MADRID - Plus Ultra was until recently a little-known airline with only four planes that shuttled passengers from a handful of Latin American countries to Spain.
Now its name appears on an almost daily basis in the Spanish media after opposition political parties accused Spain’s leftist coalition government of giving it preferential treatment by granting it a $63 million bailout because it has links to Venezuela, whose government is considered by political sides in Spain as in need of change because of the failing economy and claims of human rights abuses.
Plus Ultra, which connects Spain with Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, was granted the cash in March by the Spanish government. The money comes from a $11.9 billion rescue fund created to help strategically important firms that have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spain’s centrist and conservative parties accused the Spanish government of favoring the small airline because Venezuelan businessmen own 47% of it.
Unidas Podemos, the junior partner in the coalition, has links to the government in Caracas, Venezuela, because its leader, Pablo Iglesias, was an adviser to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The center-right People’s Party (PP) has demanded a parliamentary inquiry.
“To get public money, companies must be affected by the pandemic and be strategically important to the Spanish economy, but this airline is 47% owned by Venezuelans and represents only 0.1% of the market,” Valentina Martinez, foreign affairs spokesperson for the PP, told VOA.
“That is why we are asking for an investigation into this matter. We think it is more about the links between this government and Venezuela,” she said.
Opposition parties dispute whether Plus Ultra is a strategic company, saying the airline does not figure among the top 30 Spanish airlines and has a market share of 0.1%.
Critics have compared Plus Ultra with Air Europa, Spain’s second-largest airline.
In 2019, Air Europa carried 19 million passengers on 165,000 flights, while in the same year, Plus Ultra made 800 flights and transported 156,000 people, according to figures from the state-run airport operator Aena.
In November, Spain's government offered $565 million to Air Europa, which had been badly hit by the pandemic.
Spain's centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens) party has urged the European Commission to open an inquiry, claiming that this misuse of public funds will not reflect well on Spain, which expects to receive $166.5 billion in the European Union rescue funds.
“This is the moment when we need to be solvent and serious, with our financial affairs, but our government has spent $63 million on an airline which flies to four destinations, has had losses almost since it started and has a market share of 0.1%,” Ines Arrimadas, Ciudadanos party leader, said in a speech in parliament.
The far-right Vox party, which is the third largest in the Spanish parliament, has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court, claiming this amounted to misuse of public funds, which the government denies.
El Mundo, a conservative newspaper that has carried a series of stories about Plus Ultra, reported Friday that between 2014 and 2016, the airline negotiated its sale for $3.4 million — about 21 times less than the $74.9 million in state aid it was granted.
Spain’s government defended the award of the public money to rescue Plus Ultra.
“It’s not only market share that makes a company strategic but belonging to a sector that is strategic within the Spanish economy, such as tourism,” Spanish government spokesperson Maria Jesus Montero told RNE public radio on Wednesday.
Montero insisted the rescue plan had been correctly carried out.
Spain’s Treasury Minister said in a statement that Plus Ultra offered a service that complemented larger companies and the airline’s passengers were mostly Latin Americans traveling to visit their family.
By paying financial aid to Plus Ultra, it would promote Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas Airport as an international hub, the statement added.
Plus Ultra declined to comment when approached by VOA.
The Venezuelan government has dismissed the affair.
“All of this is politics. When I read about the affairs of the Spanish, I laugh a lot. When we kill a cockroach here, it is on Spain’s front pages the following day,” Jorge Arreaza, the Venezuelan foreign minister, told Agence France-Presse, the French news agency.