As tensions rose in Aruba over the fate of a Venezuelan general wanted in the United States on drug charges, the island nation was worried that Venezuela was prepared to cut off air traffic for an extended period and sink its tourism industry, a senior U.S. State Department official said.
Former Venezuelan Gen. Hugo Carvajal went home Sunday after being detained four days in Aruba at the request of U.S. authorities. While an Aruban judge ruled that he could be held pending a U.S. extradition request, the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Sunday said Carvajal had diplomatic immunity, declared him “persona non grata” and sent him back to Venezuela.
That decision came as Aruba, an island of 111,000 people and less than 20 miles from Venezuela, was coming under pressure. During the diplomatic tug-of-war, Venezuela temporarily canceled flights to the island, leaving hundreds stranded.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said that Aruba’s Prime Minister Mike Eman was worried that the flight boycott might be widened and extended.
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“The Arubans were concerned that it might affect them economically very severely,” the official said.
A former director of military intelligence, Carvajal was tapped to be Venezuela’s consul general to Aruba, a former Dutch colony that is an autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. But Carvajal had not been approved for the post, casting doubts over his diplomatic status.
“Our initial conversations with the Dutch were that this was a law enforcement matter, which was an Aruban issue, and that they didn’t really have any involvement in it,” the official said. “Sometime between Friday and Sunday morning that changed … And not only did they get involved but they got involved in a way that was diametrically opposite to what we were told initially.”
Carvajal is wanted in the United States on allegations that he helped Colombian drug dealers move their operations to Venezuela and that he was personally responsible for selling hundreds of kilos of cocaine to cartel members.
Even if he had received his diplomatic credentials for the job, his passport “could not possibly cover acts committed years earlier when he was not a diplomat,” the official said. “There is a very worrisome implication that someone issued a diplomatic passport … somehow is protected from anything they may have done in their lives. That’s not how we read the Vienna Convention.”
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claims Carvajal’s detention was politically motivated and designed to undermine the socialist administration. Hinting that a backlash might be in the works, he accused the opposition of collaborating with the United States and said Carvajal should take legal actions against “all the [traitors] who joined the campaign against his honor and family.”
The fact that Venezuela put on a “full court press” to win Carvajal’s release was an indication of the damaging information he might have, said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state and former ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Venezuela’s military has long been suspected of controlling drug routes and Carvajal, a one-time confidant of the late President Hugo Chávez, was a lynchpin in those theories.
“Getting the facts out about the criminality of this regime would have been an existential threat to its hold on power,” Noriega said.
To have such a key figure slip through the fingers of the U.S. justice system is a huge loss, he said.
“It’s an embarrassment to the United States and shows what has become of our diplomacy and leverage in the region,” he said.
But some argue the Netherlands ruled on the side of international law and the sanctity of diplomatic immunity.
“This is a very powerful convention,” said Mark Weisbrot the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “Even Hitler stopped at embassies when there were people he wanted inside.”
Efforts to question WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Sweden have been stymied for more than two years as he’s taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The United States has also argued that its citizens abroad who hold diplomatic passports, but who are not necessarily working as diplomats, should be covered by diplomatic immunity, Weisbrot said.
Weisbrot also speculated that elements within the administration recognized that Carvajal’s extradition to the United States would torpedo any chance of restoring full-fledged diplomatic ties between the countries.
That would explain why the Dutch, who usually defer to the United States on affairs in the Western Hemisphere, made the decision.
“The idea that the Netherlands would have done this against the wishes of the White House is not really conceivable to me,” Weisbrot said. “That’s the key question.”
The State Department says it will continue its efforts to bring Carvajal to justice.
“The fact that the Venezuelans went to bat for this guy and used such pressure to try and get him back says a lot about that government,” the official said. “It’s very, very worrisome.”
A previous version of this story omitted ‘Sweden’ when referring to efforts to question WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange. Legal experts point out that prosecutors have been unwilling to question him in the Ecuadorian embassy.