The New York Times
May 20, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — The defense minister said Monday that an American fighter plane violated Venezuelan airspace over the weekend, prompting the government here to summon the United States ambassador to explain the incident and other recent statements about Venezuela by senior American officials.
The denunciation, issued on state television Monday morning, suggests that political relations between Venezuela and the United States may be set to deteriorate further after Washington explicitly sided with Colombia in a dispute over a trove of computer files that tie Colombia’s largest guerrilla group to Venezuela’s government.
Gen. Gustavo Rangel, the Venezuelan defense minister, said the authorities on Saturday detected an S-3B Viking aircraft piloted by United States Navy personnel over La Orchila, a Caribbean island with a Venezuelan military base. An exchange of words ensued, General Rangel said, and the plane departed in the direction of Curaçao, in the Dutch Antilles.
“We believe this action to be deliberate on the part of the North American Navy,” General Rangel said. “At this moment in time, it is nothing but another link in the chain of provocations in which they are trying to involve our country.”
Speaking alongside General Rangel, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said Patrick Duddy, the United States ambassador, would be summoned to explain the matter. Mr. Maduro did not specify what statements Mr. Duddy would be asked to explain, but there has been recent criticism from the White House over Venezuela’s possible role in Colombia’s internal fighting.
Speaking in Washington, Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, acknowledged Monday that an American military aircraft based in Curaçao strayed inadvertently into Venezuelan airspace on Saturday.
“While conducting a counternarcotics mission in international airspace, the pilot realized that a navigation error had occurred,” Mr. McCormack said. “He contacted a Venezuelan tower to report the error, stating that he would immediately return to international airspace. The exchange was polite and professional.”
Tension persists between Venezuela and Colombia after Interpol verified last week that Colombian antiterrorism forces had not tampered with computer archives referring to financial and military support given by Venezuela to Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
While independent proof of such Venezuelan support for the FARC has yet to emerge, American officials like John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, have criticized Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, over the suspected links to the FARC, which finances itself through cocaine trafficking and abductions for ransom.
Such criticism is taking place amid a wider debate in Washington over adding Venezuela to the United States’ list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Such a move remains unlikely because of resilient trade relations between the countries. But Mr. Chávez claims the debate is part of an American strategy to destabilize his government.