Airport meeting lands Spanish minister in Venezuela controversy

Sam Jones in Madrid
Photograph: Victor Lerena/EPA

Opposition parties in Spain are calling on the government to explain why one of its ministers met Venezuela’s vice-president in a secretive encounter onboard a private jet at Madrid airport.

It emerged on Thursday that José Luis Ábalos, the transport minister in the leftwing coalition government and a senior member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party, met Delcy Rodríguez in the early hours of Monday morning.

Delcy Rodríguez. Photograph: Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images

Rodríguez, who is second-in-command to President Nicolás Maduro, is banned from entering the EU under sanctions imposed by the bloc.

According to the the Spanish news website Vozpopuli, which broke news of the meeting, Ábalos spent about 90 minutes onboard the plane.

It reported that Rodríguez and members of her entourage then spent time in the airport’s VIP lounge before the plane left in the afternoon for Istanbul, where she was due to attend an event marking the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the South American country and Turkey.

While there was no official statement from the Spanish government, sources within Ábalos’s ministry confirmed to Spanish media that he had seen Rodríguez but insisted there had been no “formal contact”.

Ábalos told El País he had gone to the airport to meet Venezuela’s tourism minister, Félix Plasencia, who he said was an old friend. Plasencia, who was travelling on the same plane as Rodríguez, was in Madrid to attend an international tourism fair.

The explanation did little to satisfy rightwing Spanish parties.

“[Prime Minister Pedro] Sánchez needs to explain why his minister met with Maduro’s vice-president when she is barred from setting foot on European soil because of her involvement in the repression and corruption of the Venezuelan dictatorship,” said Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservative People’s party.

“If this turns out to be true, we will report this infringement of EU rules.”

The centre-right Citizens party demanded Ábalos immediately appear before parliament to explain himself.

“Did Ábalos meet with the vice-president of Maduro’s totalitarian regime?” asked the party’s spokesman, Edmundo Bal. “With someone whom the EU has banned for being a senior member of this tyranny?”

On Thursday, Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos to urge the world not to turn its back on his struggling country and the millions of people who have fled across its borders to escape poverty and political turbulence.

Although he met the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, Guaidó will not meet Sánchez and will instead by received by Spain’s foreign minister on Saturday. The move has been seen as proof of the influence of Sánchez’s coalition partners, the far-left, anti-austerity Unidas Podemos alliance. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, now a deputy prime minister, once criticised the Spanish government for backing Guaidó, whom he accused of seeking to stage a US-backed coup and bring about a “bloodbath” in Venezuela.