Sunday, 22 September 2013
U.S. Denies Trying to Bar Venezuelan President From Airspace
CARACAS, Venezuela — In the latest diplomatic dispute between the United States and Venezuela, American officials late Thursday gave permission for President Nicolás Maduro to fly over Puerto Rico on his way to a state visit in China and denied angry accusations from Venezuelan officials that the United States had tried to bar Mr. Maduro from its airspace.
But Venezuela’s accusations resonated among some of its leftist allies in the region, who compared the contretemps to the incident in July when President Evo Morales of Bolivia was denied permission to fly over some European countries because, according to Bolivian officials, they wrongly suspected his plane was carrying Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive American intelligence leaker. Leftist leaders at the time accused the United States of being behind that incident, although Washington said it was not involved.
On Thursday, Mr. Maduro and Foreign Minister Elías Jaua accused the United States of barring Mr. Maduro from American airspace, calling it an act of aggression.
But on Friday, Roberta S. Jacobson, the United States assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said that was not true and that the request had never been denied.
American officials said that, instead, Venezuela had not followed normal procedures in submitting its request to enter American airspace and that Washington had granted it anyway.
A State Department statement said that Venezuela had made the request on Wednesday, just a day before Mr. Maduro’s scheduled departure, when such requests are supposed to be made three days in advance.
Officials also said that Mr. Maduro was flying in a Cubana Airlines jet and that diplomatic flight requests were supposed to involve official state aircraft.
The statement said that, despite all of that, the United States had worked with Venezuelan officials to get the approval done quickly.
“This whole thing is absurd,” Ms. Jacobson said.
“This was a request that came in very late for an aircraft that is not a Venezuelan state aircraft and therefore would not normally get diplomatic clearance, and we got it done as quickly as we could so we don’t understand this reaction.”
But Venezuela treated the flight request as a major international incident. Mr. Maduro said the United States had denied permission to use American airspace and said the United States had made a serious mistake. Mr. Jaua said it was an aggression against Venezuela.
The dispute fits a pattern of recent incidents in which Venezuela, a major oil supplier to the United States, has grabbed onto seemingly innocuous comments or actions by American officials that it then seeks to turn into major confrontations.
Mr. Maduro has increased verbal attacks against the United States since he was elected in April to replace the country’s longtime socialist president, Hugo Chávez, portraying Washington as an imperialist aggressor intent on undermining his government.
In the end, however, the permission was granted and Mr. Maduro said in a Twitter post just before 10 p.m. that he was departing for China. It was not clear, however, what route the plane took or if it passed over Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth of the United States.
It was also unclear why Venezuelan officials chose that route. The first leg of Mr. Maduro’s flight took him from Caracas to Paris, an official said.
Robert W. Mann Jr., an airline industry analyst in Port Washington, N.Y., said that the most direct route from Caracas to Paris was over the Lesser Antilles and that flying over Puerto Rico, which is farther north, added about 100 miles to the flight path.
He said that there could be valid reasons to travel the extra distance, including wind forecasts or technical issues associated with the type of aircraft being used.
But he suggested another reason.
“It could also have been a sharp stick in the eye,” he said. “And given some of the personalities involved that’s always possible.”
The dust-up was used by other South American governments to lash out at the United States.
Mr. Morales, speaking at a news conference in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, accused the United States of carrying out a policy of intimidation and said he planned to file a lawsuit in an international court charging President Obama with crimes against humanity.
The foreign minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patiño, also weighed in. “First it was with Bolivia and now with Venezuela,” he wrote in a Twitter post, implicating the United States. “What are they trying to do? Put at risk the friendship between people and peace in the world?”