Diplomatic affront or bureaucratic blunder? That’s the question after Venezuela said the United States initially denied President Nicolás Maduro the right to fly through Puerto Rican airspace on his way to China.
Venezuelan authorities claim the United States is playing political hardball, and is also refusing to issue visas to some Venezuelan delegates expected to attend the United Nations General Assembly next week.
The U.S. State Department said Venezuela failed to file its flight plan on time but, nonetheless, the permits were issued. It said that “no visas have been denied” to Maduro’s entourage.
The U.S. and Venezuela haven’t had ambassadors since 2010 and are often at odds, but this spat comes as Maduro is preparing his first trip to the U.S. since he became president in April.
The problems began Thursday, when Maduro said the United States had forced him to change his travel plans by denying him permission to fly through U.S. airspace near Puerto Rico on his way to a four-day official visit to China.
“To deny a head of state to travel through the airspace of Puerto Rico — a territory that they colonized — is a serious error,” he said. From China he’s expected to travel directly to New York for next week’s U.N. summit.
But on Friday, Venezuela’s Ambassador to the U.N. Samuel Moncada said the United States was deliberately delaying the “approval of entry permits for [Maduro’s] official aircraft and entourage, in order to create logistical barriers that could impede his visit.”
In a letter to U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, Moncada called on the U.N. to force the U.S. to “strictly comply with its international obligations, by removing all obstacles for the entry of President Nicolás Maduro Moros and his entourage.”
State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf blamed the flight snafu on Venezuela, saying authorities there had not “properly submitted” the request.
“U.S. authorities made an extraordinary effort to work with relevant authorities to grant over-flight approval in a matter of hours,” she said in a statement. “As a result we were able to notify the Venezuelan authorities last night that permission was granted.”
Harf said Venezuela had requested the diplomatic clearance with one day advance notice, not the three days usually required. She said no visas for the Venezuelan delegation visiting the U.N. had been denied.
Calixto Ortega, the highest-ranking Venezuelan diplomat in the United States, told media that U.S. authorities had initially denied Maduro the flight permission “in writing” and that the decision was only reversed after late-night diplomatic scrambling. Ortega said the same Cubana de Aviación airplane, with the same crew and Maduro on board, had flown over Puerto Rico on a previous occasion, so he was “surprised” by Thursday’s denial.
Bolivian President Evo Morales called for an emergency meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States to discuss the issue.