PM backs minister over meeting with Venezuelan VP during testy session in Congress

Opposition parties used their first chance to quiz the new government to call on transportation chief José Luis Ábalos to quit over encounter at Madrid airport with Delcy Rodríguez

Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos in Congress today.
Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos in Congress today.Juan Carlos Hidalgo (EFE)

Spanish Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos of the governing Socialist Party (PSOE) was called on to resign on Wednesday over his meeting with Venezuelan Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez at the end of January.

Ábalos had talks with the second-in-command to President Nicolás Maduro on January 20, when her plane made a controversial layover at Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez-Barajas airport. Ábalos said he saw Rodríguez inside her private aircraft to stop her from entering Spain, as she is one of 25 Venezuelan officials who are banned from entering the European Union due to the Maduro regime’s “political repression” against the civilian population. The Venezuelan vice-president “never stepped on Spanish soil,” according to security services from the airport, and after her meeting with Ábalos, took a commercial flight to Doha.

No one has lied more and in such little time
Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, Popular Party spokesperson

The encounter sparked a political storm in Spain with opposition parties accusing the transportation minister of lying about the real reason for the meeting.

Lawmakers from these parties took advantage of the first parliamentary questions session on Wednesday at which opposition groups could grill the new PSOE and anti-austerity Unidas Podemos coalition government, and questioned Ábalos about his actions.

“No one has lied more and in such little time,” said Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, the spokesperson for the conservative Popular Party (PP) in Congress. “Before the labyrinth of lies that you have built, there is only one fact: the Spanish government backed a torturer and turned its back on democracy,” she continued.

During the session, lawmakers from the PP repeatedly shouted “Resign!” at Ábalos.

Edmundo Bal Francés, the deputy spokesperson for the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, told Ábalos: “Do the Spanish people and government a favor and resign,” to which the minister replied: “You know who can throw me out as minister and take away my seat? The voters. But you are not going to throw me out.”

Do the Spanish people and government a favor and resign
Edmundo Bal Francés, deputy spokesperson for Ciudadanos

“I achieved the objective,” he told Congress. “The vice-president of the Venezuelan government did not enter the Schengen Area, and the order from the European Council on banning Venezuelan leaders was complied with.”

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez backed Ábalos in the session, arguing that “he did his duty: avoiding a diplomatic crisis.”

Ábalos did not go into further detail about the meeting, except to say it had the full support of Sánchez and Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska. When probed about his conversation with the Venezuelan vice-president, the minister said that he told Rodríguez: “You cannot enter, you know this. Continue your travel plans and we will not have more problems.”

No shift in relations

During the session, Sánchez referred to Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as “Venezuela’s opposition leader,” rather than the interim president of Venezuela. This comes after the Socialist leader refused to meet with Guaidó during his visit in Madrid at the end of January. Ábalos, however, used the latter phrase at all times in Congress today. After Sánchez’s statements, La Moncloa, the seat of the prime minister, clarified that there had been no change in the government’s position on the South American country, and that Guaidó has been recognized by Spain since February 4, 2019 as the presidente encargado, or interim president. Government sources said that “from the start Spain has led the international community in demands for free democratic elections. The aim of the Spanish government in Venezuela is democracy, peace and respect for human rights.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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