The State Department said Friday U.S. officials are talking to Venezuelan authorities about a move by the Caracas government to severely restrict flights to Venezuela by U.S. air carriers. Officials say the cuts, due to take effect March 1, would violate a 50 year-old bilateral aviation agreement.
Officials here say the Venezuelan announcement late Thursday that it will drastically limit access by U.S. airlines took them by surprise, and that the United States is in contact with the Caracas government to try to resolve the issue.
Venezuela said it is suspending service to Caracas by Continental and Delta airlines, and sharply reducing flights by American Airlines, because the United States has refused to lift curbs on Venezuelan air carriers imposed in 1995 because of safety concerns.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said if the curbs went into effect as threatened on March 1, it would be an unjustified and unwarranted violation of the two countries' civil aviation agreement.
He said U.S. officials are in contact with the Venezuelan government and the affected airlines to try to deal with the matter in a positive way and prevent disruptions of service.
"We are in touch with U.S. air carriers as well as the government of Venezuela to find out more facts and resolve this matter satisfactorily," he said. "We were not notified or consulted about this decision before it was made. We would note that any unilateral action like this would violate the air transport services agreement between the United States and Venezuela that dates from 1953."
The spokesman declined to discuss possible retaliatory steps if the Venezuelan cutbacks went into effect, saying the U.S. focus is to try to avoid a situation in which such action became necessary.
Venezuela's aviation authority says it has improved safety standards since the 1995 U.S. action, and that it had exhausted efforts to re-establish access rights for Venezuelan carriers.
It said curbs on U.S. flights would remain until Venezuela is returned to a first-tier airline safety rating by the United States.
The airlines dispute comes at a time of elevated tensions between the Bush administration and the leftist Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez, and officials here privately suggest the surprise aviation move by Caracas is related to the broader political conflict.
Early this month, Venezuela expelled a U.S. military attaché for allegedly receiving secret information from Venezuelan military officers. The United States responded the next day by expelling a Washington-based Venezuelan diplomat.
In Congressional testimony last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Chavez government's close ties with Cuba and efforts against democratic processes in neighboring countries were a particular danger to the region, against which Washington was seeking a united front.
Mr. Chavez responded by accusing the United States of aggression and said efforts by Washington to isolate his government would continue to fail.