U.S. lets Venezuelan president overfly airspace after permission confusion
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, right, and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, stand on the balcony of the Foreign Ministry after meeting with South Africa's foreign minister, in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP / Ariana Cubillos)
Published Friday, September 20, 2013 8:43AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 20, 2013 8:48PM EDT
CARACAS, Venezuela -- U.S. officials said Friday that they had initially refused Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro permission to fly over a segment of U.S. airspace on his way to China because his government made the request on short notice.
But Venezuela complained that the United States had also put up logistical obstacles to complicate its delegation's preparations for attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month.
Washington issued its explanation on the overflight issue after Maduro and his foreign ministry complained vociferously Thursday evening.
Maduro announced via Twitter his departure for China late Thursday, but didn't say whether the commercial Cuban plane he was travelling in had altered its route.
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas said in a Friday statement that Venezuela had requested diplomatic clearance to fly over Puerto Rico en route to China with one day's notice. Such clearances usually require three days' notice, it said.
There was also confusion because the aircraft did not actually require diplomatic clearance because it was a commercial Cubana de Aviacion jet on loan, said the embassy's acting chief of mission, Gregory M. Adams.
He said that while he didn't have the details, his impression was that U.S. officials were "caught short" and initially denied overflight permission.
Venezuela's top diplomat in Washington, Calixto Ortega, said the U.S. had reversed itself following "intense conversations."
Ortega told state TV that the U.S. government had approved a similar overflight route for the same plane a few months ago without question and that Venezuela was concerned because Maduro planned to arrive in New York on the same plane on Sept. 24 or 25 for the U.N. General Assembly.
In its statement, the U.S Embassy said: "Although the request was not properly submitted, US authorities worked with Venezuelan officials at the Venezuelan embassy to resolve the issue. US authorities made an extraordinary effort to work with relevant authorities to grant overflight approval in a matter of hours."
"We advised Venezuela on the correct way to get the clearance, and as a result we were able to notify the Venezuelan authorities last night that permission was granted."
On Thursday afternoon, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua aired the first complaint, saying that prohibiting the flight amounted to an "aggression."
Maduro later complained about the airspace issue and said the United States had refused to grant a visa to retired Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, his chief of staff, who was to accompany him to the United Nations next week.
"I am not going to accept any type of aggression," he said, stressing that the U.S. is obliged to grant visas to whomever he chooses to include in his delegation to the world body.
U.S. officials would not comment directly Friday on Maduro's comment.
But State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf did say at a briefing in Washington on Friday that "no visas have been denied for the Venezuelan delegation to this year's U.N. General Assembly."
Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, released a statement saying his country had complained to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about Washington "deliberately delaying the approval of entry permits" for members of the Venezuelan delegation and erecting logistical barriers to impede the visit.
The overflight dispute elicited heated condemnation of the United States from Venezuela's regional allies.
President Evo Morales of Bolivia, whose plane was forced down in Austria in June over apparent suspicions he had U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden aboard, called on regional leaders to consider the immediate removal of their ambassadors from the United States.
And Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, asked via Twitter whether Washington was seeking to "put world peace at risk."
Venezuela has had strained relations with the U.S. in recent years and the two countries have been without ambassadors since 2010.
Both countries appeared to be on a fast track to normalize relations after Jaua and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in early June.
But Maduro, the late President Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor, announced the following month that he was freezing the effort after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said at her Senate confirmation hearing that Venezuela was guilty of "a crackdown on civil society."