CARACAS, Venezuela — A senior Obama administration official is disputing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's claim that plots against his life by former U.S. government officials forced him to cancel a trip this week to New York.
Maduro called off plans to take part in the United Nations General Assembly, citing the threats. The Cuban government was likely concerned that a new airplane it had loaned Maduro might be seized on U.S. territory, according to the Obama administration official, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record and asked not to be identified.
The Venezuelan leader, who returned home Sept. 25 from a state visit to China, said he learned of threats against him from "various sources" during a stopover in Vancouver on his way to New York and decided instead to head back to Caracas. Maduro would have addressed the annual General Assembly for the first time since becoming head of state following the death earlier this year of longtime President Hugo Chavez.
"The clan — the mafia — of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega once again had planned a crazy, terrible provocation that can't be described in any other way," Maduro said, referring to two former assistant secretaries of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs who Maduro frequently accuses of plots against Venezuela. Both served under President George W. Bush.
Maduro, 50, was traveling in a Russian-made Ilyushin aircraft loaned by the government of Cuba, Venezuela's closest ally, according to the official from President Barack Obama's administration.
Cuban government assets are blocked in the U.S. under a five-decade-old U.S. embargo, and are vulnerable to claims by American citizens against the government in Havana following the communist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959.
The U.S. official said that a Cuban plane transporting a Venezuelan official to New York wouldn't fall under the protections granted to diplomatic missions, and the U.S. government couldn't have stopped a private citizen from seeking to file a claim in court on the aircraft.
Venezuelan officials proposed that Maduro and his delegation change planes in Vancouver to use a pair of Venezuelan jets for the flight to New York, and the U.S. immediately agreed, according to the Obama administration official. The U.S. then learned that Maduro had canceled the trip to the UN, citing alleged plots on his life.
Maduro had flown to China and back in a borrowed Cuban plane because his presidential jet, manufactured by Airbus SAS, had mechanical problems after undergoing five months of maintenance in France. Maduro has said that Venezuela is considering legal action against the European aviation company.
Venezuela's Information Ministry didn't immediately respond to an emailed inquiry after business hours Thursday on why Maduro didn't travel on to New York.
While the self-professed socialist leader accused the U.S. of inventing "thousands of excuses" for declining to authorize his transit over Puerto Rico last week, his plane did receive permission to pass through U.S. airspace on his way from Venezuela to China through an "extraordinary effort" by U.S. authorities with only a day's notice instead of the required three, a State Department spokesman said on Sept. 20.
In a national address carried on television and radio, Maduro said one plot against him could've caused unspecified violence in New York, while the other could've affected his physical safety.
"I had to fulfill my maximum objective, to preserve my physical integrity, my life, and Venezuelan honor," Maduro said, alleging that the U.S. had information about the plots.
The U.S. rejects involvement in any plots to harm Venezuelan officials or to destabilize the Venezuelan government, said a State Department official, who asked to not be identified. Both U.S. officials said the Venezuelan government has made frequent public allegations of conspiracies concocted in the U.S., and asserted that Maduro's government has not shared any evidence of alleged threats to be investigated.
Earlier this year, the State Department called Venezuelan government allegations of U.S. schemes to destabilize the nation "unsubstantiated and outlandish."
Maduro won election in April after Chavez — who died in March — had asked voters to choose him should Chavez be unable to complete his mandate. When he was vice president, Maduro asserted in January that authorities had uncovered a plot by opposition factions to assassinate him and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
A former bus driver, Maduro is facing increasing economic challenges at home. Shortages of goods in Venezuela, including sugar and beef, are stoking consumer prices as importers struggle to obtain foreign currency.
Inflation accelerated to 45 percent last month from 43 percent in July, the highest rate among 114 economies tracked by Bloomberg. The central bank's scarcity index is 20 percent, meaning that one out of about every five consumer staples is out of stock at any given time.
_ With assistance from Corina Pons in Caracas and Michael Shepard in Washington.