WASHINGTON – The State Department confirmed Tuesday that Venezuela government officials apologized after a U.S. congressional delegation was not allowed to get off its plane during a scheduled stop to the nation during a trip to South America.
Reps. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., Tom Lantos, D-Calif., Mel Watt, D-N.C., Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa, Diane Watson, D-Calif., and Luis Fortuno, R-Puerto Rico, and their aides weren't allowed to disembark from their plane Monday after they landed in Caracas for what was dubbed an official visit by the congressional delegation.
"I'm not sure what version of events has come out from the Venezuelan government," said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the State Department. "But I can tell you that they have apologized for what happened." McCormack said the message was "conveyed to our embassy" in Caracas.
Despite State Department claims, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said in a press release issued Tuesday that it is not apologizing, but placing the blame for the confusion at the International Airport Simón Bolívar of Maiquetía on the Americans for not following proper procedures.
The statement from the Venezuelans said visas for the American delegates were processed on time by the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C. But when they arrived, the gate requested by the American delegation was being used by the defense minister for Spain, delaying their unloading.
"The fact that airport officials had to use another gate caused the aircraft to be delayed a few more minutes than is regularly estimated to proceed with these types of visits," reads the release.
"The decision to leave Venezuela was made exclusively by the members of the congressional delegation and officials at the honorable Embassy of the United States in Caracas without any input or statement from Venezuelan officials," the statement says.
While lawmakers sat on the tarmac, U.S. embassy personnel interceded on their behalf and tried to remedy the situation. After almost two hours of negotiations, the sides failed to reach an agreement, the American delegation left the airport and went to Aruba, said McCormack.
"After an hour and a half, I think the delegation decided that that was long enough to try to fix the situation and they decided to leave," McCormack said, adding that airport officials would not allow a vehicle to be brought to the plane to let the representatives off.
McCormack said he did not know whether the delegation planned to return to Venezuela.
Hyde said that on behalf of the delegation, he was disappointed in the Venezuelan government's response to their arrival, noting the mission of the trip was to ease strained tensions between the United States and Venezuela.
An Aruban government official who asked not to be named said it was a "power play" by the American delegation and their entry was never denied. He said the delegation was received with open arms by the Aruban government, which scheduled a night for them at a hotel and arranged a Tuesday morning meeting with Aruban Prime Minister Nelson O. Oduber.
Relations between the United States and Venezuela have been stressed lately, even before Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called President Bush a "murderer" and expelled some American missionaries whom he said are linked to the CIA.
While some Venezuelans support Chavez's actions and comments, others say he is just trying to distract attention away from the country's problems such as poverty and corruption.
Chavez says Venezuela has good reason to be concerned about U.S. trying to invade his country for oil, given the history of U.S. military actions in places from Afghanistan to Iraq.