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Esther J. Cepeda Headshot

Iran's Offensive in Latin America: The Chicago Connection

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How does one tiny little country spread the word about a certain not-so-little country that wants to see it wiped off the map?

It shouts from the rafters and knocks on a lot of doors, in a lot of countries, making one-on-one connections with regular people.

Tuesday morning, as the world media outlets were atwitter about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ill-health - and about 48 hours before Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called on Turkey to isolate, rather than embrace, Ahmadinejad's overtures - the Honorable Eyal Sela, Israel's Ambassador to Ecuador, held a roundtable discussion at a prestigious downtown law firm. The topic: Iran's growing influence in Latin America.

Much like what Sela does in Ecuador, he was in Chicago - the third largest Hispanic population in the country - making the rounds, talking to exclusive groups of business leaders, community organization heads, journalists, and politicians about the growing threat that rarely gets any media play in the U.S. but is vitally important to those of us who send money and travel back to visit family in any of the Latin American countries.

And with approximately 1.8 million Latinos arrived or descended from 20 or so Latin American countries in the Chicago metro region there are plenty of us who should care what's going on back there.

Sure, most of us know that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hates the U.S. and counts Iranian President Ahmadinejad as one of his very favorite pals. I've written about China pumping money into Latin America and their refusal to enter into U.S.-backed sanctions against Iran. Then there's the whole Russia/Iran relationship (which is a whole separate column as it relates to Latin America).

Most of us knew that there's major money being swapped between the two countries for various oil-related goodies and non-oil-related infrastructure, but Sela gave us a laundry list of chilling indicators of Iran's growing Latin American influence that even I hadn't had a handle on.

Representatives from the City of Chicago, the National Strategy Forum, and several powerful Hispanic business and community organizations were treated to some rarely-heard insights.

"Venezuela is one thing, we know all that part of it. But look at Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, what's happening there..." Sela said. "The people in these countries don't know what Iran is looking for. What they want is really a better economic situation - they want to export their goods. They don't know how that legitimization empowers Iran."

The highlights:

There are plans in the works to establish an Arabic broadcast television network to spread news and opinion across Latin-America.

Islam is becoming one of the fastest growing religions in Latin America by making inroads in poor, underserved indigineous communities previously targeted by Evangelical Christians.

Iran-backed Hezbollah agents are active across Latin America, especially in the tri-border areas of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Not surprisingly they're involved in drug smuggling rings and, increasingly, in shoring up routes for direct access to the United States. "Venezuela is the direct entry point to Latin America and they are the direct entrance point to the U.S." Sela said.

There are over $20 Billion worth of trade and investment deals between Iran and various Latin American countries. There are daily direct flights between Venezuela and Iran and a keen Iranian interest in Bolivia and Ecuador's uranium deposits.

From Sela's perch, though he's anticipating a bad-news move from Ecuador's University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign-educated President Rafael Correa - the word on the street is that he's planning on taking a make-nice trip to Tehran in the coming weeks - things are still moderate outside of Venezuela. And he feels Israel's band of traveling advocates are making inroads.

"[For now, in most of Latin America] there is no hate for the United States," Sela told me, "there is a different perspective from Venezuela. But the problem is that in Ecuador [and across Latin America] people don't know what's going on. There's not an ideological connection with Iran rather, the people, they know they want better standards of living in their communities but they don't understand at what price it's coming. But they need to know."

"[One positive is that] nobody wants to know see Hezbollah in their backyard," Sela said. "Another is that we are good friends. Bilateral relations between Israel and the Latin American countries are very good and it's not like I'm not coming to criticize to tell stubborn countries what to do. The Israelis are coming as friends to tell them our perspective and for the most part they are listening."

We listened as well. And after a round of speculating how the next President would impact the United States' relationship with Venezuela, Iran, Latin America as a whole and other big players like Russia and China, we got the pitch as well.

"Talk to your communities, talk to your families, ask what they're seeing and tell them what you know," Sela told our band, knowing almost every one of us had family in Mexico, Central and South America.

I'm visiting my family in Ecuador next July and I know I'll certainly be asking different questions and looking around with a new perspective.

Esther J. Cepeda is a U.S.-born daugter of Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants.