Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.' After 9-11, some analysts saw a potential Cuba-Iran axis in the making. After his election in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted: 'Iran's relations with Cuba are strategic and deep-seated.' In September 2006, Havana hosted the Non-Aligned Movement's summit; Raul Castro met privately with Ahmadinejad […]. In January 2009, Tehran sent a special envoy to meet with the Cuban president; the agenda was not made public."

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned about the meeting between the Castro brothers and Ahmadinejad: "Both Iran and Cuba have clear intentions of harming the U.S., and both support extremist groups dedicated to bringing destruction to our nation or destabilizing our allies. In the past few years, Iran has propped up Cuba's failing economy by providing it with an increased line of credit and loans to ramp up their economic and energy cooperation. They also work together on biotechnology research that could have weapons applications, and continue to share sensitive intelligence information that could harm the United States and our allies." Ros-Lehtinen added that, "Iran and Cuba are both state-sponsors of terrorism, and need to be treated as immediate threats to our national security. Just as the Iranian regime has rejected every overture by the Administration, the Castro regime will never be coddled into changing its ways. In fact, by easing economic pressure on Cuba, the Obama Administration is making the regime stronger and better able to maintain its iron grip on the Cuban people and continue to threaten U.S. interests."

Ros-Lehtinen's warning is also supported by the fact that in the documentary The Iranian Threat, recently aired by the U.S Spanish language channel Univision, Cuban, Iranian and Venezuelan officials have been caught on camera actively considering cyber attacks against the U.S.

Ahmadinejad in Ecuador:

Ahmadinejad concluded his visit in Ecuador, where he was greeted by an excited crowd. In exchange for the warm welcome, Ahmadinejad told Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa that he was "glad to meet the friendly and caring people of Ecuador; I have brought a message of love, affection and solidarity." Correa referred to Ahmadinejad as his "brother," and added that, "the era of the people has begun; people are waking up all over the world to build a more beautiful world."

According to Ros-Lehtinen, however, Ahmadinejad's visit to Ecuador illustrates the growing strategic partnership between Rafael Correa and the regime in Tehran: "Over the last five years, Iran's economic investments in Ecuador have been effectively used to secure a loyal ally within our Hemisphere that could help Iran circumvent U.S. and UN sanctions. Iran's deepened alliance with Correa also facilitates Tehran's ability to access Ecuador's uranium deposits."

Ahmadinejad went on to describe Ecuador as a lovely country with friendly people and expressed hope that Iran-Ecuador relations would be promoted in the future. He then said that despite the long geographical distance between Iran and Ecuador, there is no distance between the freedom-seeking beliefs of the two nations.

During the meeting, Correa reiterated his support for Iran's nuclear plan: "Ecuador supports Tehran's peaceful nuclear energy against arrogant powers' propaganda machine," Correa said. Further, Univision reports that Correa denounced a recent IAEA report that found "credible" evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb: "How can we accept these kinds of reports?" Correa said. "The report concluded, in quotes, that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, something it has always denied, and we believe them [the Iranians]. Iran can count on the total support of Ecuador so that the truth is known and not just the propaganda of countries which show a shameful double standard."

Conclusion

The Obama administration has called the Ahmadinejad's tour a sign of "desperation." Although Iran might feel isolated, this does not mean that the U.S. should underestimate the danger Iran represents. The State Department stated that the Iranian government is "desperate for friends," but in Latin America Ahmadinejad did not feel desperate: he found a strong and substantial support. In Ecuador, the newspaper La Hora, welcomed Ahmadinejad with a satirical article entitled, "Welcome Mahmoud," which explains the climate in Ecuador. "We welcome you with jubilation. We don't care that you deny the Holocaust or that you want to wipe Israel off the map. … The complaints of the U.S. are of no concern. Nor it is a problem that we are just a tool for you to convince the world that you still have friends. … Mahmoud, we will be forever your chums", the Ecuadorian paper wrote.

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