Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

DRUGS-VENEZUELA: Gov’t Refuses Permission for US Overflights

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, May 25 1999 (IPS) - The U.S. government’s search for a “new home” for military bases given Panama’s “no” to the continued use of the Howard airbase has run up against a new hurdle: Venezuela’s refusal to give permission for foreign military planes to overfly its national territory.

The Venezuelan government notified the United States and the Netherlands Monday of its “irreversible” decision not to allow military aircraft from other countries to fly through its airspace without express authorisation.

The decision’s effects on relations with Washington, an aspect of concern to business sectors, are not yet clear.

The daily ‘El Mundo’, meanwhile, applauded the measure in an article headlined “¡Buena esa, presidente!” (Way to Go, President!), describing it as a decision of “unquestionable courage.”

Minister of Foreign Relations Jose Vicente Rangel issued a declaration stating that Caracas was now studying “various alternatives” suggested by The Hague and Washington with respect to cooperation in anti-drug efforts.

The U.S. government said it hoped to maintain anti-drug cooperation with Venezuela. “We have always had a good working relationship with Venezuela in our common anti-narcotics efforts,” and we hope to continue that relationship, said a State Department spokesman.

The issue cropped up when the United States requested permission to use Venezuelan air space to connect possible U.S. military installations in Aruba and Curacao – two of the Netherlands Antilles located just 56 and 30 kilometres off Venezuela’s west coast – with a projected base in Ecuador.

President Hugo Chavez put an end to discussions of the U.S. request to overfly Venezuelan territory when he told the local daily ‘El Universal’ that “we cannot accept any foreign military plane overflying our territory without our authorisation, and we will not authorise it.”

He explained on TV later on Monday that Venezuelan law prohibited flights over national territory by warplanes from other countries carrying armed soldiers.

He added that there were other alternatives for cooperating in efforts designed to keep the Caribbean region from being used by drug traffickers, and said Venezuela would collaborate with the United States and other countries in that sense – while maintaining sovereignty over its airspace.

“I am sure this position is understood, and that it will not hurt relations with any country,” the president remarked.

Relations between Washington and Chavez – a 44-year-old retired lieutenant-colonel who headed a military uprising in 1992 – are complex. His government, backed by a leftist alliance, has reaffirmed the independence of its diplomacy in international matters of particular interest to the United States.

Chavez will travel to New York Jun 9 to meet with U.S. investors. He failed to arrange, however, a visit to Washington for a formal meeting with President Bill Clinton, as announced a few months ago. Chavez met Clinton in January as president-elect.

He explained that Venezuela had F-16 and Mirage airplanes equipped to overfly the entire Caribbean region, which could cooperate with the United States to intercept suspicious craft, as has already been done several times this year in cooperation with Colombia.

He also said he had offered the United States the use of military radio frequencies to pursue aircraft suspected of carrying drugs, thus allowing Venezuelan planes to take up pursuits which the United States initiated outside the South American country’s airspace.

Chavez stressed that the United States and Venezuela were “friends, allies and partners,” pointing out that his country headed the list of U.S. oil suppliers and was the seventh largest investor in the sector there as owner of a refinery and fuel distribution network.

In the wake of Chavez’s statements, Rangel met with the ambassadors of the United States, John Maisto, and the Netherlands, Roeland van der Geer, who put forth alternative proposals that the minister began to discuss Monday with the president.

Washington, which will hand the Panama canal zone over to that Central American country by the Dec 31 deadline, has been seeking a new location for its troops in the region.

Colombia and Peru refused, but the Netherlands offered the use of Aruba and Curacao to house U.S. Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) to replace the bases operating in Panama.

Washington also secured permission from the government of Ecuador to use its Manta base as the main location for U.S. planes used in surveillance, pursuit and interception of aircraft suspected of transporting drugs over the Caribbean.

Colombian Ambassador in Caracas Luis Guillermo Giraldo said Saturday that his country had no problems with the U.S. request to use Colombian (and Venezuelan) airspace as an “air corridor” between Ecuador and Aruba and Curacao.

He explained that such permission would square with existing authorisation for overflights by the United States, as part of drug enforcement efforts. A U.S. anti-narcotics brigade already operates in Colombia.

Giraldo’s statement left Venezuela alone in its refusal to authorise overflights, after earlier remarks by Rangel that Caracas and Bogota were both concerned over the request and were studying a common response.

Rangel reiterated Monday that the Chavez administration – which took office in February – had a “staunch and irreversible” commitment to the fight against drug trafficking, and guaranteed “cooperation at all levels.”

But in the case of traffic through Venezuelan airspace, “we are considering the interests of sovereignty and national defence, which could be compromised, and which are clearly top priority.”

The foreign minister, a long-time leftist politician and reknowned opinion-shaper in the local print media and TV, said that in Caracas’ view, multilateral collaboration in efforts against drug trafficking did not necessarily entail the use of airspace.

“There are technological resources that guarantee control of drug trafficking and effective efforts against it, without us having to agree to incursions by foreign planes over our territory,” said Rangel.

“There are sufficient satellite resources, radar installations on Venezuelan soil and at various points in the Caribbean, as well as the Tolemaida military base in Colombia, where the Antinarcotics Brigade for the region operates, which guarantee total coverage,” he maintained.

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