Hezbollah is active in Venezuela, the US secretary of state has said, as the Trump administration ratchets up pressure on the Latin American nation amid a crippling political and economic crisis.
“People don’t recognise that Hezbollah has active cells” in the country, Mike Pompeo told Fox Business. “The Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America. We have an obligation to take down that risk for America.”
The US has long considered the Iranian-backed Lebanese group a terrorist organisation, and sanctions on people in Venezuela linked to Hezbollah have been imposed as far back as the George W Bush administration.
Washington also believes Latin America has served as a base of fund-gathering for the group for some years, including through drugs and money-laundering schemes, according to past reports.
Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez formed tight links with Iran under Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s leadership.
Mr Pompeo’s claim came as the US, the UK and other EU countries put pressure on Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, to cede power and call new elections.
It was also consistent with Donald Trump’s strong stance against Iran, where the US president reimposed sanctions last year while labelling Tehran’s government ”a murderous dictatorship that has continued to spread bloodshed, violence and chaos”.
The US president was the first world leader to recognise Venezuela’s national assembly president Juan Guaido as the nation’s interim president in January, with a string of allies later following suit.
Mr Maduro has accused Mr Trump of instigating a “coup” against him while Russia, a key Maduro ally, has warned against “destructive meddling”.
Later in his Fox interview former CIA director Mr Pompeo described Mr Maduro as “evil” and insisted the US was intervening on behalf of ordinary Venezuelans who have suffered under his rule.
“We should not permit a country in our hemisphere to treat its own people this way,” he said, despite Washington’s – and the CIA’s – inglorious record in the region. “American values – America’s, not only our interests but our values – are at stake here.”
This week Mr Guaido signalled that if he gains power he will open up Venezuela’s huge oil wealth to foreign investment.
Outside private companies could gain a greater stake in joint ventures with the country’s state-run oil company, his envoy to the US said.