Spain-Venezuela encounter by tarmac unleashes speculation

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FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2019 file photo, Vice President of Venezuela Delcy Rodriguez addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the United Nations headquarters. A secretive meeting this week at Madrid’s international airport between two prominent officials from Spain and Rodriguez triggered a political storm on Jan. 23, 2020, with conservative parties pressing Spain’s left-wing government for full disclosure. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)

MADRID (AP) — A secretive meeting this week by the tarmac of Madrid’s international airport between two prominent officials from Spain and Venezuela triggered a political storm on Thursday, with conservative parties pressing Spain’s left-wing government for full disclosure.

Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, the powerful right hand of President Nicolás Maduro, is on a European Union sanction list barred from entering the territory of any of the bloc’s members. Despite that, she held talks in the early hours of Monday with José Luis Ábalos, Spain’s Transportation Minister and a key figure in Spain’s ruling Socialist party, the Spanish news website Vozpopuli revealed Thursday.

A police source with knowledge of the matter told The Associated Press that Rodríguez had indeed arrived in the early hours of Monday on a flight from Caracas. But the official, who asked not to be quoted because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter, said Rodríguez wasn’t actually allowed to step into Spanish — or European — territory.

Flight records seen by AP showed how a private Falcon-type aircraft covered the red-eye journey from the Venezuelan capital to Madrid. The same plane then took off in the early afternoon from the Spanish capital and arrived less than four hours later in Istanbul.

Vozpopuli said the meeting between Ábalos and Rodríguez took place inside the jet and lasted 1.5 hours. The Venezuelan vice president and her team then spent time at the airport’s VIP guest terminal, the website reported.

Rodríguez was in Turkey on Wednesday to discuss with top officials preparations for the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Venezuela, the vice president showed in a series of tweets. Her previous public engagement had been back home and over the weekend, when she met with her Cuban counterpart.

Rodríguez wasn’t immediately reachable and the Venezuelan Embassy in Madrid declined to comment.

Ábalos’ press team didn’t immediately answer to written questions but the minister told El País newspaper that he had been to the airport on a “private visit” and only to welcome Venezuelan Tourism Minister Félix Plasencia, who is attending a global tourism fair in Madrid.

A Spanish foreign ministry official said he couldn’t offer any comments. Earlier this week, the ministry had told AP that it had no knowledge of Rodríguez’s arrival in Madrid.

Rodríguez, a former foreign minister who has been No. 2 in Maduro’s government since mid-2018, is one of 25 Venezuelan officials barred from entering the EU. She has also been subjected to U.S. sanctions.

Three Spanish parties covering the ideological center to far right reacted by demanding the transportation and foreign ministers to appear in parliament to deliver a full account of the alleged talks and an explanation for hosting a sanctioned official.

Ábalos is a key figure in the center-left coalition led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. The coalition, a first in Spain’s four decades of democratic rule, includes five members of the far-left United We Can party, whose leaders have in the past showed sympathy for Maduro’s government.

The timing of the trip also coincides with an international tour that has brought Juan Guaidó, the man designated by Venezuela’s opposition as the interim leader until free elections can be held in the country, to Europe.

The U.S.-backed Guaidó, who is heading to Paris on Friday and Madrid on Saturday, has been recognized by nearly 60 countries including Spain and most European nations.

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AP writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this story from Miami.

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