UN Summit

Venezuela president skips UN debut citing death threats



Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro cancelled his debut at the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday, saying his enemies were plotting to incite violence in New York or even kill him.

Just hours before he was scheduled to address the U.N., Maduro announced via Twitter that he had arrived back in Venezuela -- not New York -- after a six-day trip to China.

During a national broadcast late Wednesday, Maduro said he was on a layover in Canada when he received information about two plots, one to incite violence and the other to kill him.

“That’s when I decided to head straight to Caracas,” he said, “to preserve my physical integrity, my life and the honor of Venezuela.”

As he has done in the past, Maduro blamed former U.S. diplomats Roger Noriega and Otto Reich for being behind the scheme. Since winning a narrow and contested election in April, Maduro has often accused the two men -- along with former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe -- of wanting to depose or kill him. He’s never provided evidence and he stopped short of doing so on Wednesday, saying that revealing details would put his informants at risk.

In a statement, Noriega called the accusations “ridiculous and unfounded.”

“My guess is he would be safer in [New York] than he is in Caracas because of the infighting within his criminal regime,” said Noriega, former U.S. representative to the Organization of American States. “It is possible that his Cuban handlers believe that he is needed in Venezuela to fortify his unstable position as the country braces for an economic collapse and political turmoil that will ensue when corrupt [officials] scramble to steal what little they have left behind.”

Maduro speculated that U.S. President Barack Obama knew about the plots but “was too weak to take any actions.”

Even so, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua will take his place at the event.

Maduro’s U.N. trip seemed troubled from the start. Before flying to China on Friday, he accused the United States of initially denying him the right to travel through U.S. airspace over Puerto Rico. He also said Washington was trying to hamstring his New York visit by denying visas to members of his U.N. delegation. The U.S. State Department denied both those allegations.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said Maduro needed full “guarantees” from U.S. authorities to attend the U.N. The delegation was traveling in a Cuban jetliner, generating speculation that it might have been at risk of seizure by U.S. citizens who have won legal demands against the Havana government and are trying to collect.

Maduro said he used the Cubana de Aviación plane after inspectors found a “serious problem” in one of the wings of the presidential aircraft. Maduro said he would be pursuing legal action because the airplane had recently undergone a five-month overhaul by the manufacturer.

On Wednesday, the State Department said it went out of its way to accommodate Maduro's repeatedly late requests for permission to fly to New York for the U.N. General Assembly before he cancelled his arrival.

Maduro’s former boss, the late President Hugo Chávez, seemed to relish his U.N. appearances, raising hackles by calling former U.S. President George Bush a “devil,” flogging books by his favorite authors and breaking out in song.

Many wondered if Maduro – who often emulates Chávez at home – would do the same in the global spotlight.

As late as this weekend, Venezuela had signaled that Maduro would be at the event. Over the weekend, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.N. Saul Moncada said the president had “important things to say during his speech.”

But Maduro also has pressing reasons to be back in Venezuela.

Record-high inflation of 45 percent per year and shortages of basic items – from toilet paper to cooking oil – has Venezuelans grumpy ahead of municipal elections in December.

Saving Christmas?

On Wednesday, Vice President Jorge Arreaza announced a raft of measures – including cutting red tape and providing dollars to key sectors – that he said would ease shortages of critical items, including health and hygiene products and auto parts. But the holidays are also taking center stage.

“We are guaranteeing that over the months of November and December we will have all the Christmas products,” he said. “Everything from...toys to nativity scenes to artificial trees.”

Also on Maduro’s plate is a growing drug-trafficking scandal. On Wednesday authorities said they had made fresh arrests related to an Air France flight earlier this month from Caracas to Paris that was found carrying 1.3 tons of cocaine – a record-breaking seizure for French authorities. Among the 17 people being investigated are eight members of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard – a potential embarrassment to an administration that has taken up anti-corruption as its flagship cause.

But Maduro has said his trip to China was an economic success. The governments signed 12 agreements, including the establishment of a Venezuelan-Chinese enterprise to develop the Junin oil block in the Orinoco Oil Belt, an agreement to develop a mining map of the country, and a feasibility study and engineering agreement to develop the Las Cristinas gold mine.

Maduro also bagged a $5 billion loan. However, the government has not said whether they are fresh funds, a line of credit, or the renewal of previously extended loans. The administration has also been mum on what kind of guarantees it has provided for the money, but Maduro has promised to give a full accounting of the trip.

In the past, the country has backed Chinese loans with future oil sales. But on Tuesday, Henrique Capriles, the Governor of Miranda state and the opposition standard-bearer, speculated that the country was turning over its gold reserves for the money.

“What condition will they leave this country in if they sell off our gold reserves,” he said. “Do you think those $5 billion are going to solve our economic problems? Of course not.”

When opposition lawmakers tried to bring up the issue in the National Assembly Tuesday they were overruled.

Maduro has blamed many of the economic problems on opposition “sabotage” and has accused the White House of being behind a plan called “Total Collapse,” which he says is designed to throw the economy off the rails.

“Work and more work to keep having a Fatherland,” he wrote Wednesday. “Let’s consolidate our national prosperity.”

El Nuevo Herald Staff Writer Juan Tamayo and Miami Herald Special Correspondent Aaron Morrison contributed

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