In search of the ‘Islamic menace’ in Bolivia

One US congresswoman is convinced that the Iranian government is a danger to Latin American countries such as Bolivia.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen co-starred in a misleading Univision documentary on Iran, writes Belen Fernandez [EPA]

La Paz, Bolivia – Were I transcribing the wet dream of US Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – self-appointed bulwark against the alleged Islamo-Bolivarian threat to homeland security – I might describe my arrival to La Paz two weeks ago as follows:

Descending from the city of El Alto into the Bolivian capital, my bus was stopped by a battalion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

All passengers were required to pledge simultaneous allegiance to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Adolf Hitler, and Evo Morales. Once the Iranians had verified that there were no Jewish businesspeople on board available for kidnapping, the vehicle was allowed to pass.

Our progress was once again interrupted, however, by a parade of Iranian diplomats, whose infestation of Bolivia began when the Islamic Republic made the alarming decision to open embassies in Latin America – something no other country in the world has done. Augmenting the infestation are the more than two dozen Iranian diplomatic offspring who have reportedly been enrolled in the international school in La Paz.

I finally checked into a hostel in the city centre and turned on the television to find that the only available channel was HispanTV, Iran’s new Spanish-language extremist propaganda disseminator.

I turned off the TV, sat back, and waited for the bomb to explode.

The possibility of a bomb in La Paz was raised in December 2011 by Ros-Lehtinen, co-star of a non-factual documentary entitled “La amenaza iraní” (“The Iranian Threat”), in which she insinuates that the US should attack Iran in order to avert bomb explosions in various Latin American capitals. The film was released by Univision, the prominent US broadcast network, which is owned by someone who hosts galas in honour of the Israeli military.

The Iranians meanwhile acquired a new rival in the realm of multilingual extremist propaganda dissemination earlier this month when – as Charles Davis has wryly noted – the Spanish-language Univision re-released its film in English.

Quds Force in disguise

When, after several days in La Paz, Iranian penetration into the Western hemisphere was still not glaringly apparent, I set out for the epicentre of penetrating operations: the embassy of Iran, said to be guarded by the elite Quds Force.

Unable to find the address on the internet, I walked to the office of the Shia Bolivian Islamic Cultural Foundation on Landaeta Street. It was closed for Carnival, however, and I had to extricate myself from the grasp of missionaries in an adjacent office belonging to another entity to which Latin America has shown itself increasingly penetrable: the nutrition and weight-management cult Herbalife.

In the end, I found the embassy thanks to a meeting with a former Bolivian official, during which he happened to mention Evo Morales’ hypocritical authorisation of GMOs in Bolivia after having disapproved of Iranian GMO projects. I took advantage of the opportunity to enquire after the coordinates of Tehran’s mother ship in La Paz; he directed me to the website of the Bolivian Foreign Ministry, which did indeed contain an address – albeit an incorrect one.

My visit to the embassy, located in a house with a yard, revealed that the Quds Force had succeeded in disguising itself as a single Bolivian policeman.

The Bolivian receptionist meanwhile informed me that she was not authorised to divulge the address of the Iranian Red Crescent Society Hospital in the neighbouring city of El Alto, where it was rumoured that female employees were forced to wear the hijab.

A Shia state within a state

I returned to the Bolivian Islamic Cultural Foundation, which was now open. There, a Bolivian convert to Islam, who introduced himself as both “Sergio Grover” and “Grover Musa”, told me how his dream of travelling to Iran on a religious scholarship had been thwarted by none other than the Univision documentary. According to Grover, there had been a moratorium on such scholarships, following the collaboration with Univision by former Mexican scholar-spies.

A theory put forth several years ago by Ely Karmon of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, according to which Shia ideology might resonate among impoverished sectors of Latin American society, seemed to find confirmation in Grover’s contention that poor inhabitants of El Alto were responsive to the foundation’s discourse.

Though the community currently consists of only approximately 50 members, Grover reckoned that, once membership swells to 3,000, the community might pose a challenge to the modus operandi of the state. For example, he explained, Muslim Bolivian policemen would exhibit superior conscientiousness than regular Bolivian policemen – whose recent achievements include repressing a protest of disabled people.

As for the Iranian hospital, Grover claimed that the hijab had only been required for the inauguration ceremony in 2009, and added that there was a substantial discount for Muslim patients – a slightly subtler approach to conquest, perhaps, than others historically employed on the American continent, such as decimating indigenous populations via infectious disease.

The hijab hospital

The next day, I took the bus to El Alto and found the hospital, a mere several streets away from where Grover had said it was. There were no hijabs in sight.

The hospital’s CEO and general manager, both Iranian, agreed to speak with me after being initially unimpressed that I had failed to bring any form of identification. Over tea and then lunch, they reviewed the institution’s numerous amenities and other contributions to global health by the Iranian Red Crescent Society.

The men claimed that the hospital employees, who were all Bolivian aside from two of them and their wives, were entirely free to pursue their own religious and political beliefs, provided they did not drink alcohol at work. They added that the obligation of the Red Crescent Society was to treat all kinds of people, including enemies of Ahmadinejad.

The general manager declared: “Our concern is lessening the pains of human beings.”

Terror breeding-ground

Less benign motives behind Iranian healthcare initiatives in Latin America were detected in a 2009 Jerusalem Post article entitled “The ‘other’ America: A perfect terror breeding-ground”, in which the author invokes the post-World War II flight to Bolivia by various Nazis as evidence that “[d]isenfranchised and marginalised regions are prime targets for fundamentalists and fanatics of all kinds”.

[Ros-Lehtinen] could always convert her illogic into the following catchy war slogan: ‘Let’s destroy peace before Iran does’.”

He also curiously mentions Bolivian “dictatorships aided by high-ranking Nazi officials” but manages not to specify that the Nazi official in question is presumably Klaus Barbie – war criminal, torturer extraordinaire, and former head of the Gestapo office in Lyons – whose escape to Bolivia was facilitated by none other than the non-“other” America, ie the United States.

In Bolivia Barbie’s talents were put to use in coordinating events like the so-called “cocaine coup” of 1980, which installed the murderous narco-military regime of Luis Garcia Meza Tejada.

Contemporary peddlers of the notion of a Latin America-based Iranian threat, however, prefer to excise such facts from history – as well as the fact that it was not Iranian-backed overthrows of governments in places like Panama and, more recently, Honduras that intensified said countries’ respective roles in the international drug trade. Instead, we learn from these experts that the geographic proximity of West Africa to Venezuela facilitates Islamic drug trafficking.

As for Ros-Lehtinen’s logic – according to which bombs on Iran will deter bombs in La Paz – it has yet to be explained why Iran would suddenly bomb its own alleged satellite, especially when the ostensible aim of Iranian penetration of Latin America is to threaten the US, not Bolivia.

At any rate, in the event that Ros-Lehtinen wants to have a little fun and exploit the coincidence that la paz means “peace” in Spanish, she could always convert her illogic into the following catchy war slogan: “Let’s destroy peace before Iran does”.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in November 2011. She is an editor at PULSE Media, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, CounterPunch, Guernica Magazine, and many other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez