Amid unrest, Venezuela is accused of owing airlines $3.7 billion

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Nicolas Maduro’s government Thursday faced accusations of owing international airlines more than $3.7 billion and violating treaties, while separately officials said the number of deaths from violence related to antigovernment protests continued to rise.

In a sign of Venezuela’s deepening economic problems, the International Air Transport Assn. this week accused the Maduro government of failing to “repatriate” $3.7 billion in air ticket revenue owed to foreign carriers. IATA director Tony Tyler said he had written to Maduro to complain.

“It is a major sum of money. And it is unacceptable that the Venezuelan government is not playing by the rules to which it is treaty-bound,” Tyler said in a statement Wednesday.

The Venezuelan government acts as intermediary in all foreign financial transactions and is holding up payments to a broad spectrum of foreign vendors, which economists say illustrates its dire cash shortage.

Half a dozen airlines have suspended ticket sales in Venezuela, and Colombia’s Avianca on Wednesday announced it was scaling back scheduled flights. Its highly popular Bogota-Caracas route will drop from the current 21 flights a week to seven as of Sunday, the carrier said.


Avianca Chief Executive Fabio Villegas said in a statement March 3 that at that point, Venezuela owed the airline $300 million.

In a statement Thursday, German airline Lufthansa said its financial results were being affected by the “dozens of millions of euros” owed it by the Venezuelan government.

Venezuela announced this month that China was providing Caracas with an additional $5 billion in loans secured by future oil deliveries. The loans bring to $42 billion such advances from China over the last five years, although Venezuela has paid some of the balance down.

Critics have said the loans in effect mortgage the country’s future oil revenue.

Meanwhile, officials reported more deaths resulting from the antigovernment protests, which began last month as a student march against violent crime in Tachira but expanded to encompass the discontent many people feel over inflation, food shortages and the weak economy.

Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz, who was in Geneva for a human rights conference, said Thursday that deaths tied to the recent violence had reached 28, in addition to 365 injured.

One victim was identified as Guillermo Sanchez, 42, who was shot to death Wednesday in the doorway of his house in Valencia after being approached by pro-government vigilantes on motorcycles, according to witnesses quoted in local press reports. Also Wednesday in Valencia, a student was shot to death and six were wounded during demonstrations.

In a televised address to the nation Wednesday night, Maduro said a member of the national guard had also been shot and killed in Valencia. He said he was prepared to take “drastic” measures to quell the violence.

So far, authorities have tried to contain marches with tear gas, water cannons and by blocking access to demonstration routes.

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, respectively.