The Washington Diplomat / July 2009
By Larry Luxner
It's no secret that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made friends throughout Latin America, signing cooperation treaties with Washington's nastiest enemies and worrying counterterrorism experts who track the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
Lesser-known is the Libyan connection — one that is both scoring points and raising eyebrows throughout the Caribbean.
Earlier this year, Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo and the ruler of Libya, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, met in Tripoli. Following the meeting, Gaddafi promised to open a Libyan People's Bureau in Georgetown, which is not only Guyana's capital city but also the headquarters of Caricom, a 15-nation bloc that lately has been courting Libyan investment dollars.
Then in June, leaders of another regional club, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), formalized the establishment of a Libyan commercial bank in Kingstown, capital of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Accepted was a program of access to Libya's $2 billion development fund and $21.5 million in loans and grants.
The meeting followed talks in Tripoli between Gaddafi and the prime ministers of five OECS member states: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Libyan special envoy Mokhtar Ghenas vowed to inaugurate a People's Bureau — the equivalent of an embassy — somewhere in the Eastern Caribbean, probably St. Vincent.
Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent, said in an official statement that a Libyan holding company would be established in the region, and that technical teams would be sent to each country with a report to be submitted by July. He said the reports would be used to "chart the timetable going forward as it regards establishment of the bank," which would have branches throughout the smaller islands of the English-speaking Caribbean.
"The heads of government of the OECS express their deepest thanks and profound appreciation to the Leader Muammar Gaddafi for the attention and care he bestows on the Caribbean region," said the statement.
Yet Libya's spreading influence across the Caribbean isn't setting off alarm bells — at least not in the way Iran's friendships with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Cuba's Raúl Castro, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega have done in the recent past.
Ahmadinejad's friendship with Chávez — based on shared hatred of the United States — especially frightens those who remember the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Argentina. Top Iranian officials have been accused of masterminding that terrorist attack, which left 85 people dead and over 300 injured.
"Libya is now coming out of its international pariah status, so it's not really alarming," said Dr. David E. Lewis, vice-president of Manchester Trade Ltd. and an expert on Caribbean issues. "It's natural that they're going to engage with as many partners as they can. The recent resolution of the issue of compensation [to victims of the Lockerbie terrorist bombing] is going to open the door for them."
But Lewis added that "Libya is clearly not out of the doghouse" just yet.
"Libya's foreign relations had links to acts of terrorism, and they're trying to get the message out that it's all in the past," he said. "We just need to make sure that's the case."
Gaddafi's Caribbean connection dates back to 1979, when Grenada — then ruled by Cuban-backed leftists — forged close ties with Libya, which had an embassy there at the time of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada.
"Libya has had a presence in the region going back awhile," said Chris Zambelis, a Middle East analyst for Helios Global, a risk management consultancy in Arlington, Va. "Gaddafi has been very vocal on pan-African issues, and always tried to present himself as the leader of a new non-aligned movement. Diplomatically and economically, it has made sense for Libya to go to these places."
In 1987, Gaddafi established a Libyan People's Bureau in the Dutch-speaking nation of Suriname. The country's military strongman at the time, Col. Desi Bouterse, denied charges that Libya was using Suriname as a base for subversion in the region.
Zambelis said he's talked to older Muslim clerics in Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana, who freely admitted that they trained in the Libyan desert as members of Jamaat al-Muslimeen — a radical black Muslim group that in 1990 kidnapped the prime minister of Trinidad in an attempt to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. The failed coup d'etat left 27 people dead and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
"Every time we've helped somebody, we're accused of something," said Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Suleiman Aujali. "These are small countries and we feel it's a good place for our investments. This is business."
La Celia Prince, ambassador of St. Vincent, defends her country's budding friendship with the Gaddafi regime.
"It is certainly not anti-American," she said. "We cherish our relations with the U.S., but at the same time we are not confined to having relationships with traditional partners. This kind of solidarity [with Libya] brings our countries closer to the African continent, with which we share a common heritage."
Prince noted that Iran has already pledged a $5 million grant and recently sent a team of experts to St. Vincent to help build the country's first international airport — a $165 million project that should be finished by 2012.
Indeed, Zambelis said "Libya is absolutely not Iran" when it comes to winning friends throughout the region.
"Iran is trying to check U.S. influence.They see themselves being surrounded in the Middle East by U.S. forces, so they're going to places in Latin America and the Caribbean that have turned towards the left," he explained. "But with Libya, it's different. Since Libya has moved away from pariah status, it's been reaching out to the Europeans too. And if there's also an opportunity to make money in the Caribbean, why not?"