Venezuela's Maduro said to cancel U.S. trip over Cuban plane

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan and Nathan Crooks

Published: Friday, Sept. 27 2013 10:58 a.m. MDT

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a military promotion ceremony at the 4F military museum in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, July 5, 2013.

Ariana Cubillos, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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.

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