Americas

Spanish minister’s secret meeting with Venezuelan vice-president sparks political storm

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez claims that José Luis Ábalos “did what he could to avoid a diplomatic crisis” given that Delcy Rodríguez is banned from entering the European Union

Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos.
Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos.XOÁN REY (EFE)

Spanish government officials are providing few details about the Venezuelan vice-president Delcy Rodríguez’s controversial layover at Madrid airport last week despite European Union sanctions prohibiting her from entering the bloc.

Opposition parties have been demanding explanations from Spain’s new leftist coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos regarding the presence in Madrid of the second-in-command to President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.

Spain’s former foreign minister Josep Borrell, who now serves as the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, has been asked by the European parliament about the matter. And Spain could be queried for explanations by the EU body in charge of enforcing the 2017 sanctions. For now, the European Commission has said that applying the sanctions falls to national governments, and that these have a “margin of interpretation.”

In Spain, the opposition is also asking about the fact that Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos met with Rodríguez “for 25 minutes” inside her aircraft, as first reported by the online news publication Vozpópuli. Ábalos has declined to speak about the matter to EL PAÍS, and the Foreign Ministry has fallen back on Ábalos’s various versions of events. On Friday, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez defended his minister: “He did everything he could to prevent a diplomatic crisis, and he managed it.”

Madrid-Doha

Security services at Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez-Barajas airport have confirmed that Rodríguez took a commercial flight to Doha (Qatar) after meeting with Spain’s transportation minister, José Luis Ábalos, inside the former’s private jet “in the international transit area” of the airport in the early hours of Monday last week.

According to these sources, Rodríguez technically “never stepped on Spanish soil” but remained inside her plane, then was briefly allowed into an airport VIP lounge. She is one of 25 Venezuelan officials who are banned from entering the EU due to “the political repression” against the civilian population by the Maduro regime.

According to Spain’s Interior Ministry, “the travel ban does not prohibit layovers as long as you don’t enter the country.” But sources specializing in EU sanctions said that member states must adopt the necessary measures to prevent banned individuals from entering their territory, even in transit. These sources said that “Barajas airport is located in Spanish territory.”

Meeting on plane

Ábalos’s encounter with Rodríguez inside her plane in the early hours of Monday has triggered criticism from Spain’s opposition parties. “Did Ábalos meet with the vice-president of Maduro’s totalitarian regime?” asked Edmundo Bal of the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) on Twitter. “With someone who is banned from entering the EU for being a senior official of that tyranny?”

The Venezuelan official flew out of Maiquietía-Simón Bolivar airport in Caracas at 9am local time on Sunday, January 19, on a private Falcon jet operated by the company Sky Valet.

Also on board was Venezuela’s tourism minister, Félix Plasencia, who is not on the list of banned officials and who was planning to spend some time in Madrid to attend the Fitur tourism fair while his travel companions flew on to Istanbul, Turkey. The Venezuelan embassy reportedly informed the Spanish Foreign Ministry about the fact that Delcy Rodríguez would be on board the flight, and that it would make a technical stop in Barajas before proceeding to its final destination.

Rodríguez’s flight landed in Barajas at 12.12am on Monday, and stopped at the terminal for private flights. After Vozpopuli broke the story of the Spanish transportation minister’s presence, Ábalos himself said that he went there exclusively to pick up his “personal friend,” Venezuelan Tourism Minister Plasencia, but that he suddenly got a call from the Spanish Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, asking him to “try to ensure that Rodríguez did not get off the plane.” He said he was on board the aircraft for 25 minutes, and that “nothing” was discussed.

Airport security sources said that after Ábalos had left, Rodríguez and her aides were allowed into the airport’s VIP lounge because the crew wanted to get some rest and passengers are not allowed to remain on board by themselves. “Only Plasencia crossed customs and entered Spanish territory,” said these sources.”

Delcy Rodríguez’s private plane eventually left without her en route to Istanbul at 2.42pm on Monday. By then, the Venezuelan official had already boarded a commercial flight to Doha, followed by another flight from there to Istanbul. The trip from Madrid to Doha is a six and a half hours, almost three more hours than Madrid to Istanbul.

Juan Guaidó: “We are not alone in this”

Elvira Palomo

Venezuela's acting president, Juan Guaidó, who is on a European tour to seek support for new elections in his country, visited Madrid on Saturday, where he addressed a crowd gathered in the central Puerta del Sol square to hear him speak.

The opposition leader told thousands of fellow Venezuelans currently living in Spain that "in a few years your children, some of whom have never known Venezuela, will ask you what you were doing during the country's most difficult times."

Promising to return to Caracas, he said that “we are not alone, we are together in this.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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