By Carlos Camacho
CARACAS -- Scenes of chaos at the Caracas counter of Panama’s Copa -- one of Latin America’s best regarded airlines -- were visible Friday morning, as the carrier was ordered to stop operating in Venezuela by the embattled administration of Nicolas Maduro, part of a wider tug-of-war between Panama and Venezuela.
Besides the diplomatic confrontation, Venezuelans – who have fled the country by the millions since the start of the Bolivarian "Revolution" in 1999 -- complained Friday of being more isolated. And with good reason: while there were 23 airlines flying out of Venezuela in 2013, the year Maduro took over from his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez, there were only 6 remaining as of Friday.
AeroMeteo, a Twitter account that tracks airline activity in Venezuela, said there were only six flights crisscrossing the oil-rich nation Thursday afternoon, compared with 30 for neighboring Colombia.
Events have been happening at a break neck speed in Caracas and Panama City: In little more than a week, the two countries went from semi-friendly neighbors to having no ambassadors to each other, mutually sanctioning both Presidents and barring all commercial ties.
And it all started, for the most part, only last week.FIRST LATIN AMERICAN COUNTRY TO SANCTION MADURO
A week ago, Panama became the first Latin American country to sanction the Maduro government, placing 55 officials and former officials and 16 commercial firms in a special “high risk” list for suspected money laundering, financing of terrorism and financing the dissemination of weapons of mass destruction. The barred firms were all connected to Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores. Two of Flores’ nephews, currently serving a drug-trafficking sentence in New York City, also had a taxi company and other business dealings in Panama.
Panama thus joined a growing list on nations sanctioning Venezuela: Only two days before Switzerland had taken similar steps against a group of seven Venezuelans. The European Union had sanctioned also a small band of seven in January, while Canada did the same for a list of 56 in two lists, during 2017, while the US has been at it since 2015, with 57 officials and former officials sanctioned total, including a small batch of four earlier this year.
Thursday, Maduro hit back with sanctions of his own against 22 Panama officials and individuals, including President Juan Carlos Varela as well as 46 Panamanian companies, accusing them of collaborating in money laundering. In the same decree, Maduro said he was severing all commercial and communications ties with Panama.
Only hours after Maduro’s Thursday announcement, Panama said it was withdrawing its ambassador to Venezuela Thursday night, and asking Caracas to do the same for its Panama City envoy.
Panama’s Copa was one of the few airlines still flying into Venezuela; now it has been banned from operating here and its last flight -- for at least the next 90 days -- left Thursday night, Venezuelan civil aviation authorities said in a communique. Sister airline Wingo will also cease operating, Copa said in a press release.NO STOPPING THE SANCTIONS
Latin American expert Greg Weeks says Maduro’s actions will not deter those who were getting ready to join Panama in sanctioning Maduro, adding that Caracas’ latest actions actually hurt Maduro’s own cause. “I do not think this will have much impact on other countries' decisions to impose sanctions, in large part because Maduro's action hurts Venezuela more than anything else,” Weeks, who is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of North Carolina, told the Latin American Herald Tribune (LAHT).
“Venezuela needs those flights and commercial ties to continue much more than Panama does,” Weeks wrote.
The Latin American countries that were ready to sanction will sanction Venezuela no matter what Maduro did to Panama. “Yes, if anything this is another sign of Maduro's poor judgment. This does not impose much extra burden on other countries,” Weeks reasoned.BAD FOR BUSINESS
In Venezuela, the travel industry rejected Maduro’s Panama sanctions -- which Maduro labeled “a clear answer” to last week’s barring by Panama City of 55 Venezuelans -- stressing the fact that Copa was one “of the few international airlines” still operating in Venezuela, with 20 years in country and 40 flights a week.
“A measure such as this one only hurts Venezuelans and aggravates the situation of the already decaying tourism sector. We just ended one of the worst years for the industry,” tourism guild Conseturismo said in a press release Friday.
United Airlines, Delta Airlines, LATAM, Lufthansa GOL, Air Canada, Avianca, Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico and Alitalia are just a few of the carriers that have ceased Venezuelan operations since 2013, Conseturismo added.
Consultancy FlightStats gave Copa a 86,56% “punctuality rate, rating the Panamanian airline as “the most punctual in Latin America” for the fifth consecutive year.
Panama is home to 50,000 Venezuelans, a small portion of the 4 million-plus (according to the Organization of American States) that have left Venezuelan since 1999 and increasingly since 2013, when Maduro took office.